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Can Certain Diets Make OA Knee Pain Worse?

10th January 2019

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The number of people experiencing knee pain and being diagnosed with osteoarthritis is increasing. Since this can be a particularly frustrating and debilitating condition, we are eager to share our best advice, tips and tricks that could reduce your pain and improve your mobility.

Diet is an important part of managing both your overall health and also reducing the risk of further exacerbating any existing pain. You have probably already been given advice regarding the particular foods that you should be incorporating into your diet to alleviate pain, but did you know that there are certain foods that could be making your knee condition worse?

Keep reading to find out which foods and ingredients you might want to start avoiding if you are at all concerned that they could be exacerbating your knee pain.

Sugar-Rich Carbohydrates

There is some research to suggest that the types of carbohydrates that can be found in items such as processed confectionary and baked goods could alter the body’s disease immune-response. One of the side effects of the reaction that can occur from the release of cytokines within the body from sugar is exacerbated inflammation, which could leave your already painful joints feeling more sensitive and noticeably weaker.

If you have a sweet tooth, opting for natural substitutes such as honey and pure maple syrup will ensure that you don’t have to give up your sweet treats entirely and will help to reassure you that your penchant for sweets isn’t making your knee pain any more uncomfortable.

Sodium-Rich Foods

Consuming too much salt will cause your cells to retain additional water, resulting in swelling that can quickly feel very uncomfortable. Although your body does need some sodium to function normally, the inflammation from ingesting too much can be a contributing factor to additional joint damage.

If you need to reduce your salt intake, try reaching for lemon zest or garlic pepper to enhance the flavours of your food without sodium.

Foods High in Saturated Fats

Foods including doughnuts and chips are high in saturated fat, which can increase inflammation and exacerbate the discomfort from any existing knee pain you might be experiencing.

Opting for baked rather than fried foods will help you to reduce your saturated fat intake and if you really want to cook with a little bit of oil, choose an avocado or a high-quality olive oil which contains healthy fats that will benefit your body.

Processed Meats

Most processed meat products contain purines and nitrates, which can increase inflammation and contribute to joint pain. You might find it beneficial to avoid items such as sausages, bacon, corned beef and hot dogs, and instead, choose lean meats purchased from a trusted retailer specialising in fresh cuts.

Refined Wheat Products

White bread, refined pasta and some cereals and grains can stimulate an inflammatory response in the body and cause your knee pain to flare up. Choosing whole grain options wherever possible is highly recommended, but it is also important to note that some whole grain gluten-rich products and certain yeast additives can also increase pain in some people.

Foods Rich in Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Advice from the Harvard Medical School recommends limiting your intake of omega-6 rich foods including red meat and egg yolks if you are experiencing any form of joint pain. Switching to omega-3 rich foods such as almonds, beans and salmon will ensure that you get the correct amount of protein without aggravating any joint issues.

If you are reluctant to give up eggs completely, try to just cook with the egg whites rather than the yolks which contain inflammation-triggering arachidonic acid.

Dairy Products

There is some evidence to suggest that the casein found in dairy products can worsen inflammation and joint irritation in some people. If you think your body might be triggering this response to dairy products, try switching out animal milk for a substitute containing healthy fats such as almond or flax milk.


Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common additive in items such as soy sauce, soup mixes and ready meals and it can cause additional inflammation and worsen knee pain when consumed regularly. Other additives can have a similar effect, so you might also find avoiding aspartame and carrageenan improves your knee pain as well.

Foods That Won’t Help, But Likely Won’t Harm Either

Although the Internet is undoubtedly an excellent resource, it is also important to remember that not every piece of advice you will find online is provided by trained professionals or supported by medical research. Here are a few foods that some have recommended for alleviating joint pain symptoms, but there is currently no evidence to suggest that they are effective:

The raw-food diet

The alkaline diet

Collagen, pectin and gelatine

Apple cider vinegar

Some people also believe that avoiding vegetables from the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines, will relieve some of the symptoms of joint pain. There is currently no evidence to suggest that this is the case, however increasing your intake of leafy greens such as kale, spinach and broccoli can be beneficial.

A Few Suggestions for Simple Dietary Swaps

It can be a daunting task to alter your diet, which is why we recommend keeping a food diary to help you to identify the foods that could be making your knee pain worse. If, for example, you find that potatoes cause additional inflammation, you might find that eating more nutrient-rich greens and exotic fruits mitigates your symptoms.

Here are a few more simple dietary swaps that you could make to vary your diet and improve your knee pain:

Eat fewer eggs and less dairy and red meat. Eat more oily fish, lean meats, tofu and plant-based nut milks.

Eat less white pasta, rice and baked goods. Eat more whole grains, beans and pulses.

Eat fewer processed and fried foods. Eat more healthy fats (avocados, nuts and seeds) and cook with coconut or olive oil.

Some Key Takeaways to Remember

You will likely need to work through a period of trial and error to discover whether any of your current dietary choices are negatively impacting your knee pain, however the potential benefits that can come from finding the right diet for you make this process more than worth the effort and experimentation required. Fundamentally, however, it is important to:

Ensure that you are eating a balanced diet and are doing as much physical activity as you can manage.

Avoid refined and processed foods, as these often contain high levels of trans-fats, empty carbohydrates, additional salt and sugar.

Introduce a variety of vegetables and fruits into your diet as these contain important vitamins and minerals, some of which are antioxidants that might help to reduce joint irritation and inflammation.

Additionally, taking the time to understand how to accurately read nutritional labels on food packaging will help you to ensure that you are receiving the correct combination and amounts of nutrients each day and are avoiding consuming too many unhealthy fats sugars and excess salt.

There is a lot of truth in the old adage that we are what we eat, so try to make sure that you are making the best dietary choices that will help you to both eat well and live well.

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