Whether you're 23 or 73, you’ll deal with some joint aches and pains at some point. According to a national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30% of adults over 18 reported having joint pain within the past month. Ouch.
Joint pain has many causes, but it's often a symptom of arthritis, an umbrella term for more than 100 conditions that cause joint pain, stiffness, and inflammation. In young, active guys, arthritis typically shows up because of a old sports injuries, like a dislocated joint or a torn ligament.
Medications that ward off and slow the progression of joint damage and inflammation are commonly prescribed to decrease pain. However, researchers have found that foods with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties can be effective additions to pain management plans.
Here, two of New York University Langone Medical Center’s top rheumatologists (docs who treat arthritis and other joint diseases) tell us which joint-friendly foods are worth eating—plus, delicious ideas for incorporating them into your daily diet.
Berries have a lot of nutrients and contain anthocyanins, antioxidant compounds that fight inflammation and give the fruit its deep, rich hue, explains Natalie Azar, M.D., clinical assistant professor of rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Berries are also a good source of ellagic acid, another antioxidant that helps decrease inflammation that exacerbates joint pain.”
How to Eat It: Add berries to hot or cold cereal, smoothies, Greek yogurt, or whip up a Low-Carb Berry Crisp for the week ahead. Simply reheat in the A.M. for a grab-and-go breakfast.
Nuts are loaded with healthy fats and antioxidants that help the body fight off and repair damage caused by inflammation, says Azar. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that over a 15-year period, those who consumed the most nuts had a 51% lower risk of dying from an inflammatory disease compared to participants who ate the fewest nuts.
How to Eat It: Dress up your morning oatmeal with a handful of your favorite nuts, along with cinnamon and chopped apples. Not into hot cereal? Munch on some homemade Smoked Almonds instead.
Thanks to their vitamin A and beta-carotene, orange vegetables are strong inflammation fighters, explains Brian D. Golden, M.D., clinical associate professor of rheumatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. “These veggies are also rich in beta-cryptoxanthin, which may ward off inflammation-related disorders like rheumatoid arthritis.”
How to Eat It: On a baking pan, combine baby carrots, a cubed butternut squash, and a few sliced sweet potatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and spices and bake in a 400-degree oven until soft and slightly browned.
“Vegetables like kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, spinach, and broccoli are packed with antioxidants that may help ward off arthritis, slow its progression, and help lessen the associated pain,” says Azar. What makes these vegetables so powerful? “They’re rich in sulforaphane, a compound that may block enzymes linked to joint destruction and inflammation.”
Oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are rich in joint healthy omega-3 fatty acids “which help reduce joint pain and stiffness by suppressing the production of enzymes that erode cartilage and proteins that regulate inflammation,” explains Golden.
How to Eat Top whole-grain toast with pre-packaged smoked salmon, a fried egg, and some onions. Or cook mackerel fillets with olive oil, garlic, and lemon. Or toss sardines into an Greek salad of romaine, tomato, cucumber, red peppers, olives, and feta.
This sweet fruit contains quercetin, an antioxidant that may keep arthritis and its associated pain at bay, explains Azar. It’s also rich in anthocyanins, strong anti-inflammatory compounds that are responsible for giving red apples their hue.
How to Eat It: For a delicious, crunchy twist on lunchtime classic, add apple slices, your favorite cheese, and some Dijon mustard to a whole-wheat turkey sandwich.
Onions are also a good source quercetin. In a 2006 study published in Biological Pharmacology, researchers reported that consuming quercetin orally decreased arthritis symptoms in mice. While the results of animal experiments don’t guarantee the same outcomes in humans, the study suggests that the antioxidant may be a beneficial treatment for inflammatory diseases, and more research is warranted, says Golden. In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to add some onions to your diet.
Similar to drugs like ibuprofen, turmeric, rich in the inflammation-fighting antioxidant curcumin, may help ease arthritis pain and swelling by blocking the effects of pro-inflammatory enzymes and chemical pain messengers, says Azar.
This leafy green herb has been used in India and Europe for centuries to treat inflammation and joint pain. Eugenol, the enzyme responsible for basil’s sweet scent, is “a strong anti-inflammatory that suppresses the activity of cyclooxygenase—the enzyme that forms the lipid mediators that cause inflammatory responses in the body,” notes Golden.
How to Eat It: Fresh or dried, basil can easily be incorporated into a variety of meals. Add it to omelets, pasta, meat, and vegetable dishes. Use a variety called holy basil to reap the most pain-fighting benefits.
As Azar explains, The Tin Man may not be the only one whose joints can benefit from a bit of oil. Extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO, contains antioxidants called polyphenols that protect the body from inflammation, taming aches and pains. A 2005 study published in the journal Nature also found that the oil contains oleocanthal, a naturally occurring phenolic compound that prevents the production of pro-inflammatory enzymes.
How to Eat It: According to the study, about 3 1/2 tablespoons of EVOO is equivalent to a 200-mg tablet of ibuprofen. Try making an olive oil based salad dressing, or brushing it on meats or vegetables before cooking.
If you typically leave ginger behind on your sushi plate, you may be missing out on one of nature’s strongest anti-inflammatories. The spice, traditionally used to relieve stomach aches, eases joint pain by blocking several genes and enzymes that promote inflammation and discomfort, explains Golden.
How to Eat It: This versatile, flavorful root can be added to stir-fry, soup, or even green juice.