Avoid These 5 Foods If You Have Joint Pain

Many different conditions can lead to joint pain–making tracking down the source of your discomfort a challenging and frustrating endeavour:

  • Osteoarthritis – A common type of arthritis that happens over time when the cartilage (the protective cushion in between the bones) wears away. This, in turn, causes inflammation of the joint lining, which can be a significant source of pain. 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – Unlike the wear-and-tear damage seen in osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory auto-immune disease that affects the lining of the joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
  • Tendinitis – An inflammation of the tendons, or the flexible bands that connect the bone and muscle. Typically seen in the elbow, heel, or shoulder and is typically caused by overuse. 

Spotted a pattern yet? 

The most common causes of joint pain have something in common: inflammation. Accordingly, if you were to bring down the levels of inflammation within your body, you’d be able to reduce joint pain. 

But how do you achieve that without the use of strong medications, many of which are associated with unpleasant side effects (e.g. NSAIDs and steroids)?

Well, research shows that compounds found within certain foods can trigger the body to produce chemicals that cause inflammation–meaning that you can decrease joint pain by avoiding these foods in your diet. But what are these foods, exactly? Let’s explore. 

What Foods should you avoid if you have Joint Pain?

Sugar and refined carbohydrates 

There are lots of health reasons to cut back on sugar. The sweet stuff can cause some serious weight gain, mess with your mood, and trigger a never-ending cycle of junk food cravings. 

Most of all, though, is that eating too much sugar can damage your body on a cellular level by causing harmful chronic inflammation. Multiple studies find that these both sugar and refined carbohydrates trigger the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers in the body (1, 2, 3). 

In fact, studies have shown that individuals who consume around 40 grams of added sugar per day (roughly the amount in a 12-ounce can of cola) show an increase in inflammatory markers both immediately after consuming it and over time (4, 5).

Worse still, research shows that high-glycaemic foods (i.e. refined carbohydrates) increase the breakdown of collagen fibres in a process called glycation (6). 

As you probably already know, collagen is what maintains the integrity of your cartilage–the rubber-like tissue that protects your joints (7). So, imagine what happens when you eat sugar and refined carbohydrates: yes, you’re essentially breaking down your cartilage!

Wheat

More specifically, you should avoid gluten. 

Wheat gluten is made up of 2 major proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the portion of gluten that some individuals have poor tolerance for. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is called celiac disease, which is a hereditary autoimmune system. 

There are, however, people who test negative for celiac disease but still react negatively to gluten; this is referred to gluten sensitivity (8). 

These individuals experience the same symptoms as those with celiac disease, but without the autoimmune response. A growing body of research now supports the possible connection between gluten and joint pain. 

And it’s all because of something called ‘zonulin.’

Zonulin is a protein that regulates the tight junctions of the small intestine. Several studies have shown the gluten activated zonulin, which leads to increased intestinal permeability–thereby allowing larger particles to pass through the intestinal wall (9, 10, 11). 

This, in turn, causes the immune system of sensitive individuals to respond with inflammation as it mistakenly believes that these larger particles are harmful (i.e. it treats gluten as a foreign invader) (12).  

To find out if your joint pain could be caused by gluten sensitivity, try eliminating gluten from your diet for a few weeks. Observe if staying away from gluten improves your symptoms.  

Processed Seed Oils

Seed oils are vegetable oils obtained from the seed (i.e. endosperm) of the plant. Most vegetable oils you know are seed oils. Some common examples include sunflower oil, canola oil, and sesame oil. 

At this point, you may be thinking, “Aren’t seed oils supposed to be healthy?”

The truth is, these oils are indeed often labelled ‘heart-healthy’–studies consistently link the polyunsaturated fats found within to a reduced risk of heart problems, compared with saturated fat (13).

Despite their potential health benefits, though, health experts are increasingly worried about the amount of these oils people are consuming. 

These oils are typically high in omega-6 fatty acids, but very low in omega-3s. This imbalance in omega-6s (pro-inflammatory) to omega-3s (anti-inflammatory) in the body has been hypothesized to contribute to chronic inflammation, an underlying factor is some of the most common Western diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and, of course, arthritis (14). 

