Arthritis is a common health condition involving chronic inflammation in your joints. It causes pain and damage to joints, bones, and other body parts depending on the type (1).
Osteoarthritis, which is noninflammatory, is the most common — though over 100 types exist. In fact, up to 40% of men and 47% of women may be diagnosed with osteoarthritis during their lifetime (1).
Meanwhile, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and psoriatic arthritis are inflammatory conditions that are considered autoimmune diseases. Gout is another common type of inflammatory arthritis (1).
Research shows that dietary interventions, such as eliminating certain foods and beverages, may reduce symptom severity in people with inflammatory arthritis and osteoarthritis, as well as improve their overall quality of life.
Here are 8 foods and beverages to avoid if you have arthritis.
1. Added sugars
You should limit your sugar intake no matter what, but especially if you have arthritis. Added sugars are found in candy, soda, ice cream, and numerous other foods, including less obvious items like barbecue sauce.
A study in 217 people with rheumatoid arthritis noted that among 20 foods, sugar-sweetened soda and desserts were the most frequently reported to worsen RA symptoms (2).
What’s more, sugary beverages like soda may significantly increase your risk of arthritis.
For example, in a study in 1,209 adults ages 20–30, those who drank fructose- sweetened beverages 5 times per week or more were 3 times likelier to have arthritis than those who consumed few to no fructose-sweetened drinks (3).
Furthermore, a large study in nearly 200,000 women associated a regular intake of sugar-sweetened soda with an increased risk of RA (4).
2. Processed and red meats
Some research links red and processed meat to inflammation, which may increase arthritis symptoms.
For example, diets heavy in processed and red meats demonstrate high levels of inflammatory markers like interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and homocysteine (5, 6).
The study in 217 people with RA mentioned above also found that red meat commonly worsened RA symptoms. Additionally, a study in 25,630 people determined that high red meat intake may be a risk factor for inflammatory arthritis (2, 7).
Conversely, plant-based diets that exclude red meat have been shown to improve arthritis symptoms (5).
3. Gluten-containing foods
Gluten is a group of proteins in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Some research links it to increased inflammation and suggests that going gluten-free may ease arthritis symptoms (8, 9).
What’s more, people with celiac disease are at a greater risk of developing RA. Likewise, those with autoimmune diseases like RA have a significantly higher prevalence of celiac disease than the general population (10, 11).
Notably, an older, 1-year study in 66 people with RA found that a gluten-free, vegan diet significantly reduced disease activity and improved inflammation (9, 12).
Although these findings are promising, more research is needed to confirm whether a gluten-free diet alone benefits people with arthritis.
4. Highly processed foods
Ultra-processed items like fast food, breakfast cereal, and baked goods are typically high in refined grains, added sugar, preservatives, and other potentially inflammatory ingredients, all of which may worsen arthritis symptoms.
Research suggests that Western diets rich in heavily processed foods may increase your risk of RA by contributing to inflammation and risk factors like obesity (13, 14).
What’s more, in a study in 56 people with RA, those who ate higher amounts of ultra-processed food showed increased heart disease risk factors, including higher levels of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), a long-term marker of blood sugar control (15).
As such, processed foods may worsen your overall health and increase your risk of other diseases.
As alcohol may worsen arthritis symptoms, anyone with inflammatory arthritis should restrict or avoid it.
A study in 278 people with axial spondyloarthritis — inflammatory arthritis that primarily affects the spinal cord and sacroiliac (SI) joints — tied alcohol intake to increased spinal structural damage (16).
Studies have also shown that alcohol intake may increase the frequency and severity of gout attacks (17, 18, 19, 20).
Moreover, chronic alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of osteoarthritis, though not all studies have found a significant link (21, 22).
6. Certain vegetable oils
Diets high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3 fats may worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (23, 24).
These fats are necessary for health. However, the imbalanced ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in most Western diets may increase inflammation (25).
Reducing your intake of foods high in omega-6 fats, such as vegetable oils, while increasing your intake of omega-3-rich foods like fatty fish may improve arthritis symptoms (24).
7. Foods high in salt
Cutting back on salt may be a good choice for people with arthritis. Foods high in salt include shrimp, canned soup, pizza, certain cheeses, processed meats, and numerous other processed items.
A mouse study found that arthritis was more severe in mice fed a high salt diet than in those on a diet containing normal salt levels (27).
Additionally, a 62-day mouse study revealed that a low salt diet decreased the severity of RA, compared with a high salt diet. Mice on the low salt diet had less cartilage breakdown and bone destruction, as well as lower inflammatory markers, than mice on the high salt diet (28).
Interestingly, researchers have suggested that high sodium intake may be a risk factor for autoimmune diseases like inflammatory arthritis (29, 30).
A study in 18,555 people tied high sodium intake to an increased risk of RA (31).
8. Foods high in AGEs
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are molecules created through reactions between sugars and proteins or fats. They naturally exist in uncooked animal foods and are formed through certain cooking methods (32).
High protein, high fat animal foods that are fried, roasted, grilled, seared, or broiled are among the richest dietary sources of AGEs. These include bacon, pan- fried or grilled steak, roasted or fried chicken, and broiled hot dogs (33).
French fries, American cheese, margarine, and mayonnaise are also rich in AGEs (33).
When AGEs accumulate in high amounts in your body, oxidative stress and inflammation may occur. Oxidative stress and AGE formation are tied to disease progression in people with arthritis (33, 34).
In fact, people with inflammatory arthritis have been shown to have higher levels of AGEs in their bodies than people without arthritis. AGE accumulation in bones and joints may also play a role in the development and progression of osteoarthritis (35, 36).
Replacing high AGE foods with nutritious, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and fish may reduce the total AGE load in your body (33).
The bottom line
If you have arthritis, a healthy diet and lifestyle may help improve your symptoms.
Research shows that you should avoid certain foods and beverages, including highly processed foods, red meat, fried foods, and those rich in added sugars.
Keep in mind that lifestyle factors like your activity level, body weight, and smoking status are also vital to managing arthritis.