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Arthritis Diet: Worst Foods to Eat

min read

By Rachel Despres

Medically Reviewed by Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

Arthritis is a general term used to describe a variety of conditions that are primarily characterized by joint pain and inflammation. The most common of these conditions are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis. The causes and symptoms of these conditions can vary, but inflammation is a common issue among all types.

The connection between arthritis and diet has been well documented. According to the Arthritis Foundation, a Mediterranean diet rich in whole grains, healthy fats, and vegetables can curb inflammation and mitigate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and psoriatic arthritis. In particular, fish rich in omega-3 such as salmon, sardines, and tuna have been shown to down-regulate the inflammatory, autoimmune response associated with these diseases. Osteoarthritis – though not inflammatory – can also be managed to an extent by maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.

These conditions cause the body to be in a constant state of inflammation. While there are things we can do to reduce this inflammation, there are also things that can make it worse! Just as eating the right foods can help to ease arthritis symptoms, certain foods have the ability to worsen inflammation, and can also put a person at risk for other chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Here are nine foods that tend to worsen arthritis symptoms.

 1. Processed Foods

The Standard American Diet is laden with highly processed foods which contain added inflammatory ingredients like sugars, chemicals, and preservatives. Moreover, these foods are typically stripped of any redeeming nutrients during processing, such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

These negative qualities make processed food of any kind extremely bad news for arthritis sufferers. In fact, a 2009 study out of Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that cutting back on processed foods can “reduce inflammation and actually help restore the body’s natural defenses.” People with osteoarthritis – in particular – can benefit from cutting these processed foods out of their diets. Processed meals, cereals, snack foods, and dairy products are all linked to an increased risk of obesity, which can worsen connective tissue degradation. Additionally, diets high in heavily processed foods are associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

 2. Sugars

Added or processed sugars are a major culprit of arthritis symptoms. The Arthritis Foundation explains that this is because they “trigger the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines.” Unfortunately, they’re found in almost all processed foods. While the most obvious and worst culprits are sugary soda, desserts, and sugar-sweetened sauces , processed sugars are also found in less obvious products like fruit juices, cereals, and yogurt.

Another large-scale study involving 200,000 women exposed the dangers of consuming added sugar. The results showed that women who regularly consume high-sugar drinks had a substantially higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, kidney disease, and several types of cancer. Look for products with 0-grams of added sugars when purchasing prepackaged foods.

 3. Refined Carbohydrates

According to Healthline, refined carbohydrates—which encompasses any foods made with white flour, such as bread, pastas, and cereals—actually “stimulate your body’s inflammatory response,” which can result in increased joint pain and discomfort.

Reader’s Digest explains that the reason for this is because, due to the simple molecular structure of refined grains, the body quickly converts them to sugar. And, as mentioned earlier, sugar triggers inflammation in the body.

 4. Dairy Products

Unfortunately for people who love cheese and other dairy products, they contain a type of protein they contain called casein, which Healthline indicates “may irritate the tissue around their joints,” leading to worsened pain.

As a result, these foods are best avoided. In fact, the study mentioned earlier says that, “People with arthritis that avoided animal milks experienced a significant improvement in their symptoms.” Therefore, it may be beneficial to switch to a vegan diet, or simply switch these products for plant-based alternatives like almond or flax milk.

 5. Alcohol

Although everyone should drink alcohol in moderation, this is especially important for those with arthritis. If consumed in excess, the Arthritis Foundation says alcohol “weakens liver function and disrupts other multi-organ interactions and can cause inflammation.” Healthline adds that the “high purine levels in commercial alcohol products” may be another reason they trigger arthritis symptoms, and warns that alcohol should never be mixed with medications used to treat the condition “because it interacts with the effectiveness of the drug and can actually be quite dangerous.”

Several studies have shown that alcohol consumption can worsen the severity and frequency of gout flare-ups. Furthermore, chronic alcohol abuse is associated with an increased risk of osteoarthritis, especially in women. For this reason, limiting alcohol intake is recommended for people with a family history of osteoarthritis or who qualify as high-risk for any other reason.

 6. Salt

Salt, like processed sugar, seems to be in everything these days. But research suggests that limiting intake of foods with added salt can lessen the severity of inflammatory and non-inflammatory arthritis symptoms. In fact, one animal study found that mice placed on a high-salt diet displayed greater cartilage degradation and bone loss than mice placed on a low-salt diet. Human studies are limited but there is a body of research that indicates high salt intake could be associated with increased risk of certain autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

While your body definitely does require a certain amount of sodium in order to function properly, “too much leads to an inflammatory reaction,” which can cause damage to the joints.

 7. Gluten

In addition to refined carbohydrates, some people with arthritis should also avoid whole wheat, as well as barley, oats, and rye. Why? Because the gluten they contain can trigger inflammation.

This generally only occurs in those who have a gluten intolerance or, more seriously, celiac disease. But, in speaking with Reader’s Digest, nutritionist and health expert Joy Bauer encouraged those with certain types of arthritis (i.e. rheumatoid arthritis) to get tested for celiac disease “as they are both autoimmune diseases that often occur together.”

8. Red Meat

A study featuring 217 people with rheumatoid arthritis found that a diet high in red meats is linked to worsened pain and mobility. Researchers found that subjects who eat more meat had higher levels of inflammatory markers, such as homocysteine, C-reactive protein, and interleukin-6. This is likely the result the acid-forming nature of red meat and high concentration of unhealthy fats found in these foods.

Avoiding red meat can also be beneficial for arthritis sufferers simply because this makes room in the diet for healthier foods. Osteoarthritis sufferers may find their symptoms are eased by adopting a predominantly plant-based diet. Such diets are typically lower calorie and can help patients to maintain a healthy weight.

9. Vegetable Oils and Fried Foods

Although fried foods like burgers and french fries may be tasty, their high saturated fat content can worsen the inflammation associated with arthritis. As such, they’re best avoided.

Refined vegetable oils are typically high in a polyunsaturated fat called omega-6. Unlike omega-3, omega-6 is known to increase systemic inflammation and aggravate autoimmune diseases. Most western diets suffer from too much omega-6 and not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3. This is one of the reasons an omega-3 rich Mediterranean diet has been proven so beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.

One clinical study featuring 167 people with advanced arthritis of the knee found that diets high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 was associated with increased discomfort, lessened mobility, and poorer overall health. To reduce the omega-6 in your diet, doctors recommend limiting your intake of fried foods and cooking oils such as sunflower, canola, and corn oil.

Managing Arthritis with Diet

Whether you suffer with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, gout, or osteoarthritis, cutting down on your intake of the foods listed in this article can help you to manage pain and enjoy an improved quality of life. However, limiting foods which aggravate arthritis is just one piece of the puzzle.

To enjoy the greatest therapeutic effect, you must also increase your intake of health-promoting anti-inflammatory foods, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. Speak to your nutritionist or doctor if you would like to learn more about managing your arthritis with positive lifestyle changes.


Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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