Thus, avoid foods cooked with large amounts of seed oils that are high in omega-6s (i.e. fried foods in general) to reduce joint pain.

Dairy 

Full fat milk and dairy products are rich in saturated fats–a key driver of inflammation. Because of this, higher-fat dairy products are considered inflammatory foods. 

But surprisingly, according to a 2017 review published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, dairy appears to have a weak, yet statistically significant, anti-inflammatory effect in the body (15).

So, all’s good when it comes to dairy consumption, right? 

Not exactly; there is a small segment of the population that would benefit from eliminating most dairy foods–and that’s people with a milk allergy. 

They’re allergic to casein, a protein in dairy. For these individuals, consuming dairy products triggers a direct inflammatory response from the immune system, the effects of which can be mild (e.g. joint pain) to life-threatening (e.g. swollen airways) (16).

To find out if you’d benefit from dairy elimination, try it out for a couple of weeks and see if your joint pain improves. 

Meat cooked at high temperatures

According to the researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, frying, roasting, searing, or grilling foods at high temperatures produces compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) (17).

Because AGEs can damage certain proteins in the body, your body will trigger the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers, to break these AGEs apart. 

This is particularly problematic with meats cooked at high temperatures, as raw meats are already high in AGEs, to begin with. Worryingly, it's estimated that 10% of AGEs we get from eating seared burgers and fried chicken may be absorbed into our tissues and bloodstream.

To bring down the level of inflammation in your body (and reduce joint pain), try to achieve a lower AGE diet. 

And that can be easily done by avoiding meats cooked at high temperatures–that means grilling, broiling, and frying. 

These Foods Can Help Improve Joint Health

While there are foods that can promote inflammation, on the flip side, there are also those that can ease inflammation–helping relieve some of the joint pain you experience:

It’s now clear that diet can play a major role in joint pain severity and symptoms because of their inflammatory effects. Thankfully, you now know the specific foods to avoid and eat more of to seek relief from inflammation and joint health–while also promoting overall health.

Many different conditions can lead to joint pain–making tracking down the source of your discomfort a challenging and frustrating endeavour:

  • Osteoarthritis – A common type of arthritis that happens over time when the cartilage (the protective cushion in between the bones) wears away. This, in turn, causes inflammation of the joint lining, which can be a significant source of pain. 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – Unlike the wear-and-tear damage seen in osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory auto-immune disease that affects the lining of the joints, causing a painful swelling that can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
  • Tendinitis – An inflammation of the tendons, or the flexible bands that connect the bone and muscle. Typically seen in the elbow, heel, or shoulder and is typically caused by overuse. 

Spotted a pattern yet? 

The most common causes of joint pain have something in common: inflammation. Accordingly, if you were to bring down the levels of inflammation within your body, you’d be able to reduce joint pain. 

But how do you achieve that without the use of strong medications, many of which are associated with unpleasant side effects (e.g. NSAIDs and steroids)?

Well, research shows that compounds found within certain foods can trigger the body to produce chemicals that cause inflammation–meaning that you can decrease joint pain by avoiding these foods in your diet. But what are these foods, exactly? Let’s explore. 

What Foods should you avoid if you have Joint Pain?

Sugar and refined carbohydrates 

There are lots of health reasons to cut back on sugar. The sweet stuff can cause some serious weight gain, mess with your mood, and trigger a never-ending cycle of junk food cravings. 

Most of all, though, is that eating too much sugar can damage your body on a cellular level by causing harmful chronic inflammation. Multiple studies find that these both sugar and refined carbohydrates trigger the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers in the body (1, 2, 3). 

In fact, studies have shown that individuals who consume around 40 grams of added sugar per day (roughly the amount in a 12-ounce can of cola) show an increase in inflammatory markers both immediately after consuming it and over time (4, 5).

Worse still, research shows that high-glycaemic foods (i.e. refined carbohydrates) increase the breakdown of collagen fibres in a process called glycation (6). 

