Eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables, which offer an array of nature’s most potent anti-inflammatory compounds, is commonly recommended to help quiet inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Some people are going one step further and adopting a vegan diet, which involves eliminating meat and animal products, such as milk and cheese. Several studies have shown this diet has promise for reducing symptoms, with important caveats.

Eating a meat-free diet may help manage rheumatoid arthritis pain and inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that involves the body’s own immune system damaging joints and other tissues, including organs. There is not currently a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but there are a variety of diet alterations and lifestyle modifications that patients use to manage the symptoms, a vegan diet among them.

A study published in the journal Rheumatology compared patients who adopted a gluten-free, vegan diet to those who ate a well-balanced, standard diet. Just 22 of the 38 patients selected for the vegan group adhered to the diet for at least nine months, but nearly 41% of those who stuck with it experienced improvement in rheumatoid arthritis symptoms compared to just 4% of the control group.

Another study published in the journal Toxicology found that patients eating a raw vegan diet experienced reduced joint stiffness and pain, but enjoyed a greater sense of overall health. Raw vegan diets involve eating all or mostly raw foods such as salads.

Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that people with rheumatoid arthritis who switched to a low-fat, vegan diet ate significantly less fat and protein than they were used to while eating more carbohydrates. The study showed the diet greatly helped their symptoms with the exception of morning stiffness.

Why does eating meat affect rheumatoid arthritis symptoms?

Meat contains an inflammatory compound known as arachidonic acid, which may partially explain why abstaining from it helps to diminish rheumatoid arthritis pain and inflammation, according to Bastyr Center for Natural Health, which analyzed the gluten-free diet study results. However the gluten-free aspect cannot be forgotten and may have influenced the outcome, the center adds, noting:

“Although the relationship between food allergy and arthritis remains controversial, a growing body of evidence suggests that allergy is a contributing factor, at least in a minority of individuals with RA.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) also says that food sensitivities, which can include meat but also involve dairy, sugar, fat, salt, nightshade plants, and caffeine, may influence the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that remains a medical mystery. Other foods to consider avoiding include citrus fruits, peaches, bananas, and tomatoes.

Food sensitivities may worsen rheumatoid arthritis pain and inflammation.

Many people undertake elimination diets, choosing one food to stop eating and then waiting a few weeks to determine the impact. PCRM says:

“Once the offending food is eliminated completely, improvement usually comes within a few weeks.”

PCRM identifies specific foods that people with rheumatoid arthritis should eat because they haven’t been linked to arthritis or other, similar pain conditions. Those foods include:

  • Brown rice
  • Cooked green, yellow, and orange vegetables including broccoli, chard, squash, and sweet potatoes
  • Select cooked or dried fruits including pears, prunes, cherries, and cranberries
  • Permissible condiments include vanilla extract, maple syrup, and small amounts of salt

What are the risks of a vegan diet for people with rheumatoid arthritis?

One reason a vegan diet might not be optimal for people with rheumatoid arthritis is because of the potential for inadequate amounts of important nutrients, including calcium and vitamins D and B12. Vegan diets also exclude fish, including salmon and tuna, which are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a vegan diet greatly benefited people with rheumatoid arthritis, but that special attention had to be paid to the risk of malnutrition. When subjects first switched to the diet, they experienced decreased body mass in the upper arm area. However, the drops improved after patients began eating foods with gluten and dairy products.

Solutions to these challenges include occasionally eating fish, taking supplements, and engaging in thorough meal planning to cover all the necessary nutrients. Most studies of omega-3 benefits incorporate fish oil pills, and not actual fish, so taking supplements is believed to benefit health.

How can you make sure a vegan diet includes necessary nutrients?

Eliminating meat from your diet does require a little extra planning. But once you get used to the guidelines and figure out a few favorite go-to meals, you’ll be stir-frying veggies and playing with fun spices in time.

Here are a few nutritional guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Plan meals to ensure adequate protein intake. High-protein, vegetarian foods include beans, tofu, whole wheat bread, brown rice, nuts, broccoli, and spinach.
  • Calcium, which mostly comes from dairy products, must also be accounted for. Possible sources include fortified foods, such as orange juice. Some vegetables are also rich in calcium. They include bok choy and collard greens.
  • Animal products also contain vitamin B12, which is a vital nutrient for basic body functions. Some soymilk products and veggie burgers are fortified with the vitamin and supplements are available.

What is the best way to transition to a vegan diet?

When planning meals, continue to organize them around a protein, recommends the United States Department of Agriculture. With a vegan diet, that protein will be a plant-based one as lentils, black beans, or brown rice.

Another tip is to make your favorite recipes while substituting meat for another item. For example, you might make tacos with a meat substitute or simply beans and vegetables. Lasagna could also include a soy-based meat product combined with spinach and other vegetables.

You might also consider transitioning slowly, designating one or several days of the week meatless as you learn the basics and get comfortable with the idea of not eating meat.

Have you tried a vegan diet to minimize rheumatoid arthritis symptoms?

Image by Jennifer via Flickr

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