Life is all about the little things, and the little things are all possible thanks to our joints. Think about it: Gardening, cooking and everything in between depends on bone movement. Even the best memories—like smothering your grandkids with hugs—require healthy joints to make it happen.|
Yet, like skin and hair, joints change with age. There's a reason why the risk for arthritis, or inflammation of the joints, increases over time. It affects over 54 million adults in the United States, taking the lead as the top cause of disability, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Does that mean all hope is lost? Definitely not. With the right foods in your arsenal, you can help your joints thrive—it's the best way to make sure those hug attacks keep on coming.
The Basics of Joint Health
By definition, a joint is the spot where two elements of the skeleton meet. Your knee, elbow and hip are perfect examples.
"Healthy joints have a layer of articular cartilage over the bone surfaces [where they meet]," says Matt Likins, M.P.T., O.C.S. board-certified orthopedic physical therapist. Its main purpose? To act as a cushion to protect those bone surfaces.
Joints help you move around and are also designed to carry the weight of your body. As you can imagine, joints work hard your entire life, creating the perfect setup for arthritis.
Contrary to what most people think, arthritis isn't a single disease. It’s actually an umbrella term for joint inflammation, pain or disease. The Arthritis Foundation lists pain, swelling, stiffness and poor range of motion as general symptoms.
While there are more than 100 types of arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common. It's typically caused by "wear and tear" when the cushion between joints starts to break down. The biggest risk? Getting older.
How Does Joint Health Change With Age?
Your body changes with time—no secret there. Unsurprisingly, your joints are at the top of the list.
"Over the course of your lifespan, it's perfectly normal for your joints to deteriorate," explains Likins. He adds that it's similar to how your skin does not look the same at 60 as it did at 20. (If only!)
Most joint changes aren't an issue. However, they can cause major problems.
"If the cartilage surface wears down or shrinks, the bones come closer together," says Likins. The result? Poor joint health, inflammation and cringe-worthy pain.
Here's the good news: Likins shares that there's a poor relationship between the severity of deterioration and pain, meaning that there is a chance to finally get relief.
Whether you''e young or old, it's never too late to start improving joint health. According to Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center, you can eat to prevent—and reverse—inflammation.
5 Foods That Improve Joint Health
1. Fatty Fish: "Preventing and reversing inflammation is key when it comes to joint health," Dr. Apovian explains. That's where anti-inflammatory omega-3s come in.
Unfortunately, according to Julie Lee, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. a dietitian and certified health coach in Binghamton, New York, the typical American diet is lacking in these fats. "Two specific omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), tend to be particularly low," she says. "These fatty acids are found exclusively in fish and seafood."
The American Heart Association recommends aiming for at least two servings of fish a week. Not a problem since salmon, mackerel and herring are delicious examples, each of which is simple to make and tastes great any time of year. Benefits of consuming omega-3 fats include decreased joint pain and tenderness while positively impacting calcium levels. Plus, it doesn't hurt that omega-3's improve heart and brain health, both of which decline also with age.
Need another reason to enjoy a fillet? Fatty fish will also boost your vitamin D intake. Deficiencies in this essential vitamin can worsen osteoarthritis symptoms, allowing pain and dysfunction to take over. And since vitamin D isn't naturally found in many foods, relying on fatty fish a few times a week is a smart choice.
2. Leafy Greens: Inflammation can also be slowed with a healthy dose of leafy greens. They're packed with vitamin K, a nutrient with anti-inflammatory properties. To top it off, both the cartilage and bone have proteins that depend on this nutrient.
The world of leafy greens is so diverse—kale, Swiss chard and watercress, to name a few—so try mixing and matching different types with other veggies to keep your salads new and exciting every day of the week.
3. Fortified Milk: Thanks to those catchy "Got Milk?" ads seen on every bus and billboard for years, it's no secret that milk is good for the bones, but what about the joints? Turns out, not only does it taste great, but fortified milk is also an excellent source of vitamin D. As an added bonus, you'll fuel up on calcium, giving you protection from osteoporosis.
If you are lactose intolerant, vegan or just not a fan of dairy, you still have a range of options from which to choose. Non-dairy milks made with soy, almonds and coconut are often fortified with vitamin D, so be sure to check the label before you head to the checkout counter.
4. Fortified Cereal: Like milk, some cereals are fortified with vitamin D. Again, read the label before purchasing and aim to avoid sugary cereals with added sweeteners and preservatives. If you crave more flavor for your morning bowl, top your cereal off with fresh fruit or dark chocolate chips for a sweeter start to your day. If you're a fan of milk and cereal, pair your bowl with some fortified milk for a double-dose of joint-health power.
5. Brussels Sprouts: As a child, Brussels sprouts might have been your worst enemy. These days, they're about to be your new best friend. A 2013 experiment in Arthritis & Rheumatism found that Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane, a compound with anti-inflammatory powers. These properties can suppress the breakdown of joint cartilage, making it a smart choice for joint care.
Still not a fan of Brussels sprouts? The Arthritis Foundation shares that sulforaphane is also found in broccoli and cabbage, too.
What About Supplements?
Real food is always the best bet. However, if you need an extra boost, Dr. Apovian suggests taking calcium, vitamin D or high-quality fish oil supplements.
Know that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, so if you're thinking about taking one be sure to check with your doctor first. Nutrients and herbs have drug-like effects, posing the risk for complications. They might also interact with medications, making it especially important that you get clearance before relying on any kind of supplement for nutrient deficiencies.
Companies often embellish the packaging with amazing claims, too. Remember, every word is part of a marketing campaign. Before taking supplements labeled for joint health, talk to your doctor.
Foods to Skip
Joint health isn't just about eating what's good for you. It's about ditching the not-so-great foods, too. After all, joint pain is highly influenced by weight gain.
Dr. Apovian advises avoiding or limiting processed foods, like chips, sugary drinks and refined flour products like white bread and pasta. Lee also recommends reducing trans and saturated fats, which can actually worsen osteoarthritis symptoms.
As you can see, it's right in line with general health. As if you needed another great reason to eat well that goes beyond your waistline, remember this: With every pound you lose, the load on your knees reduces by four pounds. The CDC also adds that even a five percent weight loss can reduce pain.
Other Ways to Improve Joint Health
Food is just half of the game. Healthy joints also depend on exercise, making it a packaged deal.
For joint health, strength training is the way to go. As you build muscle, your joints will have better support, resulting in happy and healthy joints. It also doesn't hurt that muscle burns more calories than fat, helping fuel weight management.
But you don't have to become a bodybuilder to reap the benefits. Exercises for joint health can involve lightweight dumbbells or even soup cans, as suggested by the Arthritis Foundation. A physical therapist or certified personal trainer can help decide which exercises work best for you.
Likins also suggests regularly practicing range-of-motion (ROM) exercises. These moves enhance joint movement, relieving stiffness and improving flexibility. The American College of Rheumatology recommends doing ROM exercises five to 10 times each day. Top it off with gentle stretching, like yoga or Tai Chi, for ultimate relief.
Cardio is still crucial. It will ease joint pain while managing weight, even if you stick to gentle walks. Consider taking a stroll during lunch break or with your family.
Managing arthritis and joint health is a multi-faceted approach. Aside from food and exercise, invest in supportive shoes, avoid lifting heavy loads and wear joint braces, if necessary. Treat your body with care and it will return the favor as you move through life.