Between sapped energy and achy joints, the discomfort that goes along with having inflammatory arthritis or a chronic illness can make getting nutritious meals on the table a real, well, pain.
As a nutritionist and mom, I’ve always prided myself on being able to prepare healthy dishes and snacks for myself and my family. But the challenges of doing this when you’re dealing with chronic health issues became abundantly clear to me over the past year as I navigated the diagnosis of multiple inflammatory conditions in my own family.
For help and guidance, I spoke with three nutritionists who specialize in helping people with arthritis and chronic pain. We came up with these 12 proven habits that can help you minimize effort but maximize the benefits of healthy eating.
Drizzle olive oil whenever you can
Oils rich in monounsaturated fatty acids like olive oil and avocado oil can help fight inflammation. They’re also good for your heart. “Olive oil contains a unique plant compound called oleocanthol that’s particularly good at fighting inflammation,” says Nina Young, MS, RDN, a dietitian specializing in autoimmune and other chronic inflammatory conditions at Facey Medical Group in Los Angeles.
According to researchers, this compound has properties that are similar to the anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. Use olive oil for uncooked dishes like salads, or light sautéing, says Young, since its compounds can be damaged by high heat. Avocado oil can be a good alternative for higher-heat cooking.
Spice up your meals
Seasonings like garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and chili pepper can help take any dish to the next level, flavor-wise. They can also do a lot for nutrition. “Many spices have components that may have anti-inflammatory properties,” says Jason Machowsky, RD, CSSD, a dietitian at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York.
In particular, the impact of garlic, ginger, saffron, and cinnamon on RA clinical activity has been studied, though more research is needed, say French researchers. If you enjoy the flavor of these spices, there’s little downside (and plenty of possible benefits) to sprinkling them into your meals.
Fill your freezer with produce
“I recommend frozen or canned fruits and veggies almost exclusively for many of my clients because it makes prepping food so much easier,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, Seattle-based author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep. Don’t assume that packaged produce is less nutritious than fresh. “Research shows that frozen and canned produce holds its nutrition value very well — sometimes better than fresh,” she adds.
In addition to classic frozen veggies like peas and carrots, broccoli, and spinach, frozen (or jarred) chopped garlic and frozen chopped onions can make an excellent no-cutting-necessary base to many inflammation-busting recipes.
Keep carbs balanced
“Blood sugar spikes, usually caused by consuming too many simple carbs, increase inflammation,” says Young. That doesn’t mean you have to swear off all carbs, though. Instead of refined carbs like white rice and bread, choose fiber-rich carbs that digest more slowly, like beans, quinoa, oats, and sweet potatoes. Take it a step further by making those better-for-you carbs a part of a balanced meal.
MyPlate is a useful tool to use because it guides you toward pairing a smaller portion of carbs with a serving of protein and low-carb produce. “To build a balanced meal, fill half the plate with colorful vegetables, ¼ with protein, and the last ¼ with fiber-rich carbs,” says Young. “Top it off with healthy fats and flavorful herbs and spices.”
Swap meat for fish
Eating fish may prevent inflammatory arthritis. But if you’ve been diagnosed, favoring fish (especially fatty varieties) over meat may help with pain and swelling and help you manage disease activity. That’s because fish tends to be richer in omega-3 fatty acids, “which have been shown to be potentially helpful in reducing inflammation,” says Machowsky.
What’s more, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice per week for cardiovascular health, which is a concern for patients with types of inflammatory arthritis like RA that can increase your risk of heart disease. Options like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring are good choices since they are relatively high in omega-3s, but lower in mercury, says Machowsky.
Nosh on nuts
“All nuts are anti-inflammatory foods because they contain protein, fiber, and healthy fat, in addition to important vitamins and minerals for the body,” says Hultin. Walnuts, for example, contain anti-inflammatory omega-3s, which help the body respond to pain and inflammation.
Even tiny pine nuts contain an anti-inflammatory fatty acid called pinolenic acid (pesto, anyone?). The best part: It doesn’t take a lot of work to include them in your day. Grab a handful along with some dried fruit for a snack, or sprinkle on a salad or in oatmeal for some nutrient-rich crunch.
Turn to tea
Experts have long suggested that plant compounds in tea may help decrease inflammation. In a recent study, people with rheumatoid arthritis who drank more tea had lower disease activity compared with those who did not drink tea.
Besides its possible anti-inflammatory benefits, tea can also help you make healthier choices in general. One strategy is to trade your morning coffee in for an oolong or green tea. “Since these are less bitter than coffee, they can help you avoid using sugar and creamers,” says Young. Another is to brew a mug of decaf tea in place of an unnecessary afternoon or evening snack, or swap tea for sugary beverages like soda and juice.
Get into meal prepping
Preparing food in bulk that can be reheated later can help you eat more healthy, anti-inflammatory foods. “A little work on the front end sets you up for success all week,” says Hultin.
Using your freezer to store foods can help you stretch your work even longer. Choose a couple days a month when you’re having low-pain, and carve out some time (and energy) to cook, get out your storage containers, and enjoy throughout the month.
Here are a few easy recipes that freeze well:
- Coconut Red Curry with Chickpeas
- Quick Tortilla Soup (save the tortilla step for just before you eat)
- Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas
- Slow Cooker Root Vegetable Stew
Shift to seltzer
Drinking sugary soda and other sugar-sweetened foods can worsen symptoms of inflammatory arthritis, according to a 2017 study in the journal Arthritis Care & Research. That doesn’t mean you have to steer clear of dessert, though (phew!). Tweaking the everyday sources of sugar in your diet will have more of an impact.
Around half of all U.S. adults drink a sugar-sweetened beverage like soda on any given day. If this sounds like you, think about trading soda in for another bubbly drink: seltzer. There are loads of flavored seltzer varieties available at a range of price points that can help you scratch that bubbly beverage itch without consuming any sugar.
Use a one-pot cooking method
Putting a device like a CrockPot or InstaPot to work can lighten your load in the kitchen. “These convenient devices limit the need to stand and stir food, and the amount of cookware to be washed later,” says Young.
They’re also great for batch cooking, which means you can cook once and enjoy leftovers later on. Use them to make anything from soups to stews to casseroles to oatmeal to meatballs and more.
Upgrade your kitchen tools
Depending on your specific needs and challenges, investing a little money in some new kitchen gadgets could make a big difference in how comfortable you are preparing a meal. For some, kitchen scissors could be a great alternative to slicing with a knife.
A mezzaluna is another chopping tool to consider, says Machowsky. “It’s not as precise, but it gets the job done.” Other possibly worthwhile purchases: An electric can opener, rubber grippers to open jars, and two-handled pots and pans. Get more tips here on creating an arthritis-friendly kitchen.
Get a water bottle you love
No, there’s nothing magical about a fancy water container. But finding a snazzy bottle that looks great and is easy to tote around can increase the chances that you stay hydrated — one of the easiest and most inexpensive things you can do to help prevent joint pain.
When you’re dehydrated, your body may have a hard time creating synovial fluid, the thin layer of moisture that cushions your joints and helps reduce friction. Drinking water can also prevent the headaches, fatigue, and muscle cramps that can go along with dehydration.
Besides having a fun bottle, flavoring water with lemon, mint, or chopped melon can help make plain water a little more exciting.
Participate in Arthritis Research — From Your Smartphone
If you are diagnosed with arthritis or another musculoskeletal condition, we encourage you to participate in future studies by joining CreakyJoints’ patient research registry, ArthritisPower. ArthritisPower is the first-ever patient-led, patient-centered research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. Learn more and sign up here.
Ahmed S. Green tea polyphenol epigallocatechin 3-gallate in arthritis: progress and promise. Arthritis Research and Therapy. April 2010. doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/ar2982.
American Heart Association. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/fish-and-omega-3-fatty-acids.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/sugar-sweetened-beverages-intake.html.
Jin J, et al. Tea Consumption Is Associated with Decreased Disease Activity of Rheumatoid Arthritis in a Real-World, Large-Scale Study. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. May 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1159/000505952.
Letarouilly JG, et al. Efficacy of Spice Supplementation in Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. December 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12123800.
Lucas L, et al. Molecular mechanisms of inflammation. Anti-inflammatory benefits of virgin olive oil and the phenolic compound oleocanthal. Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2011. doi: https://doi.org/10.2174/138161211795428911.
Takala R, et al. Anti-inflammatory and immunoregulatory effects of pinolenic acid in rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatology. June 2021. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/rheumatology/keab467.
Tedeschi SK, et al. Diet and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms: survey results from a rheumatoid arthritis registry. Arthritis Care Res. 2017;69(12):1920-1925. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23225.
Tedeschi SK, et al. Relationship Between Fish Consumption and Disease Activity in Rheumatoid Arthritis. Arthritis Care & Resolution. February 2018. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23295.