Rheumatoid Arthritis, Diet, and Paleo

Arthritis | The Paleo Diet
It’s often times a diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), or another disease which proves to be the pivot point for individuals to make significant changes to their eating and exercise habits. Whether the change stems from obvious reasons, like losing weight because obesity has been the causal agent for developing type 2 diabetes, or per the advice of their physicians to cut out gluten and dairy following an autoimmune diagnosis, these steps are reactive versus proactive.

If we were to exercise daily and eat foods that set us up for health, rather than sickness in the first place, would we be able to determine our destiny? Clearly, we can take preventative measures to lower our risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes by leading an active lifestyle, veering away from the typical, highly refined Standard American Diet (SAD), and implementing a Paleo diet.

But what about minimizing our risk for autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) with diet? Science suggests it’s looking quite promising.

Two studies presented at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in San Francisco show diet can significantly lower our chance for developing RA.1 RA is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, creating inflammation that causes the tissue lining of the joints to thicken, resulting in swelling and pain in and around the joint.2

For those following a Paleo regime, inflammation is hardly a foreign term, and you’re familiar with the notion that avoiding certain foods can help offset symptoms dramatically.3 But how does this scientifically factor into RA treatment or minimize risk altogether?

In the first study, researchers found “typical Western diets high in red meat, processed meat, refined grains, fried food, high-fat dairy, and sweets can increase a person’s risk of developing RA in comparison to Prudent diets (a diet low in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium which aid in lowering cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels and blood pressure)4 made mostly of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry and fish.”

The second study found that “following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can also lower one’s chances of developing the disease because they provide authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.”

How was this measured? By using the Alternate Healthy Eating Index, created to measure how well participants followed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, researchers observed associations of the subjects’ diets and their likelihood of developing RA. The researchers noted those who best adhered to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans had a 33% reduced risk of developing RA when compared to those who did not follow the guidelines as closely. And, just as in the first study, the researchers noted that body mass index may be a modest intermediate factor linking diet and risk of RA.

A few questions arise. If the sole means of data collection was to review and analyze what the participants reported to eat, how accurate can the findings really be? Were findings measured upon accountability and how can we be sure participants didn’t take the liberty of “cleaning up” their food log entries, energy levels, or sleep patterns?

A colleague of mine joked in reference to a new client who’d touted the benefits of a new fad diet, “any eating plan is going to ‘work’ in comparison to what one did before, because before, they didn’t have one!”

Researchers state “the single-nutrient approach may be inadequate for taking into account complicated interactions among nutrients, and high levels of inter-correlation makes it difficult to examine their separate effects.” So grouping all foods into  one lump category (recall the list: “diets high in red meat, processed meat, refined grains, fried food, high-fat dairy, and sweets”) doesn’t differentiate between high quality, grass fed meats, from the corn-fed beef. Nor does the “diet made mostly of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry and fish” distinguish the effects of antinutrients contained in legumes and grains,5 or the glycemic load of eating too much fruit.6

While I do agree that a healthy diet may prevent RA development, it’s a matter of deciphering what actually comprises a healthy diet. And from everything I’ve read and seen over the past decade, I certainly don’t need further convincing that a real Paleo diet can be the remedy to addressing a diagnosis of RA. By eating a diet rich in alkaline, anti-inflammatory foods, the body is armed with its best defenses and most equipped to stay diseases free for a healthy, long life!


1. “Diet May Determine Your Risk for Rheumatoid Arthritis.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015

2. “What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?” What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis? Arthritis Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015

3. Wahls, Terry L., and Eve Adamson. The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print

4. “What Is the Prudent Diet?” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 30 June 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015

5. Stephenson, Nell. “Antinutrients, the Antithesis of True Paleo | The Paleo Diet.” The Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015

6. “Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load | The Paleo Diet | Dr. Loren Cordain.” The Paleo Diet. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015

About Nell Stephenson, B.S.

Nell Stephenson, B.S.Nell Stephenson is a competitive Ironman athlete, personal trainer, and a health and nutrition consultant. She has an exercise science degree from the University of Southern California, a health/fitness instructor certification from the American College of Sports Medicine, and over a decade in the health, fitness and nutrition industry. To support her training for the Ironman Triathlon, Nell has tried many different nutritional plans and has found that the Paleo Diet is superior to all other ways of eating. She’s found that she’s leaner, faster, and fitter than ever before and uses her own experience to teach clients how to achieve optimal nutrition and health. Visit her website at paleoista.com. Download meal plans tailored to you here.

