8 Women Share The Diet Changes They Made To Get Their Rheumatoid Arthritis Under Control
An estimated 1.5 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, and it can sometimes feel like there are just as many theories about how to manage its symptoms. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Ashley Boynes-Shuck, who’s been living with RA for two decades. But many patients credit dietary changes, either in addition to or instead of medication, with turning their lives around. Here, 8 of them share exactly how they ate to help keep their symptoms in check. (Repeat after us: No more dieting. Ever. Instead, learn how to eat clean—with zero deprivation!—and watch the pounds drop off, with Your Metabolism Makeover.)
“I cut back on dairy.”
“Years before being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I learned that I was lactose intolerant. I used to cheat on occasion, but I realized that when I steered clear of dairy I also had dramatically less joint pain. I completely refrained from dairy for years, but I’ve recently learned more about my sensitivity and have loosened my restrictions a bit. (Regular low-fat and skim milk is still off-limits.)
I also stay away from gluten and eat clean, whole, organic foods whenever possible because it’s hard to keep tabs on what you’re getting in processed foods. When I relax my habits, I get achy, feel feverish, and have pain. But I immediately go back to eating clean, and the symptoms go away.”
—Carolyn Harrington, 55, Pittsford, NY
“I adapted the ‘Autoimmune Protocol’ to fit my needs.”
“After two years of RA pain and lack of mobility in my right arm, I found out about the Autoimmune Protocol. A Paleo-based diet, it’s designed to calm the immune system, reduce inflammation, and promote healing in the gut. I was already gluten-, dairy-, soy-, and egg-free for hypothyroidism and other health reasons, but AIP also eliminates all grains, nightshades, nuts, and seeds. (Think your thyroid is out of whack? Here are 16 signs it could be.)
Tweaking the AIP to meet your personal needs is important, though. After doing allergy testing and going through some trial and error, I realized that I was sensitive to some of my staples on the AIP, particularly coconut and citrus fruits, so I eliminated those. On the flipside, I was able to reintroduce nuts, seeds, and chocolate. (Yeah!) A lot of people don’t realize that AIP in its strictest form is not meant to last forever. Once your system has calmed down some, you can ideally recognize which foods you can tolerate.
I’ve continued to eat this way—mostly vegetables with some local, pastured meats and a little fruit, plus occasional nuts, seeds, and chocolate—and have managed to control my RA without medication, except for an occasional Aleve.”
—Meredith Hutter Chamorro, 47, Dingmans Ferry, PA
Prevention Premium: 9 Highly Effective Solutions For Fibromyalgia
“I experimented with collagen and silica.”
“I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since age 10. I’m 33 now, so I’ve had plenty of time to test out different dietary approaches. I track what I’m eating and symptoms in an app to try and notice patterns. Right now, I’m trying a diet high in protein and healthy fats, and I incorporate anti-inflammatory items (like ginger turmeric tea). I avoid gluten, too, because I also have celiac disease.
Recently, I’ve started consuming foods high in silica (like bananas, cucumbers, raisins, and oats) as well as collagen-boosting foods (like unflavored bone broth, red and dark green vegetables, fish, white tea, aloe water, and berries). Both collagen and silica are alleged to restore vitality, elasticity, and strength to bones and joints, and they seem to be helping a little. For me, none of it is a ‘magic cure,’ and I still take medication.”
—Ashley Boynes-Shuck, 33, Pittsburgh
“I cut out inflammatory foods.”
“After months of pain that was so bad I could barely walk, a blood test confirmed that I had RA. I was prescribed prednisone—and within three days I was virtually pain-free. I was so grateful, but I knew this was not a long-term solution: It made me gain a lot of weight, my face was bloated, and I’d heard about the mood swings that can result from taking this steroid long-term.
My neuropath told me that gluten, dairy, and refined sugars are the main culprits that lead to inflammation, so I eliminated them from my diet one by one. Initially, it didn’t seem to matter. At the time I was taking methotrexate, which left me nauseous, and I was weaning myself off prednisone, so the pain was creeping back in. I remember saying, ‘If I’m going to be in pain anyway, I might as well eat a sandwich.’ A week later, I got so sick I ended up in the ER.
I decided to eliminate gluten, dairy, and sugar again and started a new medication, Enbrel, which I still take today. I wish that were the end, but a few months later, I began thinking, ‘Maybe the Enbrel is what’s addressing the pain, not diet.’ So I went back to some of my old eating habits, and soon enough I needed prednisone again.
Since then, I’ve replaced my comfort foods with things like gluten-free, dairy-free Daiya Cheezy Mac. I snack on popcorn and eat sushi. Thank goodness potatoes do not contain gluten—I can eat French fries!
Changing my diet has been one of the hardest experiences of my life, and I haven’t been perfect. Sometimes I say, ‘One slice of pizza won’t hurt.’ But it does, almost immediately.”
—Erin Haggan, 39, Norwich, CT
“Weight loss was key.”
“I didn’t change my diet specifically to treat my RA; I went on a low-carb, high-protein, anti-inflammatory diet to lose weight. I’d always struggled with weight a little, but when I was diagnosed with RA, I was prescribed a high dose of prednisone and put on weight very quickly. My doctors said the prednisone-related weight would come off after I stopped taking the drug, but it didn’t. With the joint pain associated with RA, I knew I had to shed some pounds and ease the pressure on my joints.
I followed a medically-supervised program that emphasized ‘real’ foods and limited sugar and carbohydrates. I lost 50 pounds in 5 months, followed by 20 more, which took longer. I’ve always been pretty active, so it was important to me to keep moving. I took up Pilates and started doing 5 to 6 mile walks, which helped with both the mental and physical sides of the disease.
As a former Chicagoan, I will always make room in my diet for pizza, but within a month of eating more protein and fewer carbs the pain had diminished quite a bit. Getting the pressure off my knees meant that I could exercise more, which helped with everything. I recently did a 50-mile walk to raise awareness for MS and went to Europe for 6 weeks. When I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t have imagined myself being able to do that amount of movement!”
—Karen Korr, 40, San Diego
“I embraced a traditional Colombian diet.”
“Twelve years ago, swelling in my hands and wrists, followed by pain in my shoulders, knees, and ankles led to a diagnosis of RA and another autoimmune disorder, Sjogren’s syndrome. Around the same time, I also experienced a lot of GI disturbances thanks to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Medication was helping with the RA pain, but I was hoping for a solution that would help me manage all of my symptoms.
So about two years ago, I looked to my Colombian roots: I gave up my Western diet and embraced home cooking with whole foods and fewer preservatives. Red meat and glasses of milk—which can be pro-inflammatory—are no longer part of my diet, and I only consume poultry once or twice a week. Instead, fish, eggs, and pulses are my main sources of protein. (Not sure what pulses are? Read this.) Other staples include flax and chia seeds, extra virgin olive oil, and gluten-free whole grains. I also use a lot of spices and avoid alcohol due to the high risk of inflammation in the liver, particularly while taking methotrexate. I haven’t completely eliminated dairy, but I only consume it a few times a week.
Sometimes, it’s hard to follow a strict diet, even though I’m a dietitian! When I need help, I seek out online arthritis support groups like CreakyJoints, which I volunteer with. Having a community of people dealing with the same issues keeps me motivated.”
—Cristina Montoya, 34, Toronto
“I studied my food sensitivities.”
“I was diagnosed with RA in 2003 and spent the next 11 years on some combination of methotrexate and immunosuppressants. I also took Aleve every day, yet I still had muscle and joint pain and I was always exhausted. I had to do something.
I met a functional medicine doctor who addresses autoimmune diseases. He ordered very specific blood tests to look for deficiencies and surpluses that many conventional doctors do not address. The tests also helped me identify which foods and substances I’m sensitive to.
I learned that I had adrenal and magnesium insufficiencies, and that my body reacted very negatively to garlic. Chicken, cabbage, brussels sprouts, beans, and sardines, were also problematic, as my body perceives these foods as a foreign and creates an inflammatory response—which is a big part of RA pain. So I eliminated these, in addition to going on a gluten-free, Paleo diet and taking some supplements. I am just 3 months in, but I haven’t felt this good in years. I’ve been off all my meds since the summer, yet I have more stamina than ever and no muscle or joint pain!”
—Frances Horning, 54, Clifton, NJ
“I started taking probiotics.”
“After 4 years of severe joint pain, I was diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases, one of them being rheumatoid arthritis. I spent the next 4 years trying various medications, but the side effects—including severe neuropathy, nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea—were sometimes worse than the actual RA symptoms.
I decided to try something else. I went to see a holistic doctor, slowly got off all the medications, and began a Paleo diet. (I love Danielle Walker’s Paleo cookbook Against All Grain.) I also started taking a probiotic because scientists have been finding evidence linking gut health issues and autoimmune disorders. Plus, my gut had been so irritated from all the medications I was on before my diet change that it needed to heal.
Now I eat lots of meat, fish, veggies, and fruits. I cook with turmeric, which helps with inflammation, and I also use lots of garlic and onion, which boost the immune system. I do occasionally eat something that is not Paleo-friendly, but my body usually responds with pain and inflammation.
It takes a lot of time to plan meals and cook, and my grocery bill has gone up—but I no longer have the medical bills I once had. On a few hard days, I still experience fatigue and pain. But the symptoms are tolerable, don’t last as long as they used to, and are nowhere near as bad as the ones I had before.”
—Beth Hinojosa, 36, Corpus Christi, TX