WASHINGTON — If you’ve been noticing more aches and pains lately, new research suggests it may be time to start eating greener. Scientists with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine report eating a low-fat vegan diet (without any calorie restrictions) can improve joint pain symptoms in patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Even if you aren’t experiencing any arthritis pain, the research found other benefits linked to a vegan diet. Study participants also lost excess weight and saw their cholesterol levels improve.
“A plant-based diet could be the prescription to alleviate joint pain for millions of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis,” says lead study author Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee, in a media release. “And all of the side effects, including weight loss and lower cholesterol, are only beneficial.”
Rheumatoid arthritis, a very common autoimmune disease, usually results in joint pain, swelling, and even permanent joint damage in serious cases.
Joints feel better on a vegan diet
At the beginning of the study, 44 people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis had to rate just how severe their joint pain had been over the prior two weeks using a visual analog scale (VAS). The lowest pain rating was “no pain,” while the absolute highest rating was “pain as bad as it could possibly be.”
Additionally, study authors calculated each participant’s Disease Activity Score-28 (DAS28) by accounting for C-reactive protein values, tender joints, and swollen joints. For reference, C-reactive protein values can help to gauge inflammation levels in the body. Generally speaking, the worse a person’s arthritis pain, the higher their DAS28 score.
Next, researchers separated the participants into two groups with distinct dieting plans lasting 16 weeks. The first group had to follow a strict vegan diet for four weeks, followed by the elimination of additional foods for the next three weeks. Then, over the next nine weeks, study authors reintroduced various eliminated foods to participants’ eating habits. Meanwhile, the second group had to stick with an “unrestricted diet” while also taking a daily placebo capsule. After each group completed their assignments, the participants switched diets for another 16 weeks.
The dieters were largely on their own in terms of food prep; researchers didn’t provide meals, and subjects had to go shopping themselves.
During the vegan eating portion of the study, DAS28 dropped by two points on average. This suggests a larger decrease in joint pain (compared to a recorded drop of just 0.3 points in the placebo phase). Average amount of swollen joints decreased (7.0 to 3.3) during the vegan portion as well, but that same number actually increased (4.7 to 5) during the placebo phase. For those completing the study, VAS ratings also improved significantly in the vegan phase, in comparison to the placebo phase.
People without joint pain still benefit
It’s also worth noting the vegan diet produced greater DAS28 declines during an additional sub-analysis that left out study subjects who happened to increase their medication dosages during the course of the study. Another sub-analysis that excluded anyone who made any medication changes at all produced similar results.
Finally, participants also saw their body weight drop by an average of 14 pounds during the vegan phase, while the placebo portion saw an average weight increase of two pounds. The team also noted larger drops in total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol during the vegan dieting phase of the study.
The study is published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.