Thursday, 30 May 2013

Should you cut out dairy and red meats if you have arthritis?

I stumbled across this article about childhood arthritis and an anti-inflammatory diet today and it prompted me to write about dairy products, red meat and arthritis diets. The parents of this lovely little girl have been helping manage her arthritis by excluding red meat and dairy from her diet. I think it's fair to say that most of us know that too much red meat and full-fat dairy in our diets is not good for our health, regardless of whether we have arthritis or not. Red meat and full-fat dairy tend to be high in pro-inflammatory saturated fats and the omega 6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid. Laboratory studies show that these fats literally fuel the inflammatory processes that occur in arthritis.

The association between these fats and inflammation in arthritis is less clear outside of the lab. Several studies have show that people who consume lots of red meat and high fat dairy may be more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and some have suggested a similar association with the inflammatory phase of osteoarthritis. Equally, there have been studies that showed patients might experience some symptom relief through eating a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, all the studies on the effects of a vegetarian or vegan diet on rheumatoid arthritis were by the same group of researchers and scientists reviewing their findings have queried how robust the research was. 

There are risks to cutting out food groups. People with inflammatory arthritis are often anaemic and red meat is a good source of iron. Equally, the calcium found in dairy is an important to help maintain bone strength and guard against osteoporosis for everyone with arthritis. A review of all dietary intervention trials for arthritis suggested that the patients who followed restricted diets are at an increased risk of malnutrition because of the difficulties of shopping and preparing food with sore joints whilst cutting out food groups.

Now, in the interests of being totally honest, I should probably admit that I am basically vegetarian. I don't actually eat red meat (or much of any meat if I can avoid it) and never have done. I simply don't like it, don't really believe in it (traumatic childhood experience going to school in a farming community - it is never a good idea to show a slightly wet 5 year old the whole farm to fork process in gory detail) and frankly, can't chew it. But, I wouldn't advise someone to avoid it on nutritional grounds alone. My advice, if you like red meat, eat it. Just make sure you pick lean cuts and don't have more than one or two portions a week. Try to eat more fish, vegetarian meals and lean white meats instead. Similarly, have dairy but choose lower fat options like semi or skimmed milk, low fat ricotta and small amounts of strong flavoured cheeses like parmesan over great globs of cheddar etc. 

Finally, if you do feel you eat a lot of these foods or want to cut back entirely then I'd recommend getting some advice from a dietician or registered nutritionist on how best to do it in the context of your own health and nutritional needs.


  1. My doctor here (Italy, PCP) was a rheumatologist before going into family practice. Almost the first time I met her she was horrified at the normal UK habit of meat most days - but she didn't care if it is red, white or blue meat! As far as she is concerned meat is bad. I now eat far less but probably for her still not enough less.

    However, there are studies that show that about half of patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience dramatically reduced levels of joint pain when they eat what is to all intents and purposes a vegan diet. As soon as any dairy or meat is reintroduced the pain returns. The diet that works is very extreme and most patients find it difficult to stick to without a lot of assistance.

    That said - Venus Williams has Sjogrens and claims an extreme raw vegan diet allows her to continue to play tennis. She can afford to have it prepared for her and all the supplements that mean no dietary deficiencies. Except maybe protein - that must pose a problem surely?

    1. Interesting to hear your doctor's views. I'm sure eating less meat is good for all of us and more sustainable...

      I think the studies you mention about RA/vegan diets are the same ones I refer to. There was a Cochrane Review of them which you can read about here:

      It's good reading!



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