best grains for arthritis

Best Grains for Arthritis

Making smarter choices in the bread and pasta aisles might reduce inflammation.


Choosing which type of pasta to cook for dinner or what bread or cereal to have with breakfast doesn’t seem like a big decision, until you consider the effect certain grains can have on your body. Eating the wrong types can aggravate inflammation, potentially making your joints hurt more than they already do.

Pro-Inflammatory Grains

When contemplating your options in the bread, cereal and pasta aisles, you’ll want to avoid refined grains. Not only are these highly processed grains limited in nutrition, but they can also worsen inflammation throughout the body.

Grains are made up of three parts: The bran is the outer skin of the grain kernel, the germ is the innermost part that grows into a new plant, and the endosperm is the center part that provides food for the plant. Whole grains contain all three parts. Refined grains have removed the bran and germ, where most of the vitamins, minerals and protein are centered.

Examples of food made with refined grains are white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes. Because of their simple structure, these carbs break down in the body rapidly. “The body turns them into sugar more quickly and sugar is highly inflammatory,” says Barbara Olendzki, nutrition program director of the Center for Applied Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Inflammation throughout the body is not only bad for arthritis, but it can also increase your risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Should You Avoid All Grains?

You might have read articles touting the paleo diet or similar eating plans for rheumatoid arthritis. The premise behind going grain-free is at least partially based on lectins – carbohydrate-binding proteins found in grains. Some research suggests lectins bind to carbohydrate-specific receptors on immune cells called lymphocytes, triggering an inflammatory response. The theory is that eliminating lectin-containing foods (notably grains) might reduce symptoms in certain people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Yet research hasn’t confirmed any connection between whole grains and inflammation, and there are many good reasons to keep this food group in your diet. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants, which protect cells from damage, and B vitamins. They are high in fiber, which binds to fatty acids like LDL cholesterol and carries them out of the body before they can clog arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Eating whole grains may your lower risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. “[Whole grains] are also food sources for beneficial bacteria, the microbiome in our gut,” Olendzki says. Eating whole grains helps “those good guys stay alive.”

Better Grain Choices

To maximize nutrition while minimizing inflammation, stick to whole grains when you shop or cook. Many of these grains are also gluten-free (labeled with a GF below), if you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.

  • Amaranth-GF: Although amaranth isn’t officially a grain, its nutrient composition makes it similar to cereal grains. Amaranth is high in protein, has a nutty flavor, and you can pop it like popcorn or turn it into porridge by boiling it in water.
  • Barley: An ideal addition to soups, stews and risotto dishes, barley is loaded with 6 grams of fiber per cup.
  • Brown rice-GF: Because it has not had its bran and germ stripped away during processing, brown rice is nutrient-rich. Use it as a replacement in any recipe that calls for white rice, but you’ll need to use more water and adjust cooking times.
  • Buckwheat-GF: Another pseudo-cereal like amaranth, buckwheat is technically a fruit. Yet you can use this high-protein ingredient in noodles, crepes, pancakes and muffins.
  • Bulgur: This nutty-tasting grain comes from whole-wheat that’s been partly cracked. Use it in recipes, just as you would rice or couscous.
  • Millet-GF: Millet is a grass that’s similar to corn. It can be used as an alternative to rice, or added to bread and muffin recipes.
  • Quinoa-GF: This versatile, high-protein seed is an ideal grain substitute. Research is finding quinoa might suppress the release of immune substances called cytokines, which could be helpful for both preventing and treating inflammation.
  • Sorghum-GF: This cereal grain is rich in protein. Use sorghum flour instead of white flour in breads, cookies and other recipes.
  • Rye: Often used to make rye bread, whole rye has been shown in research to suppress hunger, which might make it a useful weight-loss tool.
  • Whole oats-GF: Steel-cut and other whole oats are high in protein and are naturally gluten free (although most commercially available oats are contaminated with wheat). Have them for breakfast or use them in recipes.
  • Whole wheat: Swapping whole-wheat flour for white in your recipes will increase your nutrient intake and potentially lower inflammation.

When you buy pre-packaged foods with these grains, make sure they contain the real thing. Some breads and crackers have added brown coloring to make them look like whole grain, or use words like “multigrain” and “wheat” on the package. Look for ‘whole grain’ as the first ingredient on the label.

Related Resources:

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