This post is brought to you by Reyzan Shali, a primary care physician, practicing in the San Diego area. Please visit her website for more information and other health-related articles.
A patient was scheduled to get an injection for her knee, but when she showed up for the appointment, she didn’t want her shot. She said that she didn’t need it. The doctor asked her how she overcame the pain she was having. The patient said that she started eating cleaner, and the pain went away on its own.
With shots being an all-too-common solution for osteoarthritis management, it makes me think about how something as fundamental as the food you eat can have a real impact on your health. I’m all for helping my patients find ways to alleviate their symptoms through research-backed nutrition advice.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 32.5 million US adults have osteoarthritis (OA).
The signs and symptoms of OA include:
- Pain or aching – In my opinion, this translates to using lots of painkillers, which can have serious consequences (including overdose)
- Stiffness – Patients always ask, “Why is it taking me longer and longer to loosen up?”
- Decreased range of motion (flexibility) – I’ll hear, “It’s getting harder and harder for me to clean my house, to take care of my garden. I can’t reach for the upper kitchen cabinets.”
- Swelling (edema) – I’ll hear, “I had to cut my ring off because it was stuck on my swollen finger,” or, “I can’t wear my ring because it doesn’t fit anymore.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Mediterranean food and appreciate the myriad of scientific studies that demonstrate its benefits. In this blog post, I will share what the scientific community has to say about OA and the Mediterranean diet (MDiet).
First up, I found a study on the benefits of olives. In a 2017 study published in Nutrients, researchers found that olive oil and its polyphenols (organic compounds) can potentially treat OA. Olives have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, which are two major benefits of this delicious fruit. Yes, olives are fruit. In the first two human studies mentioned, study participants applied ointment or virgin olive oil to their aching knee and hand joints for 2-4 weeks. Overall, participants experienced less pain. While the studies were limited, researchers concluded that olives used on their own or in conjunction with other approaches such as exercise could slow down OA’s progression.
Next, I read a 2018 study in Nutrients on OA and the MDiet. The researchers’ goal was to study the links between MDiet and OA. They noticed a “protector effect” on participants who had higher adherence to the MDiet, possibly due to its polyphenols’ ability to counteract inflammation and cartilage destruction. There was a positive association between those participants and a lower prevalence of OA. They also led a higher quality of life than participants who did not follow the MDiet.
While we will need more studies that address the links between the MDiet and OA, as a primary care physician, I can recommend making some healthy swaps that can introduce you to the MDiet without drastic changes to your lifestyle.
- Instead of eating cereal for breakfast (which may contain more sugar than you think!), try dishing up instant oats with a banana or strawberries for natural sweetness;
- Put your store-bought honey mustard salad dressing aside and make your own with extra virgin olive oil, lemon, salt, and pepper to taste;
- Swap out processed snacks during the day with mixed nuts;
- Prepare simple homemade snacks for on-the-go days to lower the temptation of running to the store in search of convenience food.
Because the symptoms of OA can worsen if you are overweight, I recommend trying to maintain a healthy weight. One way to eat less is to try eating without distractions like TV or your phone. Getting regular exercise is important too, and remember that you can discuss workout plans tailored to your age and OA pain with a personal trainer, physical therapist, or doctor. I often suggest aquatic therapy or swimming to my patients with arthritic aches and pains. They often come back and tell me that it helps them feel better. Maybe that can work for you?
Head on over to my Thrive column if you want to discover other ways that the MDiet diet can make a positive impact in your life beyond OA prevention and treatment. Do you have concerns or questions about going Med or need coping strategies for joint pain? Reach out to me via DM on Twitter or Instagram @ReyzanShali!