Hippocrates said long ago “Let food be thy medicine.” Unfortunately, the standard American diet consists of highly processed, addictive foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and refined sugar. This diet is greatly contributing to disease and death in America today. The two biggest killers in America, heart disease and cancer, can be largely prevented or reversed by avoiding the standard American diet and instead consuming primarily a diet rich in whole, plant foods. I am a big fan of Dr. Michael Greger’s work on studying diet and its impact on various diseases. Dr. Greger has a team of researchers that gather, study, and summarize free of charge the findings of thousands of high level scientific studies published in English language journals on how nutrition affects a myriad of health conditions. He publishes his findings on his website, www.nutritionfacts.org. This is an excellent source of scientifically backed advice on what diet or foods are best to treat a variety of diseases. In this article, I wanted to summarize some of Dr. Greger’s work on how we can better control the symptoms of arthritis with food.


Unfortunately, most people in the United States consume less than half of the recommended intake of daily dietary fiber. Fiber intake is critical to good health, as it lowers cholesterol and blood sugar and improves immune function. Fiber also has significant anti-inflammatory effects. Fiber is only found in plant foods. The best sources of fiber are found in root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Beans and lentils are also abundant sources of fiber as are whole grains such as whole wheat, brown rice, and quinoa. When you eat that bean burrito for dinner, your good gut bacteria thrive on the fiber found in the beans and in turn release butyrate into your bloodstream, a compound that seems to “exert broad anti-inflammatory activities.” In one study, researchers found that “significant decreases in the prevalence of inflammation were associated with increasing dietary fiber intakes.” Moreover, the group of people getting just the minimum recommended daily intake of fiber had decreased inflammation.

If you suffer from knee pain, should you eat more fiber-rich foods? “Dietary Fiber Intake in Relation to Knee Pain Trajectory” is a study that followed thousands of patients. Researchers found that those people who consumed the recommended intake of fiber, had “a lower risk of developing moderate or severe knee pain over time.” What’s more, two large and highly respected Framingham studies found that higher fiber intake was related to a lower risk of having symptomatic osteoarthritis in the first place. As an added benefit, researchers found that, compared with those who consumed the least amount of fiber, those who consumed the most had 23 percent less cardiovascular disease mortality, a 17 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, and 23 percent lower mortality from all causes put together.


Strawberries, blueberries, and other berries are rich in anti-oxidants, and arthritis is an oxidative process. A randomized, double-blind cross-over trial showed that consuming strawberries had a significant pain relieving effect. Berries were shown to decrease inflammatory mediators as much as expensive drugs without the side effects. Moreover, eating berries on a regular basis, leads to further decreases in inflammation over time.

Topical Olive Oil

A double-blind, randomized, clinical trial comparing the application of topical virgin olive oil versus a gel containing an ibuprofen-type drug for osteoarthritis of the knee was done. One group of patients applied less than a quarter teaspoon of olive oil, three times a day to their knees, while another group of patients applied a topical anti-inflammatory drug to their knees. Topical olive oil was significantly better than the drug in reducing pain. In another study, the effectiveness of olive oil in controlling morning inflammatory pain in the fingers and knees among women with rheumatoid arthritis also showed that those who applied olive oil to their arthritic joints experienced better pain relief than those who applied an ibuprofen-type gel to their joints


A study in 2001 showed that taking ginger was “able to reduce pain and disability in osteoarthritis.” Ginger was found to be as pain-relieving as ibuprofen, but without the risk of stomach ulcers that ibuprofen can cause.


Curcumin is a component in the spice Tumeric. In one study, “forty-five patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were randomized into three groups”—curcumin, the standard of care drug, or both. The outcomes assessed were a reduction in disease activity, as well as a reduction in joint tenderness and swelling. All three groups got better, but interestingly, the curcumin groups showed the highest percentage of improvement—significantly better than those in the drug group. “The findings are significant, demonstrating that curcumin alone was not only safe and effective, but was surprisingly more effective in alleviating pain compared” than the leading drug of choice—all without any apparent adverse side effects. In fact, curcumin appeared protective, given that there were more adverse reactions in the drug group than the combined drug and curcumin group. In contrast to the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, curcumin has no gastrointestinal side effects, and may even protect the lining of the stomach.

Plant Based Diet

In a famous 13-month long randomized controlled trial of plant-based diets for rheumatoid arthritis, patients were put on a vegan diet for three and a half months, and then switched to an egg-free lacto-vegetarian diet for the remainder of the study. Compared to the control group, who didn’t change their diet at all, the plant-based group had a significant improvement in morning stiffness within the first month, cutting the number of hours they suffered from joint stiffness in half. Pain dropped from five out of ten down to less than three out of ten. Patients reported subjectively feeling better, significant improvement in their grip strength in their hands, fewer tender joints, less tenderness per joint, and less swelling, with the added benefit of losing about 13 pounds and keeping most of that weight off throughout the year. They also had a drop in inflammatory markers in their blood, such as a reduction in their erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein, and white blood cell count.


Preliminary data suggests fasting may benefit metabolic diseases, pain syndromes, high blood pressure, chronic inflammatory diseases, allergic diseases, and psychosomatic disorders, but the highest level of evidence we have for the benefits of fasting are in regard to autoimmune inflammatory joint diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. In one fasting study, ten different measures of inflammation significantly decreased after patients fasted and subsequently adopting a meat- and egg-free diet, whereas none of the parameters changed in those patients that continued to eat their regular diets. Moreover, this decrease of inflammation translated into a significant reduction in pain, morning stiffness, loss of grip strength, and number of tender and swollen joints.

In summary, I encourage all of my patients to incorporate more whole plant foods into their diet, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Your joints will thank you.

Rediscover your inner athlete

Dr. Cunningham specializes in the treatment of knee, shoulder, and sports injuries.