Arthritis is a health condition affecting joints, which are the contact points between bones. About one in five individuals suffer from arthritis, but the actual cause of the disease can vary based on genetics, age, gender, excess weight, or injuries. The most common types of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis. RA is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own bone tissue, causing joint pain. Osteoarthritis is primarily related to age, with symptoms appearing when the cartilage that protects your joints wears away over time.
The symptoms of arthritis range from mild to severe and can make it difficult to move or do every day tasks. Sufferers may notice that joints are swollen, stiff, or warm to the touch. There may also be tenderness at different joints. Since the severity of symptoms may change on a daily basis, many individuals with arthritis take precautions to manage joint pain. Dietary changes, including protein, have been one area of exploration for arthritis therapy.
Protein, along with fat and carbohydrates, is a macronutrient required by the human body in relatively large quantities. It is found in muscle, hair, nails, cartilage, skin and blood. A healthy diet that includes protein also helps you feel fuller longer, thereby preventing snacking or overeating throughout the day. Getting protein through diet is important because the body does not store large quantities of readily-available protein as it does with fat and carbohydrate. For a healthy adult, protein requirements are 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Using this figure, a 150lb individual needs roughly 55 grams of protein per day. Individuals who are severely ill or have recently had surgery may have increased protein needs so they can preserve muscle mass and should consult a physician or dietitian for more specific guidance.
In general, Americans eat more protein than what is needed, so most individuals do not need to supplement. Instead of trying to eat more protein, individuals should focus on the type of protein consumed. Epidemiologic research highlights the health benefits of eating leaner sources of protein that are lower in saturated fat that more common protein-rich foods. Examples of lean protein sources include beans, lentils, poultry without skin, and fish.
Research on protein’s impact on inflammation and arthritis is in early stages. Since the mechanism behind each type of arthritis varies, it’s likely that protein has a different impact for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis versus osteoarthritis. There is some evidence showing that excess protein intake increases inflammation, potentially due to the high fat content of many high-protein diets. Another study of a whole-foods, plant based diet in patients with osteoarthritis indicated benefits on self-reported measures of functional status.
It’s worth mentioning the one potential concern for individuals with osteoarthritis, who also tend to be older in age, is reduced muscle mass. As the body ages, it becomes less efficient at absorbing protein and processing protein into muscle fibers. Illness and pain can also negatively impact a person’s appetite and interest in eating. As a result, it may be important to pay special attention that these individuals are getting enough protein from a variety of food sources.
More studies are needed to understand how protein impacts joint health, and whether supplementation with specific types of amino acids can lead to improvements in arthritis symptoms. However, those with arthritis should focus on getting enough protein from a variety of sources.