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Meat is Bad for Arthritis Sufferers – Fact or Fiction?

A high intake of meat has long been thought to be a risk factor for gout, a type of arthritis that can cause sudden pain, stiffness and swelling in a joint, usually a big toe (1). In addition, there are anecdotal reports suggesting that eating a diet rich in meat might also cause worsening and more frequent joint pain in people with other types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and psoriatic arthritis. But is there any scientific research to back up the claims that meat causes or aggravates arthritis? Let's find out.

Studies on Arthritis and Meat-Free Diets

A study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases suggests that arthritis patients do well on the Mediterranean diet, an eating plan that is characterized by, among other things, a low intake of red meat (2). But there are also studies that have investigated what happens when people with arthritis avoid meat completely, and the results of these studies have been promising.

A study published in The Lancet in 1991 was one of the first studies to link adherence to a meat-free diet to a reduction in arthritis symptoms. The dietary regime used in this controlled trial started with fasting, followed by a vegan diet for 3.5 months, after which dairy products and gluten-containing foods were gradually introduced, and again excluded if they exacerbated RA symptoms. (3)

Another study, published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Rheumatology, compared RA patients who adopted a gluten-free, vegan diet with patients who ate a well-balanced, standard diet. Nearly 41% of the 22 people who adhered to the vegan diet for at least nine months experienced significant improvement in their arthritis symptoms, while only 4% of those in the control group experienced meaningful improvement. (4)

A dietary intervention study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that people with moderate-to-severe rheumatoid arthritis who switched to a low-fat, vegan diet experienced significant reductions in their RA symptoms, with the exception of morning stiffness. This single-blind study involved 24 free-living subjects. (5)

A study published in the journal Arthritis found that a plant-based whole foods diet significantly improved self-assessed measures of functional status among osteoarthritis patients. This 6-week prospective randomized open-label study involved 37 osteoarthritis patients. (6)

Why Eating Meat Might Affect Arthritis Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease, and many epidemiological studies suggest diets high in saturated fat promote inflammation (7) which may partially explain why meat-free diets have been shown to reduce arthritis symptoms in some studies.

But the high amounts of saturated fats found in many meat products are hardly the only reason why there have been concerns over the potential inflammatory properties of red meat. If you have been following discussions about the inflammatory potential of red meat, there is a good chance you have already heard of arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid that the body uses for making hormones called eicosanoids. Research suggests that eicosanoids formed from omega-6 fatty acids (and particularly arachidonic acid) tend to be pro-inflammatory in nature (8).

Another compound that frequently pops up in discussions about the inflammatory nature of red meat is heme iron. It has been proposed that the high amounts of heme iron found in red meat might be problematic because heme iron increases oxidative stress in the body, which in turn promotes inflammation (9). However, studies have found no association between heme iron intake and neither rheumatoid arthritis risk nor polyarthritis risk (10).

Red Meat

Not All Meat is Created Equal: The Case Against Processed Meat Products

Before you draw any conclusions about the pro-inflammatory properties of meat, or claim that all meat is bad for people with arthritis and that only vegan diets are good for arthritis patients, keep in mind that not all meat is equally high in inflammatory compounds. In fact, a Dutch study found that high CRP levels, which are a common clinical biomarker of inflammation, were positively associated with processed meat intake, but not with red meat or poultry intake (11). And, yet another study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, found that when some carbohydrates in the diet were replaced with unprocessed lean red meat, markers of chronic inflammation actually went down (12).

In the light of these findings it is not surprising that many arthritis sufferers have reportedly experienced great results on the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (aka the AIP Diet). Outlined in Sarah Ballantyne's New York Times bestseller The Paleo Approach, the AIP Diet has been specifically designed to help those suffering from autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, to put their condition into remission and re-gain vitality. On this diet, people consume plenty of meat, but only unprocessed, preferably grass-fed meat which typically contains much less fat than conventional meat. (You can read testimonials from arthritis sufferers who have had success on Ballantyne's AIP here, here and here.

Book You May Like
Book on Arthritis and Diet This science-based all-in-one guide by registered dietitian Kim Arrey and practising rheumatologist Dr. Michael Starr explains how specific medications, nutritional supplements, foods, and lifestyle factors affect the pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Packed with invaluable tips and tasty anti-inflammatory recipes and sample menus, this meticulously-researched guide and cookbook is a must-have for all RA-sufferers. To learn more, or to order a copy from your local Amazon store, click here.