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Can diet help with osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis can be painful. Here's what the latest research shows about foods that could help.

Healthy meal of grilled halibut with spinach, leeks and pine nuts

Osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage between joints breaks down, leading to stiffness, swelling and pain. It mostly affects the hands, spine and hip joints, plus knees and ankles.

As one of the most common forms of arthritis, 1 in 10 Australians are affected, with the likelihood increasing if you’re over 45. It’s also a leading cause of knee and hip replacement surgery.

Who’s most at risk of osteoarthritis?

While there is no single reason osteoarthritis develops, some key risk factors include (though are not limited to) age, carrying too much weight, having a previous joint injury and having a family history of the condition. Women are also more likely to develop osteoarthritis.

Positive lifestyle habits, like maintaining a healthy body weight, regular physical activity and good nutrition are all linked to better outcomes.

For those who are overweight, losing even 10% of body weight can take the strain off joints and improve physical health and mobility. Combining weight loss with a tailored exercise program, in consultation with a GP, physiotherapist or dietitian, is certainly the best approach.

Other, more serious treatments include medications, and even bariatric surgery, but it’s advised you try non-invasive options first, in the aim of finding an effective and realistic long-term management plan.

Is there a best diet for osteoarthritis?

A recent study published in the American Journal of Nutrition gives us clues about how food might improve this degenerative inflammatory condition. A group of over 4,000 men and women with osteoarthritis followed the Mediterranean-style diet. The results linked the diet to improved quality of life and decreased pain, disability and depressive symptoms.

The traditional Mediterranean diet includes a good amount of olive oil, fruits, nuts, vegetables and cereals. It also includes fish, poultry and some dairy, but is low in red meat, processed meats and added sugar. For those who like a good drop, you’ll be pleased to know red wine can still be enjoyed – in moderation, of course.

What about supplements?

Popular over-the-counter supplements for osteoarthritis include glucosamine and chondroitin. Both supplements have been the subject of many studies with very mixed results. When taken alone, neither supplement appears to offer significant pain relief.

More recently, Health News and Evidence published an Australian study suggesting a combination of both glucosamine (1500 mg per day) and chondroitin (800 mg per day) could benefit the knee joint for people with early osteoarthritis. This hasn’t been proven to work for everyone though, so if you find no pain relief then save your money and stop taking them.

Fish oil is another popular supplement taken for osteoarthritis, though clinical trials have shown no strong evidence. The anti-inflammatory effects of the omega-3 fats found in fish oil may help reduce painful joint inflammation. This is different though to using fish oil to treat rheumatoid arthritis, where the clinical evidence is much stronger.

And finally, don’t forget about exercise. Exercise can reduce the pain from osteoarthritis, improve flexibility, and strengthen muscles that support the joints. Plus, any resulting weight loss may relieve extra strain placed on the joints.

Learn more about how to prevent, manage and treat osteoarthritis.

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