Foods that cause chronic inflammation

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

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The role of diet and arthritis is no longer controversial. Even the Arthritis Foundation has produced excellent monographs on the role of diet and arthritis.

Researchers have compiled scientific data from as far back as 1911, with studies showing that restricted diet programs could produce remission of arthritis. The subject is a difficult one to examine in non-controlled fashion because of the natural variability of the disease. Symptoms wax and wane.

Some trials have produced benefits when patients eliminate cereal grains and emphasize proteins rich in polyunsaturated fat, such as fish and nuts.

There are many food allergies that can possibly aggravate RA symptoms. Among the most common foods are wheat, corn, milk and other dairy products, and beef.

Much has been discussed regarding the role of nightshade foods. Some patients find relief from their symptoms when they eliminate these foods.

Some patients have found that a vegetarian diet reduces symptoms. One study tested a one-week fast followed by a year of a lactovegetarian diet in a control test group. The group on the vegetarian diet found significant improvement in joint tenderness, swollen joints, pain, duration of morning stiffness, grip strength, and white blood count, among others. The benefits for the vegetarian group were still present after a year.

Some patients report a good result when they significantly lower the fat in their diet. Excess body fat contributes to the production of inflammatory cytokines, called leptins. Leptins aggravate inflammation.

Colorful fruits and vegetables-particularly berries- may be helpful since they contain anthrocyanins, substances that are anti-inflammatory.

Some patients find relief with an occasional fast of four days.

The omega-3 oils, present in flaxseed oil and in cold-water fish, such as tuna, salmon, herring, trout, mackerel, sardines, and cod liver, are especially helpful in relieving morning stiffness and tender joints. GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), an omega-6 oil that is present in primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant seed oil, has been shown to augment the anti-inflammatory effect of the omega-3 oils.

Researchers at the Department of Epidemiology, University of Athens Medical School, Greece examined the relation between diet and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in persons from southern Greece. The results of their study suggest that eating hearty amounts of cooked vegetables and olive oil may significantly reduce the risk of developing RA.

Researchers studied 145 RA patients and 188 control subjects who responded to an interviewer-administered food-frequency questionnaire that assessed their consumption of a wide variety of foods. In this study, individuals whose diets included higher amounts of cooked vegetables and olive oil had a lower risk of developing RA. Those individuals who regularly consumed both cooked vegetables and olive oil had the lowest risk for RA.

Investigators found that people who consumed the least olive oil were 2.5 times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis compared to those who consumed the most of this healthful oil. Additionally, those who consumed the most cooked vegetables had a 75% lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Olive oil is rich in vitamin E, one of the body’s most important free radical fighters. Free radicals are destructive molecules that are involved in RA and other chronic illnesses. In addition to vitamin E, virgin olive oil contains polyphenolic compounds that have been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects.

Western herbs may be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis. White willow bark is high in salicylate acid, the active ingredient of aspirin. Herbs that can play an important role in treating arthritis include curcumin (extracted from the spice turmeric), Jamaican dogwood, feverfew, devil's claw, licorice, ginger, and yucca. Capsaicin, an extract of cayenne pepper, is a topical counterirritant cream that provides relief from joint pain. It's an alternative to menthol-containing ointments and may be slightly more effective for some. Be cautious, since used excessively, these preparations can cause second degree burns.

A particularly useful test is the food allergy panel run by Immunolabs of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is an excellent test that identifies the presence of food allergies. It is accompanied by a suggested four day rotation elimination diet.


Linos A, Kaklamani VG, Kaklamani E, Koumantaki Y, Giziaki E, Papazoglou S, Mantzoros CS. Dietary factors in relation to rheumatoid arthritis: a role for olive oil and cooked vegetables? Am J Clin Nutr1999 Dec;70(6):1077-82.

Patrick L, Uzick M. Cardiovascular disease: C-reactive protein and the inflammatory disease paradigm: HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, alpha-tocopherol, red yeast rice, and olive oil polyphenols. A review of the literature. Altern Med Rev 2001 Jun;6(3):248-71

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