As you probably already know, collagen is what maintains the integrity of your cartilage–the rubber-like tissue that protects your joints (7). So, imagine what happens when you eat sugar and refined carbohydrates: yes, you’re essentially breaking down your cartilage!

Wheat

More specifically, you should avoid gluten. 

Wheat gluten is made up of 2 major proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the portion of gluten that some individuals have poor tolerance for. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is called celiac disease, which is a hereditary autoimmune system. 

There are, however, people who test negative for celiac disease but still react negatively to gluten; this is referred to gluten sensitivity (8). 

These individuals experience the same symptoms as those with celiac disease, but without the autoimmune response. A growing body of research now supports the possible connection between gluten and joint pain. 

And it’s all because of something called ‘zonulin.’

Zonulin is a protein that regulates the tight junctions of the small intestine. Several studies have shown the gluten activated zonulin, which leads to increased intestinal permeability–thereby allowing larger particles to pass through the intestinal wall (9, 10, 11). 

This, in turn, causes the immune system of sensitive individuals to respond with inflammation as it mistakenly believes that these larger particles are harmful (i.e. it treats gluten as a foreign invader) (12).  

To find out if your joint pain could be caused by gluten sensitivity, try eliminating gluten from your diet for a few weeks. Observe if staying away from gluten improves your symptoms.  

Processed Seed Oils

Seed oils are vegetable oils obtained from the seed (i.e. endosperm) of the plant. Most vegetable oils you know are seed oils. Some common examples include sunflower oil, canola oil, and sesame oil. 

At this point, you may be thinking, “Aren’t seed oils supposed to be healthy?”

The truth is, these oils are indeed often labelled ‘heart-healthy’–studies consistently link the polyunsaturated fats found within to a reduced risk of heart problems, compared with saturated fat (13).

Despite their potential health benefits, though, health experts are increasingly worried about the amount of these oils people are consuming. 

These oils are typically high in omega-6 fatty acids, but very low in omega-3s. This imbalance in omega-6s (pro-inflammatory) to omega-3s (anti-inflammatory) in the body has been hypothesized to contribute to chronic inflammation, an underlying factor is some of the most common Western diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and, of course, arthritis (14). 

Thus, avoid foods cooked with large amounts of seed oils that are high in omega-6s (i.e. fried foods in general) to reduce joint pain.

Dairy 

Full fat milk and dairy products are rich in saturated fats–a key driver of inflammation. Because of this, higher-fat dairy products are considered inflammatory foods. 

But surprisingly, according to a 2017 review published in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, dairy appears to have a weak, yet statistically significant, anti-inflammatory effect in the body (15).

So, all’s good when it comes to dairy consumption, right? 

Not exactly; there is a small segment of the population that would benefit from eliminating most dairy foods–and that’s people with a milk allergy. 

They’re allergic to casein, a protein in dairy. For these individuals, consuming dairy products triggers a direct inflammatory response from the immune system, the effects of which can be mild (e.g. joint pain) to life-threatening (e.g. swollen airways) (16).

To find out if you’d benefit from dairy elimination, try it out for a couple of weeks and see if your joint pain improves. 

Meat cooked at high temperatures

According to the researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, frying, roasting, searing, or grilling foods at high temperatures produces compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs) (17).

Because AGEs can damage certain proteins in the body, your body will trigger the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers, to break these AGEs apart. 

This is particularly problematic with meats cooked at high temperatures, as raw meats are already high in AGEs, to begin with. Worryingly, it’s estimated that 10% of AGEs we get from eating seared burgers and fried chicken may be absorbed into our tissues and bloodstream.

To bring down the level of inflammation in your body (and reduce joint pain), try to achieve a lower AGE diet. 

And that can be easily done by avoiding meats cooked at high temperatures–that means grilling, broiling, and frying. 

These Foods Can Help Improve Joint Health

While there are foods that can promote inflammation, on the flip side, there are also those that can ease inflammation–helping relieve some of the joint pain you experience:

It’s now clear that diet can play a major role in joint pain severity and symptoms because of their inflammatory effects. Thankfully, you now know the specific foods to avoid and eat more of to seek relief from inflammation and joint health–while also promoting overall health.