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“9” Comments

  1. I am new to this site, so please bare with me. I have 5 auto-immune diseases including Ankylosing Spondylitis and Psoriatic Arthrits. I am 58 years old now, and the AS started when I was a teen, so I have been battling these damn things for almost 45 years. My question is: I have always been told that my diseases were genetic, i.e., I was born with a specific gene (in my case they even know the exact gene marker—HLA-b27) and that it predisposes me to these auto-immume diseases. But just b/c a person has the gene, they are not guarenteed to get the disease—something triggers it. They know that a lot of different things can trigger it: things like strep or staph bacteria can do it, as can an injury, or alcohol abuse, malnutrition, even pregnancy—can trigger it. But I was also taught that once it is triggered, there is no going back, you will always have the disease. And in my case, they were right—my diseases have continued, pretty much non-stop, since. My joints are ruined (the AS calcifies the connective tissues and eventually the joint fuses. My back is completly fused, as is a shoulder, an elbow, rib cage, and neck. The Psoriatic Arthritis is more like Rhuematoid, it destroys the synovium, which destroys the joint from the inside out.) Every joint in my body has been affected except my fingers and toes. But inflammation can get into many different body parts—my eyes get inflammed (Irtis and Uviitis), my skin (psoriais), my salivary glands (Sjogren’s Syndrome) and now is starting in my lungs!
    Over the years, I have tried many, many diets that claimed to “anti-inflammatory,” but none of them worked. I am interested in trying the Paleo diet to see if it helps. Any suggestions on getting started?

    • In 2008 I got strep throat. Never had it before. I couldn’t get rid of it. 3 rounds of antibiotics. 3 months later I was diagnosed with RA. I always felt after the strep throat I was never right.. This is the first time I saw this in print. Thanks, janet

  2. I am 81 yrs. alive. Until I “went” Paleo I had arthritis in my hands, right knee, and right shoulder. I had to give up jogging and most physical activities. Thanks to my wife (who is a lot smarter than me) I now eat a very low carb paleo diet. In addition to my way of eating, I now stretch A LOT every day, especially after working out. The result (which took about 6 months) is that I now work-out 5 to 7 days per week: power walk, lift fairly heavy weights, some jogging, hill climbing; I go downhill skiing (snow) about 1 week every month that there is snow, and the best part is that I do NOT have pains anywhere, although I do get sore muscles sometimes when I do really hard weight lifting.

    There are other benefits also (big smile).

    I have learned that the following are the path to live a long and happy life: daily, eat the best food you can–in the fewest words that means Paleo; have a drink or two; exercise almost every day; have lots of sex; have lots of friends. (And, If you are religious go to church and be active therein)

    Get a good pet–dog preferably.

    There is more that makes a difference, but these are the main things.

    Live Long & Enjoy Life!

  3. I have endometriosis and used to have very bad pain that would come with the start of my period and end about 12 days later just to start up again with my next cycle. Alieve helped for awhile with the pain but I eventually developed a resistance to it. Upon giving up MEAT, including fish which contains alot of mercury and chemicals from plastics, my pain completely went away. I am now a vegan, and I do eat alot of nuts, seeds, lentils, beans,tofu, quinoa, grains, fruits, and veggies and I do still consume quite a bit of sugar – but still no pain without MEAT.

  4. The reason that I started the Paleo Diet three years ago was that I had read that it could help with arthritis. I had had it in my right hand for years and more recently in both shoulders. Needless to say it has gone away now. I got my brother onto the Paleo Diet about a month ago for his inflammatory problems. Just last week he told me that the pain in his hands had already decreased by about fifty percent. Anyone still not convinced to the effectiveness of this way of nutrition should have a look at a video on YouTube called Minding your Mitochondria by Dr. Terry Wahls. Her story is quite amazing.

  5. Nell, you’re absolutely right, it’s time to talk about species appropriate food and starting to plan real studies about a real Paleo diet. But I’m really scared because most studies are now founded by the lobbies. It takes real studies without biased funding, like Monsanto, Nestle, milk mustaches etc…otherwise we’ll always be trapped into the “healthy fiber whole grains, legumes and high calcium dairy for strong bones”…the well known craps

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