A Modified Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet Was Necessary to Manage My Rheumatoid Arthritis
Center for Nutritional Studies – Updated for November 2021
Author: Jill Edwards, MS, CEP
In December 2020, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Prior to that, I’d spent many years dealing with chronic pain and fatigue. It wasn’t until I was unable to walk and use my hands that I decided to see a doctor. My primary care physician referred me to a rheumatologist, who initially had a hard time diagnosing me because my markers for inflammation were low. After a series of tests, I was eventually diagnosed with seronegative rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Most people with RA have seropositive RA. This means that they have a substance known as anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies, or rheumatoid factor, in their blood. When a person has RA without also having these antibodies, the condition is instead known as seronegative RA.
The symptoms of seronegative RA are similar to those of seropositive RA.
- Tenderness, swelling, and redness in the joints on both sides of the body.
- Stiffness, especially in the hands, knees, ankles, hips, and elbows.
- Stiffness in the morning that lasts for longer than 30 minutes.
- Persistent inflammation.
In the early stages of the condition, these symptoms tend to affect the hands and feet. In time, however, they can start to affect other joints. Progression can often lead to a diagnosis of a different condition, such as osteoarthritis or psoriatic arthritis.
So what could I do to slow the progression? My rheumatologist suggested that before we try traditional RA medication that we explore lifestyle changes. She suggested that I adopt a gluten-free plant-based diet. Fantastic!… However, I was already on a gluten-free plant-based diet and still felt lousy every day. At that point, I felt defeated and wondered if I was doomed by my genetics. I have been vegan since 2010, whole food, plant-based since 2012, and gluten-free since 2018. For years, I ate a varied plant-based diet, exercised 6 days a week, got 7-8 hours of sleep most nights, and — still — I was riddled with daily joint pain and chronic fatigue. Every morning when I woke up, I felt like I had been hit by a bus!
While it is important to acknowledge that diet can play a huge role in health, it’s crucial to admit that a blanketed whole food, plant-based diet is not a silver bullet for every health condition.
My doctor stated that my gluten-free, plant-based diet was a fantastic start and was the reason that my inflammatory markers were so low. She advised me that even healthy plant-based foods (in addition to lack of sleep, stress, and hormones) could be triggers for RA.
My doctor stated that my gluten-free, plant-based diet was a fantastic start and was the reason that my inflammatory markers were so low. She advised me that even healthy plant-based foods (in addition to lack of sleep, stress, and hormones) could be triggers for RA. She suggested that we take a deeper dive into what I was eating and advised me to keep a 10-day food/drink journal. For 10 days, I tracked everything I consumed and noted my pain and fatigue level.
To my surprise, I was quickly able to see patterns of certain foods that triggered joint pain and fatigue. My biggest triggers: oats and grain flour. Oats in any form — rolled, steel-cut, flour — caused instant bloat followed by joint pain a few hours later. I noticed that I could eat brown rice with no issues; however, brown rice flour in gluten-free bread sent my pain through the roof. I felt great after eating corn on the cob, but corn flour noodles left me unable to use my hands. Other food/drink triggers included nightshade vegetables (white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers) and caffeine (even decaf black tea). I also noticed I felt better when I intermittently fasted (16 hours) and ate 50% raw.
By removing oats, grain flour, nightshades, and caffeine and implementing intermittent fasting and more raw foods, my condition significantly improved. I am currently using diet as my only “medicine” to manage my RA. I am confident that the long-term effects of my new modified whole food, plant-based diet could help to reduce my RA disease activity and delay my disease progression. I share my story in hopes of helping others create their own success story with nutrition. While a varied, whole food, plant-based diet is advantageous for general health, some modifications within the diet might be necessary to achieve individual optimal health.