Joint Pain and Diet

joint pain diagram

It’s easy to shrug off joint pain- when you aren’t the one experiencing it, that is. Once you’ve experienced the excruciating pain that can come from a back, knee, or hip injury, you’re unlikely to forget it.

Our bodies are equipped with an estimated 100 billion neurons, which transmit messages and sensory information, alerting us with pain when something has gone awry.

Although joint pain can occur with an acute injury (for example, banging an elbow on a table, or dislocating a patella), more troubling is the long-term chronic pain that accompanies medical conditions (arthritis, bursitis, etc) or is brought about by heavy physical activity, prolonged sitting, or being overweight.

While this pain is not necessarily as acute as the pain we experience during a major injury, it can be debilitating, draining, and downright bothersome.

Any joint pain should be assessed by your doctor to determine the root cause of your pain, which much be addressed as a means to effectively treat the joint and prevent any further injury.

However, beyond whitecoat medicine, there are a number of things you can do at home-in your kitchen- to prevent or reduce joint pain. Consider incorporating the following three foods into your diet, in lieu of of processed meats (sausage, bacon, etc) and refined white grain products.

Refined grains create cellular inflammation through fluctuating blood sugar, setting the stage for pro-inflammatory conditions like heart disease and cancer, in addition to joint pain. Processed meats and shelf-stable fats (like those found in crackers, chips, etc) are high in saturated fat and trans fats, which can create microscopic tears in arterial walls, leading to atherosclerosis- a thickening of the arteries that can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Each of the following foods has anti-inflammatory properties that mitigate the inflammatory cycle. Remember to consume these foods instead of the foods you’d typically consume (rather than in addition to), or their positive effects may be nullified.

Fruits and Vegetables

There’s a reason our parents always reminded us to eat our vegetables. Multiple reasons, actually.

And while joint health may not have been their chief concern when they reminded us to eat our peas, it’s certainly a worthy perk in adulthood. Luckily, you needn’t waste your grocery dollar on super-pricey “superfoods” and trendy juices. While juicings and so-called “Superfoods” have certainly  trended in recent years, all fruits and vegetables are pretty darn healthy.

Brightly colored fruits and rich green vegetables are great source of antioxidants, natural chemicals that inhibit the oxidation, which is typically the first step of the inflammatory process.

As long as you think colorfully and choose non-starchy options (skip over potatoes and corn), it’s hard to go wrong in the produce section: try to add a vegetable to every meal, and aim for 5-8 servings a day.

Do remember that fruit and vegetable juices are very high in sugar, which can exacerbate inflammation and pain: even if sugar is natural, too much is just too much.

Healthy Fat: Olive Oil

Olive oil has long been exalted for its heart-healthy properties, and it’s equally potent in its ability to promote joint health. Olive oil contains oleocanthal, a substance that acts similarly to anti-inflammatory drugs in the body.

Remember, it is possible to eat too much fat, even if that fat is a healthy fat like olive oil. Just like every other fat, olive oil is very calorically dense, so use it sparingly: a little goes a long way.

Healthy Fat: Omega-3’s

Oily fish are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s can help lower levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, two proteins that are released by the body in response to cellular inflammation, acting as biomarkers of the inflammatory process.

Fish like mackerel, trout, tuna, and salmon are all great sources of Omega-3.

Your weight: The most important component of joint health

While it’s tempting to focus on “superfood panaceas”, it’s essential that you consider how your weight may be impacting your joint pain. Body weight is one of the foremost contributors to joint pain; nutritional interventions to reduce body weight are essential, as a means to reduce the excess loading that occurs with increasing body weight.

Joints that are subject to excess weight are under greater stress: even a few extra pounds can increase your risk for developing osteoarthritis.

Excess weight places undue stress on joints in everyday activities. When you walk, the knee is subject to force of 1.5 times your body’s weight- this is true for both normally weighted and overweight individuals.

However, when you’re overweight, the impact of that extra weight is multiplied. An appropriately weighted 180 lb man would place 270 lbs of force on his knee with each step. An overweight man of 200 lbs would place 300 lbs of force on his knees- an additional 30 lbs of force, which can cause the cartilage in the joint to deteriorate and cause pain.

Additionally, when your weight balloons beyond a BMI of 24.9, inflammatory cycles begin to wreak havoc on the biological systems tasked with keeping your joints healthy. Fat cells secrete inflammatory compounds that are carried through the body’s circulatory system, attacking healthy cells and tissues.

If your BMI exceeds 24.9, talk with your personal care physician about the most appropriate means to reduce your body weight.

A reduction in Caloric intake is the single most necessary method in promoting weight loss, but should be undertaken thoughtfully. Acute dietary restriction (juice fasting, etc) does not promote healthy long-term weight outcomes, and should be avoided in favor of behavioral reformations that include Calorie-counting and the incorporation of healthful anti inflammatory foods.

Remember that-while joint pain is incredibly painful and debilitating- it is not a final sentence; rather, it is a warning sign to change the path you’re on. Luckily, with a little work and attention to the number of the scale (and what’s in your fridge!) you can be well on your way to getting some pep back in your step.