Facts about a Healthy Diet

There is a lot of debate about whether what you eat affects your arthritis but there is no definite connection between food and flare-ups. What is most important when you have arthritis is eating a well-balanced, healthy diet which will give you the nutrients you need and help you maintain a healthy weight.

In general, a healthy diet is one that is:

  • high in fruit and vegetables
  • high in starch and fibre
  • low in fatty foods and salt
  • low in added sugars

Healthy eating depends on balancing the 5 main food groups as shown on the Eatwell Plate below which shows how much of what you eat should come from each food group

Eat well plate visual

You do not need to get the balance exactly right at every meal, but try to get it right over longer periods, such as a whole day or week. Choose options that are low in fat, salt and sugar whenever you can. Most people in the UK eat too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables and fibre.  The NHS website explains the eat-well plate in more detail, and can offer support on how to achieve a healthier well balanced diet: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar you eat will help you to…

  • lower your blood cholesterol levels
  • keep your blood pressure down
  • maintain or reach a healthy weight
  • reduce the risk of developing diabetes
Image of someone sprinkling salt on chips

Salt: the facts

Many foods have hidden salts so there is no need to add salt to your food. Three-quarters (75%)  of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy, such as breakfast cereals, soups, sauces, bread and ready meals. You could be eating too much salt without realising it. Adults and children aged 11 and over should have no more than 6 grams (this is equal to one level teaspoon) of salt a day and younger children should have even less. On average, most people eat about 9 grams (equal to two teaspoons) of salt every day, which is too much.

Sugar: the facts

Sugars occurs naturally in food such as fruit and milk but it is food containing added sugars that you need to cut down on. Most adults and children eat too much sugar and everyone should be trying to eat fewer sugary foods and drinks. Foods with added sugars contain few nutrients except energy and tend to be high in calories. Other foods such as cereals, bread, potatoes, meat vegetables and fruit provide nutrients and energy so you don’t need to eat sugary foods. Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if you have them between meals.

healthy fats, nuts

Fats: the facts

A small amount of fat is essential in a balanced diet as it provides your body with energy but you should limit the amount and type of fat you eat. There are two types of fats; saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are ‘bad fats’ and can raise cholesterol. These are found in hard cheeses, pastries, cakes, biscuits, butter and fatty meat. Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 and can provide health benefits for your heart. These are found in avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds and oily fish such as salmon and mackerel.

Processed foods

If you usually eat processed food for example, ready meals, fish fingers, pies and burgers, it is likely that you are eating a lot of hidden salt, fat and sugar. Try to read the label to help you make a healthier choice about processed food.

processed foods
food label

Using labels

To help you choose foods which are lower in salt, fat and sugar, it is useful to look at the food label. This is where you can find the ingredients list and nutritional information. The label will also show if there is any hidden salt, fat and sugar.

The ingredients list always starts with the biggest first, so if you see sugar/glucose nearer the top then it’s likely to be high in sugar or salt/sodium nearer the top of the list then you know it’s likely to be high in salt.

As a guide, consider the following when checking food labels:

Sugar:                           More than 15g per 100g is high     5g or less per 100g is low
Fat:                                More than 20g per 100g is high    3g or less per 100g is low
Salt:                               More than 0.5g per 100g is high   0.1g or less per 100g is low

Managing your Weight

Carrying extra weight adds extra pressure on weight bearing joints such as the back, hips, knees, ankles and feet. Losing even a few kilos can make a significant difference. Adopting a healthy diet can help you loose weight.

If you are trying to lose weight, vegetables should make up half of your plate; carbohydrates a quarter; and protein a quarter. Reducing the size of the portions on your plate will also help.

Exercise is an important part of weight loss and control, so make sure you incorporate that into your daily routine. To see more about exercise and arthritis please see our “Keeping Moving” page.

When thinking about their weight people often forget the calories in alcoholic drinks such as wine and beer. Cutting down on alcohol will help you lose weight.

Food and Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are often stories in newspapers about food and arthritis and the effect diet can have on the condition. There is as yet no strong scientific evidence that eating any particular foods can help your arthritis. However there is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fish oils does have some beneficial effects on symptoms of RA. One of the ways it appears to work is by decreasing the production of inflammatory chemicals. Cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies are the richest food source of omega-3 fatty acids but it can also be bought in capsules. It is important to note that fish oil capsules may interact with blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin and aspirin. Flaxseed oil is often used as an alternative to fish oil, however it doesn’t appear to have the same anti-inflammatory effects as fish oil at achievable intakes.

You may feel that certain foods make your arthritis worse. If you decide to avoid these foods, you might need to take supplements to ensure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Some people with rheumatoid arthritis try ‘special diets’, which exclude a certain type of food. You should always get advice from your GP and/or a dietician before starting a special diet. Never begin a diet that involves stopping medication without discussing it thoroughly with your doctor.

The NICE guidance is that people with RA should be encouraged to follow the principles of a Mediterranean diet (more bread, fruit, vegetables and fish; less meat; and replace butter and cheese with products based on vegetable and plant oils).


Most people should get the nutrients they need through their diet without taking supplements. If you do decide to take supplements, check with your doctor or a pharmacist,  as some of these can interact with your prescribed drugs.

For more information on diet and RA :  https://nras.org.uk/resource/diet/

For further information on healthy eating see Cornwall Healthy Weight: