Nutrition & Chronic Inflammatory Illness

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Nutrition and chronic inflammatory illness

We know how hard it is to find trustworthy information online. It’s even harder when you are looking for information on health and nutrition. People are constantly pushing their latest supplement, the latest cure-all diet, or making you feel bad about yourself. We’re not interested in that here.

We simply want to bring awareness to inflammatory arthritis and help YOU feel better!


The problem with nutrition information online

There is very little information on nutrition that is specific to psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or any other condition that falls under the umbrella of spondylitis.

Most of the websites that do exist out there are trying to sell something, so it is hard to trust anything they have to say.

They also seem to suggest that it is your fault when you have pain by suggesting you could cure your inflammation by following their special plan. Frankly, that is just insulting and can make you feel helpless.

For those of us who have a background in nutrition science, it is obvious that most of the advice online won’t help. Some of it could even be harmful, sometimes in subtle ways.

What nutrition can actually do

When you are in pain, it is hard to prepare any food – nevermind cooking from scratch. It is so easy to forget about eating healthy and just concern yourself with putting food in your belly. This is where the negative spiral can start – just like with exercise, sleep, and mental health.

Pain –> Sitting the couch —> Muscle pain from being inactive
Pain –> Eating whatever is easiest –> Feeling off because you haven’t eaten well
Pain –> Unable to sleep –> Feeling tired the next day –> Drinking coffee –> Not able to fall asleep again

All of these combine into a perfect storm for depression, anxiety, and more pain. This suffering is what we can prevent, lessen or even heal with a healthy lifestyle. The medical treatment will address your arthritis. Your lifestyle can either cause or prevent the additional suffering that can come with having a chronic disease.


What is a diet?

Diet has come to mean a restrictive diet that makes you feel deprived while you attempt to lose weight. But did you know that is not what diet originally meant?

Diet originally meant ‘usual or prescribed pattern of eating’. Back when dietitians chose the name for our profession, this was the only thing the word ‘diet’ meant!

It is important to have a healthy lifestyle. Habits that help keep you active, eating well, sleeping well, and otherwise feeling good, will help prevent the suffering that comes with a chronic disease. Building those healthy habits can help you improve your health. It might not be magic, but it can help make things better.


Bottom Line

There is no miracle cure for any kind of arthritis or spondylitis. No single solution will help everyone. But there are common elements that can help.

Being active, getting enough sleep, eating well, finding ways to reduce stress and improve your mental health – they all can help. You will feel better when you find ways to build a healthy lifestyle. Your joints might feel better or they might not, but you, as a whole, will feel better with a healthy lifestyle.

In articles to follow, we will share information and suggest ways you might improve your health. If you have any doubts about whether something is right for you, or if you have specific questions please consult with your health care team:

  • A registered dietitian for food and nutrition questions,
  • Your primary care provider or pharmacist for medication questions,
  • A kinesiologist, physiotherapist, or occupational therapist for exercise questions.

The Mediterranean Diet

The diet with the most research across all kinds of health concerns is the Mediterranean Diet. It is based on the traditional diets of people living around the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

It is an anti-inflammatory diet so it might even help your joints. Even if it didn’t, it has tons of other benefits and it tastes great!

It has been shown to reduce the risk of developing and help treat:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Digestive issues

How is the Mediterranean Diet different?

Compared to the standard North American diet,

the Mediterranean diet is high in:

  • Fruit (daily)
  • Vegetables (daily)
  • Beans, nuts, or seeds  (daily)
  • Whole grains (daily)
  • Fish (2-3 times per week)
  • Olive oil is the main source of fats (daily)

It is moderate in:

  • Dairy
  • Poultry
  • Eggs

It is low in:

  • Sweets
  • Red meat (beef, pork, and other animal meat)

The Mediterranean Diet also emphasizes high-quality food, locally grown if possible, and preparing and eating food together with other people.

What supplements should I take on the Mediterranean Diet?

When following the Mediterranean Diet, you shouldn’t need any additional supplements. By including at least 2 servings of fish per week, you will be getting plenty of EPA and DHA (the types of fat in omega-3 or fish oil supplements).

By including beans, nuts, or seeds every day, you’ll be getting plenty of magnesium, zinc, and other minerals that we tend to not get enough of in North America.

In fact, the Mediterranean diet is among the most well balanced diets we know of, which is why it is anti-inflammatory and beneficial for so many health conditions.

If you have food allergies or concerns that you might still be low in any vitamins or minerals, make sure you see a Registered Dietitian to ensure you are covering all of your bases.

How to start eating more Mediterranean

The most important thing to remember is that behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight. The goal is to change your habits and develop a new lifestyle. It could even lead to a new relationship with food.

In fact, it is better if you don’t try to change everything overnight.

A more gradual shift will allow you to actually build habits, rather than trying to white-knuckle your way through yet another diet. Consider your current habits and choose one small thing to change. Focus on how great it tastes and how the food makes you feel.

Here are a few small changes you can try this week:

  • Use olive oil (virgin or extra virgin) instead of butter or other oils while cooking
  • Have berries for dessert
  • Have oatmeal for breakfast, instead of cold cereal – or add in some nuts or seeds if you already have oatmeal
  • Add more vegetables to lunch or supper
  • Make your own salad dressing with olive oil, herbs, and balsamic vinegar
    (3/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, add herbs and spices as desired)
  • Try using the plate method:
    • 1/2 plate vegetables,
    • 1/4 plate whole grains or starches,
    • 1/4 plate protein (poultry, fish, or beans),
    • fruit for dessert, and
    • your non-sweetened beverage of choice (such as water, milk, or brewed unsweetened tea)

A great example of a Mediterannean diet meal

Bottom Line

The Mediterranean Diet is an anti-inflammatory diet that may help manage your arthritis. It has been shown to help with diabetes and heart disease, including cholesterol and blood pressure.

A few small changes can start you on your journey towards a healthier diet and a healthier lifestyle. What are you waiting for?

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

What is the anti-inflammatory diet and why should I eat it?

Anti-inflammatory is all the rage. You can get food, drinks, supplements, and skin products to fight inflammation. But what is inflammation? What does it mean to eat an anti-inflammatory diet? And most importantly, will it help your joints?

An anti-inflammatory diet might help prevent arthritis. It might improve your symptoms. But pay close attention to the word “might”.

There is not much research on diet and arthritis in humans. There is even less research for spondyloarthritis. So we don’t have much to go on.


What is a diet?

Diet has come to mean a restrictive diet that makes you feel deprived while you attempt to lose weight. But did you know that is not what diet originally meant?

Diet originally meant ‘usual or prescribed pattern of eating’. Back when dietitians chose the name for our profession, this was the only thing the word ‘diet’ meant!


Why should you eat well?

You know how it feels when you don’t eat well:

  • Heartburn, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive discomforts (especially true if you have IBS or IBD)
  • Less energy and motivation to be active, cook, clean, or anything else – generally just feeling “blah”
  • You end up getting so hungry before meals that when you do eat, you eat very fast, get too full, and feel unwell.

And that’s not even getting to the question of whether or not an anti-inflammatory diet will reduce your joint pain. It might, or it might not. The research is unclear so far.

We do know, however, that an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, has other great benefits.

So while we can’t say for sure that an anti-inflammatory diet will help your arthritis, we do know it can improve your wellbeing. Remember, you are more than your arthritis.


What is inflammation?

Inflammation helps you heal from injuries and it fights bacteria and viruses in your body. It is an important part of keeping you healthy.

Inflammation can’t sit still, it has to do something. When it starts seeing your own body as a target, you have an inflammatory disease. Spondyloarthritis (inflammatory arthritis) is one type of inflammatory disease.

Inflammation works through messengers. Each messenger brings a different message through your body. There is one for everything that needs to happen in your body, from hunger to heartbeat – including inflammation.

When it comes to inflammation messengers, there are two groups: Pro and Anti. The pro-inflammatory messengers put the system on high alert and increase inflammation. The anti-inflammatory messengers tell your body that everything is a-okay and reduce inflammation.


What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet is a pattern of eating that may reduce chronic inflammation.

The science around this is fairly new, but it is growing. From the research that has been done, it seems some patterns of eating encourage our body to make more of the anti-inflammatory messengers and less of the pro-inflammatory ones.

An anti-inflammatory diet is a pattern of eating that might prevent or reduce chronic inflammation. The overall pattern is what is important, more than any single food choice.

Even the Mediterranean diet, which is the most researched anti-inflammatory diet, includes sweets every now and again.



How do I start an anti-inflammatory diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet is a pattern of eating, and the longer you follow it, the more benefits you’ll see. The anti-inflammatory diet we recommend most is the Mediterranean Diet. It is a well-balanced, delicious way of eating that you can follow, and enjoy, for life.

What we really want is to change our behaviour and build new habits. There is a lot that we can talk about when it comes to behaviour change and habits but the most important thing to know is:

“What works for someone else may not work for you. What works for you may not work for someone else.”

It is a process of trying out different ways to make a habit stick. When something doesn’t work, there are many reasons why that could be. It might not have been right for you. Maybe there is another step you need to take first. Don’t give up. Find another way, or simply try again. But remember, simple doesn’t always mean easy.

Bottom Line

An anti-inflammatory diet won’t be a magic solution, but it could help. It is also full of delicious foods that also help prevent or manage heart disease, diabetes, gut health, and mental health. There are lots of possible benefits, and almost no downsides. Why not try it?

To learn more about what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like – check out our article on the Mediterranean Diet!

Additional Resources:

Diet & cognition in older adults:

The Mediterranean diet found to improve depression:

Nutrition & Mental Health:

Samantha Holmgren, RD

About the author: Samantha Holmgren, RD is a registered dietitian in Northwestern Ontario who has psoriatic arthritis. By day, she is a jack-of-all-trades rural dietitian. Online, she helps people with spondylitis take charge of their life by focusing on self-care: samanthaholmgren.ca

Audrey Boyer

Reviewer: Audrey Boyer, RD is a public health nutritionist and fitness instructor in northern Saskatchewan with ankylosing spondylitis. She is involved in various groups that strive to promote health in the north and across Saskatchewan. She is an involved mom of three active, fun kids and is lucky to live near the lake to enjoy kayaking, boating, hiking, and cross country skiing.