Achy Joints? It Might Be Time to Break Up with Meat (Or, At Least See Other People)

Increasingly more research is pointing to the benefits of cutting back on meat. If you’re suffering from joint pain, going plant-based could offer even bigger perks and improved quality of life.

Photo: Olimpia Davies

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You already know that the typical Western diet isn’t filled with the greatest – or the cleanest – foods. Centered around items like refined carbohydrates, high amounts of sugar and a whole lot of red meat, this way of eating can inflame joints and increase your aches and pains (along with other health woes). Changing up your diet, however, has the potential to help you combat chronic joint pain or arthritis

And new research shows that what you’re eating just might have a direct effect on your joints’ achiness, stiffness and swelling. Specifically, sticking with a plant-based diet could help you lessen your symptoms, reduce your joint pain and feel better in more ways than one.

Food plays an important role in joint pain

Living with – and soothing – joint pain and arthritis usually requires a combination of medications, lifestyle changes and interventions like physical therapy. But one helpful solution that can easily be overlooked is what you’re eating.

There’s a wealth of research that shows that food can play an important role in combating joint pain, especially joint pain caused by arthritis. Changing your diet just might help your pain, if you know what foods can trigger its causes.

Certain foods can cause inflammation, particularly inflammation in your joints. According to various research studies and surveys, foods like sugar, fat, salt and dairy can all cause or worsen this kind of inflammation. Red meat is another culprit, especially if it’s making regular appearances on your plate. 

If you limit these foods in your diet, you can see positive results. One research study found that a whole food, plant-based diet can significantly reduce osteoarthritis joint pain in as little as two weeks. Another study found that increasing your fiber intake can also have a positive effect, lowering your risk for osteoarthritis in the knees by as much as 61 percent. And if you’re living with other forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the same changes can help soothe your pain. Studies have shown that a low-fat vegan diet can have significant pain-reduction and symptom relief effects in those with RA.

And there’s something in common in all of the research studies surrounding diets for joint pain and arthritis relief: more plants equals more benefits. Stepping up your consumption of plant-based ingredients, whether you’re opting for more fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils or other foods, can help you limit the amount of inflammation triggers in your diet.

Why plant-based diets can offer joint pain relief

How exactly does plant-based eating benefit those with joint pain and arthritis? According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, it’s the low fat and high fiber content of plant-based diets that has the biggest impact.

Eating a wealth of foods that are low in fat and rich in fiber can help reduce inflammation, in turn decreasing your pain and swelling. High-fat and highly inflammatory foods have been shown to alter your gut bacteria, a little detail that can increase inflammation throughout the body. This can lead to an increased risk for osteoarthritis and joint pain, while also causing damage to the cartilage between joints. Fiber-rich foods, on the other hand, can increase your gut’s bacterial diversity and prevent inflammation.

Additionally, a plant-based diet can help you lose weight. That’s great news for your joints, especially if you’re carrying  extra weight. When you lose weight, you can both lighten the load on your joints and decrease your risk of developing some forms of arthritis. When you lose weight, you’re also eliminating the excess fat that can release inflammation-causing chemicals into your body. 

Do vegan and vegetarian diets also help?

When we talk about plant-based eating, we don’t mean you necessarily have to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet. While vegan and vegetarian diets limit animal products or axe them entirely, a plant-based diet is more fluid and flexible. 

Plant-based eating means you’re sticking with a diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other plants. But you can also eat some meat, poultry and fish – and you don’t have to give up animal products completely. 

If you’re wondering why plant-based diets are recommended above vegan and vegetarian diets for joint pain and arthritis, there’s an easy answer. While going vegan or vegetarian can offer similar benefits, these diets aren’t required to see symptom improvement. Joint pain, and arthritis specifically, responds to a plant-rich diet, even if you’re still eating some meat or animal products.

So, if you do want to give a vegetarian or diet a try, you can get the very same joint pain benefits. But you don’t have to!

No matter what kind of diet you try, avoid inflammatory foods

Plant-based eating has a whole lot to offer anyone who’s living with arthritis or joint pain. But just because plants are so great for you doesn’t mean you have to completely turn your back on meat or other animal-based foods. You can incorporate “meatless Monday” into your diet, eliminating meat for just one day (or a few) each week. Tips and tricks like making meat a side instead of a main or increasing your meat-to-plant ratio in every meal can also have a great positive impact.

However you’re fine-tuning your diet to ease your aches and pains, it’s important to focus on inflammation above all else. Whether you give plant-based eating a try or not, you should aim to avoid inflammatory foods. 

Any diet can contain inflammatory foods. Even if you’re vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian, foods high in sugar, saturated fats and other not-so-great additions can sneak into your diet. Regardless of the approach you like best, make sure to keep a close eye on the nutritional content – and ingredients – of different foods. 

You can learn more about trying a plant-based diet for joint pain, avoiding inflammatory foods and incorporating friendlier foods into your diet with these articles:

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