According to a new study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine by researchers at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a low-fat vegan diet without calorie limitations decreases joint discomfort in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. Participants in the study also lost weight and had lower cholesterol levels.
A plant-based diet could be the prescription for millions of patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, says Neal Barnard, MD, the study’s lead author and the Physicians Committee’s president. “And the side effects, like weight loss and lower cholesterol, are all positive.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes joint swelling, pain, and eventually, long-term joint damage.
Participants in the Physicians Committee trial were asked to rate the level of their worst joint pain in the previous two weeks using a visual analog scale (VAS), ranging from “no pain” to “pain as awful as it could possibly be.”
Tender joints, swollen joints, and C-reactive protein readings, which indicate inflammation in the body, were also used to compute each participant’s Disease Activity Score-28 (DAS28). DAS28 levels rise as rheumatoid arthritis progresses.
During the 16-week trial, 44 people with rheumatoid arthritis were randomly allocated to one of two groups. The first group followed a vegan diet for four weeks, then excluded additional foods for three weeks before reintroducing them one by one during a nine-week period.
There were no meals given, and participants were responsible for their own food preparation and purchases with the help of the research staff. The second group ate whatever they wanted but had to consume a daily placebo capsule that had no effect in the trial. After that, the diets of the two groups were exchanged for 16 weeks.
DAS28 fell 2 points on average during the vegan phase of the trial, indicating a higher reduction in joint pain, compared to 0.3 points during the placebo phase.
In the vegan period, the average number of swollen joints reduced from 7.0 to 3.3, while in the placebo phase, it climbed from 4.7 to 5. VAS scores went up a lot in the vegan phase compared to the placebo phase for people who did the research.
In a sub-analysis that didn’t include people who took more drugs during the research and another sub-analysis that didn’t include people who didn’t change their medications, the vegan diet led to bigger drops in DAS28.
In addition to pain and edema decreasing, the vegan diet resulted in an average weight loss of 14 pounds, compared to a gain of 2 pounds on the placebo diet. During the vegan period, there were also higher reductions in total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol.