The term arthritis is used to describe more than 100 diseases resulting in swollen, tender joints. Arthritis affects approximately 40 million people of all ages in the United States, including half of all peoples age 65 and over. Arthritis can affect the mental health since dealing with physical pain can create stress and helplessness. There is no special "diet" for dealing with arthritis, but arthritis can affect a person’s nutrient intake in a variety of ways. The person with arthritis needs the same nutrients and variety of foods anyone else needs. There may be factors making it more challenging to consume a balanced diet when coping with the stiffness, pain and medications associated with these diseases.
Osteoarthritis is sometimes referred to as "wear and tear" arthritis. Excess weight can adversely affect osteoarthritis by putting more pressure and weight on the joints of the lower body. Extra fat tissue also seems to cause problems in other joints not weight-bearing in the body. Physical activity is recommended for the person with arthritis; however, the tendency is to curtail physical activity when we feel achy. Lack of activity will lead to increased stiffness of the joints. In addition, reduced physical activity will make it more of a challenge for the osteoarthritis sufferer to lose weight while getting all the nutrients necessary to maintain health. It is possible to lose weight, but it will take a diligent effort to reduce calories wasted on high fat foods and foods containing large amounts of sugar.
Some other effects of arthritis on nutritional status are listed in The Essential Arthritis Cookbook, which was developed by the University of Alabama in Birmingham. There may be decreased appetite in the morning due to stiffness. The joint stiffness may affect the ability to shop, prepare food or even chew food. The medications used to treat the arthritis may cause nausea, diarrhea, mal-absorption of nutrients, metabolism changes and/or bowel function problems. Any of these things may interfere with nutrient intakes and thus interfere with health.
These are some of the suggestions given in The Essential Arthritis Cookbook for dealing with arthritis:
• Prepare extra foods when you are feeling good for the times when it is difficult to prepare food due to increased pain.
• Use convenience foods to help in food preparation, but read the labels to avoid excess fats and sodium.
• It may be necessary to eat smaller meals more frequently, so make sure the snacks are foods needed to help meet the overall daily nutrient needs.
• If the appetite is poor, do not consume large amounts of liquids that might fill you up at meal time. Adequate liquids are important, but may be too filling when consumed at mealtime.
• If chewing is difficult, use juices and dairy products to help meet the nutritional needs unless diarrhea is a problem.
When doing food preparation, use any labor saving devices like food processors, blenders, pressure cookers, microwave ovens and dishwashers available. Kitchen tools and pans are easier to handle if they have large rubber grips on them. There are many foods in the market with most of the preparation done. These foods can be helpful in preparing meals, as long as the nutritional benefits are not outweighed by excess sodium and fat. Some food preparation can be done while seated to reduce stress on lower body. During food preparation take mini-breaks to relax and stretch to help prevent excess stiffness. If there is a time of day the arthritis sufferer has more energy and appetite, that is the time to have a larger meal.
There are no specific nutrients or foods that can cure arthritis, but good overall nutrition and physical activity give the person the best chances of successfully dealing with the disease. The FTC says to beware of arthritis products claiming "scientific breakthrough," "secret ingredient" and "miraculous cure," since those words are clues the product is not legitimate.
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at (205) 410-3696 or your local County Extension office.