Cancer, heart disease, obesity – these are three of the most common, serious health problems in the United States. Know what they all may have in common? Inflammation. The same joint inflammation that causes arthritis may be associated with other health problems. Your eating habits can play a big role in reducing inflammation and helping those conditions.

Cause of Inflammation

Scientists know that the enzymes cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) are major causes of joint inflammation; that’s why you may take medications – such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which block COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, or COX-2 inhibitors – to treat your arthritis. Researchers discovered that COX-2 enzymes become more active and cause more joint inflammation when you take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s are the inflammation-fighting fatty acids found in cold water fish such as salmon and tuna. If you don't eat a healthy diet, it is easy to consume far fewer of these than omega-6 fatty acids – which are found in egg yolks and meats; corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oil; and are prevalent in many snack foods, fried foods, margarines and other spreads. In fact, many of the foods people overindulge in during “snack attacks” are linked to increasing joint inflammation and obesity. 

Diet and Inflammation

One way to help fight inflammation with food is by eating less of the "bad stuff" – processed and/or fried food, for instance – and more of the "good stuff," like veggies, fruits, nuts, tea and even small amounts of dark chocolate. Many plant-based foods contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, both of which may decrease the activity of the COX-2 enzyme, reducing joint inflammation.

Some small studies have looked at the direct impact of specific diets and foods and arthritis. According to a 2011 review in Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who followed a Mediterranean diet – which features lean protein like fish and poultry and is high in plant-based foods such as beans, veggies and olive oil – reported a decrease in joint tenderness and an improvement in their sense of well being. Another small study cited in the review found that in some people with RA, vegan and vegetarian diets brought symptom improvement. 

Alexis Ogdie-Beatty, MD, instructor in medicine in the rheumatology division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, notes that many people with arthritis who start eating fewer processed, sugary foods – whatever the diet – find that they feel better.