5 foods to avoid for arthritis: improve joint health and pain

January 1, 2024 9 mins to read

Like many illnesses, there are many factors that can contribute to arthritis, some more common than others and they can be different for each person. According to Dr. Mercola a big part of arthritis is prolonged nutrient deficiencies, largely omega 3s and various minerals. Based on my research other factors include: heavy metal poisoning, gluten sensitivity, digestive issues such as leaky gut and a component of autoimmune conditions, where your body attacks your own joints and tissues. In this article I go over 5 foods to avoid that can help reduce inflammation and improve your arthritis symptoms. You know the saying ‘food is medicine’? Well it can be good medicine or bad, depending on what you’re eating…So let’s get into it.

Gut Health, Food Sensitivities and Testing

Diet plays a big role in arthritis and the health of your digestive tract. 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut (digestive tract), referred to as the ‘gut microbiome’ a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria…Your gut literally ‘is’ your immune system. Also you produce roughly the same amount of neurotransmitters in your gut, as you do in your brain e.g. serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc. To start figuring out your arthritis puzzle, I highly recommend a Gut Intelligence Test along with Food Sensitivity testing (IgG antibodies test) as a start uncover some of the underlying root causes of your arthritis so you can begin the path to recovery.

1. Gluten-Heavy Foods: The Inflammatory Culprits | Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

Number 1 on our foods to avoid for arthritis is Gluten containing foods. Allot of people are under the misconception that you should only avoid gluten if you are celiac or allergic to gluten, which is simply not true. There are two reasons everyone should avoid gluten:

  1. Digestive Damage: sensitivity or not gluten damages the digestive lining and weakens digestive tract health. While the digestive tract is incredible at restoring it’s lining and healing, when it’s constantly exposed to gluten from breakfast, lunch and supper for years, eventually it just concedes to the onslaught of attacks, which can result in things like leaky gut (intestinal permeability), autoimmune conditions, digestive issues and even cancer.
  2. Pesticides and Herbicides: Like roundup and glyphosate which can cause cancer, disrupt your endocrine system, damage cells, damage your gut (leaky gut) and even DNA (turning off good genes and on bad genes via epigenetics), is pervasive in our society. We are so obsessed with spraying our crops with toxic chemicals, that we’ve genetically modified our foods (aka GMO) to survive these chemicals that would otherwise kill them. Rice and flour are some of the most pesticide laden crops. These chemicals can stay in soil up to 20+ years. These chemicals then absorb into the plant and we consume them to the detriment of our health. These can be inflammatory and potentially contribute to arthritis in multiple ways.
  3. (Bonus) Folic Acid: When you read ‘enriched flour’ or ‘enhanced flour’ or something similar it usually indicates it’s been sprayed with folic acid. While our bodies do need folate, the folic acid form is completely synthetic. In Nutrigenomics we learn of gene mutations that can affect nutrient absorption, such as the MTHFR gene which can affect the ability to convert synthetic folic acid into it’s active form l-methylfolate. It turns out 46% of more of the population has mutations in this gene so they can’t convert this folic acid that is sprayed onto everything, especially flour and rice, leading to undermethylation, a build up of homocysteine, a lowering of our master detoxifier ‘glutathione’ and the countless health issues that can arise.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When you consider the above three factors, it’s no wonder that gluten-containing foods like like traditional pastas and breads can cause inflammation and exacerbate arthritis symptoms like joint pain; particularly in those with rheumatoid arthritis or gluten sensitivities. For those with joint discomfort, opt for gluten-free alternatives like quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, etc! A Gluten free diet can be a game-changer​​​​ for your arthritis.

2. Dairy: Hidden Inflammation Trigger | Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

Number 2 on our list of foods to avoid for arthritis is Dairy, especially cows dairy which is often a staple in our diets; high in saturated fats. Cows dairy is high in lactose. When dairy is pasteurized (heated to kill dangerous bacteria) it also denatures (damages) proteins and degrades heat sensitive vitamins, essentially stripping the milk of it’s nutrient value. Whole raw milk (unpasteurized) contains lactase, the enzyme that helps break down lactose. As a result when we drink grocery store pasteurized milk, we get a whole bunch of lactose that many of us can’t break down leading to digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Casein sensitivity can also be a factor. Ultimately this means dairy (and it’s saturated fats) can be largely inflammatory, worsening arthritis symptoms like joint pain.

