Rumor has it that eating too many tomatoes causes inflammation in the body, which can lead to arthritis symptoms. But are tomatoes really to blame? Should everyone with arthritis swear off the vegetable (or fruit, depending on who you ask)? Good thing you asked because it’s time to officially debunk this myth.
Arthritis is the degeneration and inflammation of the joints that causes uncomfortable symptoms like joint swelling, stiffness, and decreased range of motion. There isn’t a cure for arthritis, but diet *can* play a major role in mitigating inflammation and managing symptoms, says Melinda Ring, MD, an integrative medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine.
“Certain foods are more likely to trigger inflammation in the body,” she says. And while the foods you do or do not eat won't cure or eliminate all your arthritis troubles, they can make an impact.
Read on to see what foods pass the inflammation test, and if tomatoes are in or out.
Is there really a link between tomatoes and inflammation?
In short, no. “There is really minimal scientific data that supports the elimination of tomatoes, or nightshades, by looking at inflammation markers or symptoms,” says Dr. Ring. “It is not an across the board statement that nobody with arthritis should eat them, because in fact, nightshade vegetables are rich in lots of really healthy phytonutrients.”
So, why do tomatoes get such a bad rep? Nightshades, which are a family of plants including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, naturally produce a toxin called solanine, which is long believed to trigger inflammation and joint pain. But there is actually no scientific or medical link between the two. Instead, studies actually show that tomatoes can reduce systemic inflammation, and that solanine does not directly cause inflammation in humans. It's true purpose: to protect plants against animals and harmful fungi.
That being said, people do have individual sensitivities or intolerances to different foods, and tomatoes can potentially trigger arthritis symptoms in some, says Dr. Ring. If you find your joints are extra sore, swollen, or stiff after eating tomatoes (or any food for that matter), try an elimination diet.
“If someone wants to see if they have a reaction to a food, including the nightshade category, eliminate [a specific food] for a couple of weeks,” says Dr. Ring. “Then, add it back into your diet, and see if you notice a different response in terms of pain.”
In other words, if arthritis symptoms disappear or lessen with the elimination of nightshades, it might be your body’s way of telling you to scale back.
Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, but if you experience an immediate or severe reaction to a specific food, it’s time to check-in with your doctor or an allergist. Severe allergies or anaphylactic reactions to nightshades are rare, but if you have trouble breathing, or experience throat swelling or difficulty swallowing, stop eating immediately and seek medical care.
Should you change your diet at all if you have arthritis?
Simply put, yes. Sugar, processed foods, alcohol, charred foods, meats, additives, and gluten can cause inflammatory responses and can sometimes be avoided to minimize arthritis symptoms, says Dr. Ring.
But don’t panic! Certain foods can trigger an inflammatory response for some and not others, so there is not one cure-all eating plan. However, a good rule of thumb for someone with arthritis is a “plant-forward,” Mediterranean diet, that focuses on whole and not processed foods, stresses Dr. Ring.
Certain foods can also help “quench inflammation,” she says, including foods that are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. “Flax seeds, chia seeds, and fish like salmon and sardines, along with vegetables and fruits are rich in antioxidants also help with inflammation in the body,” she says. In addition, turmeric, ginger, green tea, and fermented foods have also been shown to promote a healthy gut, support the body, and lower chronic inflammation, she explains.
But remember that not everyone reacts the same to all foods, and eating habits are extremely personalized. “Ultimately, food should still be something that somebody enjoys and sees as pleasurable and nourishing,” says Dr. Ring. “While we should always be striving to improve our diet, we should also enjoy the food we eat.”
So, what will actually help manage arthritis?
Focus on a plant-rich diet. You don’t necessarily have to be vegan, but a whole food, plant-forward diet can have real benefits when it comes to curbing arthritis symptoms, explains Dr. Ring. “Overall, when we think about supporting the body and lowering chronic inflammation, not just to treat arthritis but also to prevent other diseases, the more plants the better.” Think fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Don’t underestimate the power of lifestyle. Schedules get busy and life gets hectic, but don’t overdo it. “Stress management and getting a good night's sleep also have impacts on inflammation,” says Dr. Ring. Shoot for seven to nine hours of sleep a night, take time for yourself, and give yourself a break. You deserve it and it helps reduce arthritis symptoms. It’s a win-win.
Stay active. “Keep moving to whatever degree that means for you,” says Dr. Ring. Movement actually strengthens the muscles that surround the joints, explains Dr. Ring. Plus, staying active and working on flexibility and mobility not only helps in the short term to reduce pain, but it’s also key for longevity and a lifetime of healthy joints. Walk around the block, bike to work, jog with a friend, or go to a dance class. Have fun with it, your body will thank you.
Talk with your doctor. If you struggle with arthritis and experience painful symptoms, visit your doctor. A primary care physician or rheumatologist can help determine the best treatment plan and course of action for you.
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