WASHINGTON, DC—A low-fat, calorie-restricted vegan diet improves joint pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, according to a new study conducted by researchers from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Study participants also lost weight and improved their cholesterol levels.
“A plant-based diet could be the prescription for joint pain relief for millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis,” says Neal Barnard, MD, the study’s lead author and chair of the Physicians’ Committee. “And all of the side effects, including weight loss and lower cholesterol, are just beneficial.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is a common autoimmune disease that typically causes joint pain, swelling, and possibly permanent joint damage.
At the start of the physician committee study, participants were asked to use a visual analog scale (VAS) to rate the severity of their worst joint pain over the previous two weeks, from “no pain” to “pain as intense as possible. be.” Each participant’s Disease Activity Score-28 (DAS28) was also calculated based on painful joints, swollen joints and C-reactive protein values, which indicate inflammation in the body. DAS28 increases with the severity of rheumatoid arthritis.
During the study, 44 adults previously diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were assigned to one of two groups for 16 weeks. The first group followed a vegan diet for four weeks, with the elimination of additional foods for three weeks, then the reintroduction of individually eliminated foods for nine weeks. No meals were provided and participants managed food preparation and purchases themselves, with guidance from the research team. The second group followed an unrestricted diet but were instructed to take a daily placebo capsule, which had no effect in the study. Then the groups switched diets for 16 weeks.
During the vegan phase of the study, DAS28 decreased by an average of 2 points, indicating a greater reduction in joint pain, compared to a 0.3 point decrease in the placebo phase. The average number of swollen joints decreased from 7.0 to 3.3 in the vegan phase, while this number actually increased from 4.7 to 5 in the placebo phase. For those who completed the study, VAS scores also improved significantly in the vegan phase, compared to the placebo phase.
The vegan diet also resulted in larger decreases in DAS28 in one sub-analysis that excluded people who took more medications during the study and another sub-analysis limited to participants making no medication changes.
In addition to reductions in pain and swelling, body weight decreased by about 14 pounds on average with the vegan diet, compared to a gain of about 2 pounds with the placebo diet. There were also greater reductions in total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol during the vegan phase.