Apparently, your joints really dig it when you veg out.
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Credit: Getty Images / alvarez

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may experience the joint aches, pains and stiffness, fatigue and weakness make living with RA a challenge for the more than 1.3 million Americans who have the condition. Long-term, RA can increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes. Along with medications, a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in managing the disease. Now, a new study suggests that there may be one diet that's especially good for people with RA: the vegan diet.

In a small study of people with RA, eating a vegan diet for four months was associated with a 53% reduction in pain and inflammation levels compared to a placebo protocol, according to results published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

RA is an autoimmune disease. There are over 100 autoimmune conditions, a type of disease where your own immune system confuses your own cells for foreign ones and mounts an immune response to attack them. In the case of RA, immune cells begin to attack healthy cells near joints, causing inflammation and the severe pain and swelling that goes with it.

What the Rheumatoid Arthritis Diet Study Found

The researchers aggregated a pool of 44 participants, all of whom were previously diagnosed with RA. They randomly assigned half of the group to follow a vegan diet for a 16-week protocol. That protocol was broken up into three phases:

  • Weeks 1 to 4: A vegan diet with no meat, seafood, dairy or eggs.
  • Weeks 5 to 7: An elimination diet with no gluten-containing grains, soy, white/sweet potatoes, chocolate, citrus, nuts and peanuts, onions, corn, tomatoes, apples, bananas, celery, peppers, coffee, alcohol and table sugar. (They also continued the vegan diet.)
  • Weeks 7 to 16: Gradual reintroduction of eliminated foods. If any of these foods increased joint pain or swelling, they were removed again.

During the experiment, vegan dieters purchased and prepared their own food based on instructions from the research team and took part in group counseling sessions to help make meal planning easier. They were given no caloric restrictions and were instructed to take a vitamin B12 supplement. (Vegans and vegetarians are often at risk for B12 deficiency). Whole grains, veggies, fruit, lentils and beans were in high supply among the "diet" participants—similar to what you'll find on the vegan meal plan for beginners.

The other half of the participants were assigned to a placebo "supplement" treatment group. They were told their placebo pill included anti-inflammatory nutrients like ALA omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.

After a 4-week "washout" period to allow their bodies to balance out, participants switched to the opposite protocol, so that each group went on the vegan diet and each took the placebo supplement.

Along the way, participants kept logs about their symptoms, on a range from "no pain" to "pain as bad as it could possibly be." At the end of the full study, the scientists found that a low-fat vegan diet can decrease RA symptoms by, on average, 53%. It may be because this healthy eating plan removes some of the most potent inflammatory elements of the omnivorous diet (such as red and processed meat, processed foods, refined carbs and saturated fat) while improving gut health.

Since RA is so related to inflammation, the oft-recommended best diets for arthritis are the anti-inflammatory diet and the Mediterranean diet. Neither can "cure" RA, but both include plenty of inflammation-taming healthy fats, fresh fruits and vegetables and fiber-rich whole grains, and limit pro-inflammatory red meats, processed foods, refined grains and excess sugar.

While effective medical interventions are available and an important part of any RA treatment plan, regular low-impact exercise can also increase muscle strength around the joints and improve mobility.

The Bottom Line

This RA study was fairly small and involved self-reported diet logs and symptoms ratings and still needs to be replicated in larger groups. For instance, previous RA diet findings have pointed to the benefits of eating fish; could a vegan diet plus seafood or other elements also improve symptoms?

Until we know more, if you have RA or another autoimmune condition, it can't hurt to talk to your doctor or dietitian about how a vegan diet or anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet might impact (and potentially improve) your symptoms.

Autoimmune condition or not, your brain and body will benefit from filling up on inflammation-fighting, gut-friendly foods. This anti-Inflammatory meal plan for beginners can help get you started.