With more and more people considering their impact on the planet, it is no surprise we are looking at our food choices as one of the ways to help with sustainability. The meat and dairy industries have come under scrutiny for their part in causing damage to the environment, via greenhouse gases from livestock, deforestation and water shortages from farming, and vast ocean dead zones from agricultural pollution.
People all over the planet are adopting diets to support this movement. Ranging from flexitarians (a person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish) to vegetarians (no meat) to vegans (no animal products at all). However, people are not just looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Many are looking at these lifestyle changes to improve their health too.
Scientists have long known the anti-inflammatory effects of plant foods and how one can positively affect health issues, such as arthritis, by focusing on what’s on their plate. But does a vegan diet help reduce arthritis symptoms and pain?
This appears to be heavily dependent on what type of arthritis is the focus. Adopting an ‘anti-inflammatory diet’ rich in plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, for an inflammation-led disease such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) has had promising results in trials. One study found that 4 weeks on a low-fat vegan diet improved RA joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. There is also an interesting link with improving the ‘good bacteria’ in your gut by eating more fibre from a higher plant diet. These bacteria help to keep inflammation in check and support the immune system.
Furthermore, studies show that people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet are less likely to be overweight or obese compared to their meat-eating counterparts. The impact of weight on the joints and bones significantly drives factors that contribute to Osteoarthritis (OA) and RA.
One of the most beneficial type of diet for arthritis so far is the so called “Mediterranean diet”, which promotes the intake of fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as certain types of fish for increased omega-3 intake. Therefore, while the idea is still a nutrient dense diet focusing on vegetables, leafy greens, beans and wholegrains certain non-vegan foods could still provide beneficial for decreasing inflammation.
Is meat & dairy the problem?
What the studies don’t show clearly however, is if it is the animal products causing the issues of inflammation and weight gain or if it’s the overconsumption of animals, unhealthy habits and processed foods that accompany the majority of people following a typical Western Diet.
The issue is more complex than “plants good, animals bad,”. Vegan diets tend to include more healthy foods in general as well as healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and being in nature. Meat eaters as a group tend to eat more processed foods (pizza, burgers, cheese) and are more sedentary, which can trigger inflammation.
Some studies also suggest a possible link between chronic inflammation and saturated fats found in red meats, full-fat dairy foods, butter and poultry skin, while fats found in olive oil and avocado does not have the same effect
There is yet to be a study on a population who eats mostly plants, some animal products and adopts healthy lifestyle choices and the impact on arthritis, however.
Likewise, you can be vegan and still eat plenty of foods that will not help your arthritis symptoms or contribute to a healthy diet. For example, sugar, chips, alcohol, white bread and meat substitutes, which all come from plants, can trigger inflammation.
More anti-inflammatory plants
What is clear is the impact on having more plants in the diet is good for both your health outcomes and the planet. No wonder why the vegan anti-inflammatory diet is so popular with people with arthritis, people who focus on a diet with more fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, healthy fats and whole grains (i.e., brown rice and barley) instead of refined carbohydrates like white pasta, bread or rice are increasing their body’s nutrient stores to support repair mechanisms in the body.
These plant foods are also packed with phytochemicals (plant-based compounds) that include antioxidants, flavonoids and carotenoids, all of which protect the tissues from oxidation and help reduce inflammation.
Possible problems with plant-based diet
If adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet sounds appealing for your arthritis, consider what you may need to supplement or provide more of in your diet.
These include; vitamin B-12 (which are only found in animal products and essential for brain function) omega-3 fatty acids (which also reduce inflammation and support cell-communication), iron (to protect against potential anaemia), zinc & vitamin D (for the immune system), calcium (for bones support) and selenium & iodine (for a healthy thyroid).
One of the main areas of consideration we hear when people talk about veganism is protein intake. While protein intake changes based on how much we weigh and how active we are, the general daily intake for the average adult ranges around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound.
That means that the average sedentary man should eat about 56 grams of protein per day, and the average woman should eat about 46 grams – but that’s only the bare minimum to hit in order to not experience negative side effects.
One thing to consider however is that older adults have significantly increased protein needs – up to 50% higher than average, or about 0.45–0.6 grams per pound (1–1.3 grams per kg) of body weight.
For this reason, it is best to add a protein source to each of the 3 main meals a day to ensure the basic needs are met. The most popular source of protein for vegans are beans, chickpeas, nuts, and tofu – all containing enough protein to cover the daily intake if consumed at a proper amount.
For example, a large egg, which is a favoured source of protein for non-vegans has only 6g of protein and both beans and chickpeas contain about 15 grams of protein per cooked cup (240 ml) so adding them in to your dishes in any format can help ensure you meet your needs.