Could changing what you eat help your joint pain?

On BBC radio this morning (from 2:09.58) they discussed the effects of delays in NHS planned operations following Covid. They interviewed a woman with osteoarthritis who was going to have to wait four years for her hip replacement. The pain was disrupting her life and she had concerns about heart health because she was unable to move easily or exercise.

I obviously don’t know anything about this person’s health history or situation, but I wonder if anyone has ever discussed with her the idea of reducing or managing her pain, and perhaps even improving her osteoarthritis, using food.

Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition as are some depressive illnesses, autoimmune conditions (like Crohn’s Disease and colitis and rheumatoid arthritis), cardiovascular disease and obesity. Effective medications exist but in some cases, like the woman on the radio this morning, things get so bad that surgery is warranted. And all inflammatory conditions tend to affect quality of life negatively. I’ve written before about the relationship between food and other lifestyle changes and inflammatory conditions so won’t say it all again. But when people are in pain and feeling powerless, like the radio interviewee this morning, I want to shout from the roof tops that improving diet might be some thing they can do to make a difference.

Briefly, the key dietary changes we’re talking about are:

  • cut out sugar
  • avoid ultra-processed foods (including breakfast cereals, bread, just about anything in a packet which is marketed or advertised)
  • avoid oils made from seeds such as sunflower, corn oil, even rapeseed oil (although called ‘vegetable oils’ which sounds healthy, they are highly processed, being manufactured through complex industrial refining processes)
  • cut down on starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, potatoes and bread and tropical fruits (which contain even more sugar than fruits like apples and berries).

All these things promote inflammation – they’re pro-inflammatory.  Instead, aim for an anti-inflammatory diet:

  • eat real food – food as unprocessed as possible. This usually means cooking from scratch much more
  • eat lots of a wide range of green and colourful veg
  • eat oily fish at least a couple of times a week for healthy fats including omega 3. A supplement might be worthwhile if you don’t eat fish
  • enjoy healthy, natural fats such as those in full fat dairy, minimally-processed meat and fish, nuts and seeds; and oils and fats like olive oil, lard, dripping.

So what we’re talking about here is a low carb, ‘real food’ way of eating which evidence has shown is effective and safe for addressing type 2 diabetes, obesity and many other metabolic conditions.

Specific to osteoarthritis, this study found that patients with knee osteoarthritis who followed a low carbohydrate diet lost the same amount of weight but reported significantly reduced pain than those on a low fat diet.  This implies that it wasn’t just the weight loss that was important, but the types of food eaten. Healthy low carb eating avoids pro-inflammatory foods so seems to reduce (or prevent) inflammation and oxidative stress which means less pain. Meanwhile, a low fat/low calorie diet often avoids naturally fatty unprocessed foods which contains important nutrients such as fat-soluble vitamins, and includes processed foods, starchy grains and fruit, which can be pro-inflammatory.

One of my health coaching clients, an international-level age group triathlete, developed rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune condition where joints throughout the body become intensely inflamed and painful. He had gained weight, become depressed and any exercise was out of the question due to regular painful flare ups. He came to me for help with weight loss but as low carb, real food eating promotes weight loss as well as being anti-inflammatory, we were killing two birds with one stone. He did lose weight and his brain fog and depression disappeared. But also, his RA flare ups stopped immediately, he was back to gentle cycling within a couple of weeks and back to full training, off all RA medication, within four months.

Even I’ve benefitted.  Sports massage therapists often experience joint pain in their hands – for me it used to be my thumb joints that suffered.  But since I adopted a low carb way of eating about eight years ago, that’s all gone.

These are just a couple of isolated case histories, but they tie in with research evidence.

Pain is real and although it can be exacerbated by stress and lack of sleep, its causes can also be managed, prevented or sometimes eliminated by improving our diet. All medications have side effects, but eating real food and avoiding ultraprocessed food … no side effects there!  Unless you count weight lossimproved mental wellbeing, better blood pressure and a host of other benefits as side effects…

So if you or anyone you know suffers from inflammation pain, perhaps suggest they explore low carb eating.  Their GP might be supportive. I’m not sure it would mean the woman interviewed on the radio this morning would no longer need her hip replacement… but it might make the next four years more bearable.

Photo credit.

Lou Walker is a sports massage therapist and health coach specialising in weight loss without hunger.