I often recommend my clients with arthritis explore plant-based alternatives such as vegan cheese or using nutritional yeast for flavoring to my clients​​. Another option, if it’s legal in your area, is raw dairy products, which can actually heal the gut and reduce inflammation (for various reasons). Or you can try alternatives like goats dairy which contains lower lactose (may not be cross reactive), ghee (proteins scraped off), or beef tallow.

3. Processed and Fast Foods: The Trans Fat Issue | Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

When it comes to processed or fast foods, especially fried, we sacrifice our health for convenience. Trans fats are the main issue, notorious for causing systemic inflammation, found in foods like cookies, donuts, and fried items. Part of this is also an excess of Omega 6 fats in our diet which are largely inflammatory, and a lack of Omega 3’s which are anti-inflammatory; a ratio of 2:1 Omega 3:6 is ideal for optimal health. Cutting back on these processed and fast foods, can significantly reduce inflammation-related joint discomfort​​.

4. Sugar and Refined Carbs: Sweet Pain | Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

Sugar is probably most destructive force to human health, simply because we consume far too much of it; it causes free radical oxidative damage and inflammation among it’s myriad of other negative health affects. This isn’t just soft drinks and sugary sweets…but also includes simple/refined carbs like white bread, pasta and many cereals; often overlooked contributors to joint pain. Every meal should be balanced with proteins, healthy fats, complex carbs and plenty of fiber to slow down digestion and help balance out the blood sugar response (glycemic load) of our meals. Simple carbs, soda and sugary sweets can cause spikes in blood sugar and contribute to inflammation, worsening arthritis symptoms. Reducing intake of added sugars, and opting for organic whole grains and complex carbs, can be beneficial for those struggling with joint pain​​​​. Another great option is Intermittent fasting, which can help reverse insulin resistance for those with type 2 and pre diabetes.

5. Certain Vegetables and Artificial Sweeteners: Surprising Offenders | Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

Some studies suggest that nightshade vegetables like tomatoes may trigger joint discomfort in certain individuals. This follows what I said earlier about getting Gut Testing and Food Sensitivity testing to see what foods you might be sensitive to, that may be causing inflammation and worsening arthritis pain. Similarly, artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol might cause inflammation in people with specific sensitivities. It’s worth paying attention to how your body reacts to these an other items​​​​ as even with food sensitivity testing, it’s not foolproof and sometimes you may react to foods that were negative on your test…the body always knows!

Honorable Mentions | Other Foods to Avoid for Arthritis

Beyond these five some other foods that can worsen arthritis and join pain are:

  • Red meat – if not grass-fed and free of hormones + antibiotics. I recommend farmers markets, or trying to find the grass-fed, organic meat if you can afford it. Often there are local farmers that will sell you big boxes of meat that is grass-fed and antibiotic + hormone free if you look around and network a bit at farmers markets. Meat can be healing but only unprocessed, pure and of the highest nutrient quality available.
  • Processed meats – they contain nitrates and nitrites are incredibly bad for your health.
  • Certain oils like seed oils – which are rich in omega-6 (inflammatory) fatty acids. Also consuming a Good Essential Fatty Acid Complex or fish oil supplement high in Omega 3s can help counter the inflammatory effects of a diet high in omega 6s.

These all can also contribute to joint discomfort. It’s about finding a balance and understanding your body’s reactions​​.

Final Thoughts | Conclusion

Remember that arthritis can be different for each person, in that each person can have different things that contribute or worsen their arthritis and symptoms. I highly recommend keeping a food journal to track your reactions including: what you eat for each meal, how you feel during and after each meal as well as the night of that day and the next morning after; also keep meals simple. The reason I recommend such thorough journaling and simple meals is because food sensitivity reactions can take up to 72hrs to fully appear, making it difficult to nail down the culprit(s). Book a video call with a nutrition expert (holistic nutritionist or nutritional counselor). And always listen to your body and always listen to your body. It’s the best guide you have.



The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any health care agency or government entity in Canada or the United States.

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