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Most of us understand eating a balanced diet is important to maintain a healthy weight and protect us from heart disease and even cancer. What many may not know is a healthy diet can also protect us from the muscle and joint pain of arthritis.

Occurring naturally in our bodies, the inflammatory process protects us from foreign invaders, such as toxins, infection and injury. Intermittent bouts of inflammation are, actually, beneficial to our health. However, when inflammation persists for long periods of time, it can trigger chronic disease, including arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

In treating patients with arthritic pain, I often recommend integrating an anti-inflammatory diet into the treatment plan. Eating foods, like those of the Mediterranean diet, that emphasize fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils are found to help lower the inflammation markers in the blood. A recent study of women with rheumatoid arthritis who took a cooking class on Mediterranean-style foods and ate that way for two months had less joint pain and morning stiffness than those who did not.

On the other hand, processed foods, red meat, fried foods, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, have the opposite effect, raising inflammatory markers. It should come as no surprise processed sugars top the lists of foods that increase joint and muscle inflammation. Sugar causes a sudden spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a dramatic drop. This triggers the inflammatory response that, over time, causes damage.

It is important to keep in mind that each individual is different, so our bodies respond to inflammatory foods in different ways. Some foods will affect us more than others. That’s why it’s helpful to try an elimination diet, which removes all inflammatory foods for 30 days. By then slowing reintroducing one new food a week, we are better able to identify the specific foods that cause us an adverse effect.

In addition, a diet rich in antioxidants, like blueberries, strawberries, artichokes, spinach and even dark chocolate, can help reduce inflammation. Antioxidants help to defend your body from potentially harmful molecules, known as free radicals. The buildup of excessive free radicals in your system can cause oxidative stress, damaging critical cell structures. Oxidative stress has been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic disease, including arthritis and lupus.

A diet rich with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods has another benefit – reducing cholesterol. Experts warn high cholesterol may play a significant role in the development of osteoarthritis. A recent study found cholesterol was responsible for the breakdown of cartilage, the tissue that coats our bones in the joint, allowing bones to glide easily against each other. As a waxy substance, cholesterol essentially clings to the cartilage cells, suffocating and, eventually causing them to die. Unlike other tissue in the body, cartilage cannot repair itself, which leads to joint damage and the onset of osteoarthritis.

While changes in your diet won’t replace medical treatments for arthritic joint and muscle pain, research points to the fact it certainly should be considered a key ingredient in an overall treatment plan.

Dr. Matthew Levy writes about orthopedics for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center and practices in Solon, Independence and downtown Cleveland.

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