Most of us have heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” Taken literally, how many of our kids would resemble chicken nuggets and peanut butter sandwiches by now?
Honestly, though? There is a lot of truth in the phrase. Especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or other autoimmune disorders. Diet is directly tied to the very things that ease or worsen these conditions, particularly inflammation. Modifying what you eat can be life-changing.
We spoke with Alexandra Lessem, NP, a family nurse practitioner at Banner North Colorado Family Medicine in Greeley, CO, about how diet impacts RA and other autoimmune disorders. (Spoiler alert: the impact is big.)
Lessem recommended eating the following foods to improve autoimmune function:
- Whole plant foods: Unprocessed, as close to their natural form as possible. These are your absolute best bet.
- Antioxidant foods: Berries, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables (kale, cabbage, etc.), beans, tomatoes and beets.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Olive oil, fish oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts or soybeans. These help reduce inflammation and the need for pain meds.
The relationship between food and autoimmune function is pretty simple: “Certain foods increase inflammation and others decrease it,” Lessem said. This is mainly because our digestive system, and the bacteria living in our gut, change depending on what we eat. Different types of bacteria increase when we consume certain foods. Because these disorders attack and inflame the joints, reducing inflammation is a top priority.
The standard american diet (SAD), Lessem explained, is heavy on fried, fatty, processed foods, as well as meat, dairy and sugar — these increase inflammation in the body and blood. When someone eats a healthier, more plant-based diet, by contrast, it fosters bacteria that decrease inflammation.
“Remarkably, these changes can occur within days when someone changes their diet,” Lessem added.
According to Lessem, the following foods should be avoided or eaten in small quantities, since they increase inflammation:
- Sugars (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
- Red and processed meat
- Refined grains
- Food additives
“A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything that has more than three to five ingredients on the label,” Lessem said, “and especially avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce or that aren’t found in nature.”
Some people may have other food triggers, and Lessem said an elimination diet may help them learn what those triggers are. The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet, for example, is a popular temporary elimination diet that’s proven successful.
Diets, fads and misconceptions
In Lessem’s experience, people often worry they won’t get enough protein in their diet if they decrease their meat and dairy intake. She said this simply isn’t true. Protein comes from lots of other natural sources: legumes (beans, peas, lentils), ancient grains (barley, spelt), soy milk, oats, wild rice, nuts, seeds, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, quinoa, sweet potatoes — the list goes on and on.
Certain diets, like the Mediterranean diet, align quite well with Lessem’s recommendations. For those with autoimmune issues, she wouldn’t recommend diets like the ketogenic (keto) diet which emphasizes meat and saturated fat consumption with the primary goal of weight loss.
What you eat makes a huge difference in the severity of your RA/autoimmune issues. In some cases, Lessem said it can even send those diseases into complete remission. Pain, swelling, morning stiffness — a whole food- and plant-based diet can significantly reduce these symptoms. And when these symptoms decrease, the medication doses also decrease, “which is great,” Lessem explained, “because the medications have a lot of side effects and other problems. So, minimizing that as much as possible will have a positive effect not only on the medical condition but the person’s overall health.”
To some degree, you are what you eat. But you are also what you do. For people with RA and autoimmune disorders (and for most people generally), the following other lifestyle habits are crucial:
- Regular exercise: Especially low-impact activities like swimming or cycling
- Adequate sleep
- Managing stress
- Seeking out social support
- Avoiding alcohol, tobacco and other drugs
A lot of people struggle with autoimmune disorders. In the U.S. alone, 1.5 million people are diagnosed with RA. And while it’s unfortunate that these disorders are so common, it also means there’s plenty of info available — including food recommendations.
“People tend not to believe what a tremendous impact dietary choices make, and are often surprised how great they feel when they change to a healthier diet,” Lessem said. If that could be you, and you’d like to learn more, schedule an appointment with a health care provider at bannerhealth.com.
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