Features July 2004 Issue

Eat To Beat Inflammation

To ease RA pain, concentrate on foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid.

Strategies for managing your arthritis often involve food in at least one way—eat less of it, or at least eat a better mix of foods, so you lose weight and lighten the load on over-stressed joints. But there’s another way your food choices may help.

By eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid, you can help your body fight the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis and, perhaps, reduce the frequency of RA flare-ups.

Diet out of balance
Though fatty acids come in several forms, the most common are omega-3 and omega-6, and both are needed by your body, but for different reasons. Omega-6 fatty acids—found commonly in cooking oil and processed foods—are broken down by your body to make substances that interfere with omega-3 and promote inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids—found in abundance in fish and soybeans—serve as building blocks for substances that inhibit inflammation.

The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is a subject of current debate. Our excess consumption of processed and fried foods means we get 20 to 30 times more omega-6 in our diet than omega-3. Researchers are in agreement that Americans need to consume more omega-3 foods.

“Not only may this imbalance make it harder to keep inflammation in check,” says Andrea Dunn, a registered dietitian at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, “but it may also contribute to weight gain and obesity, since these foods are high in calories.”

Go fish
To restore the balance, Dunn recommends adding more fish to your diet, especially fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. These fish often have twice the level of omega-3 found in lean fish that is typically fried, such as cod, catfish, and snapper.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recently established a minimum daily requirement for omega-3: 1.1 grams for adult women, 1.6 grams for adult men. This can be obtained from a single 3.5 ounce serving of any fatty fish.

If fish is not your favorite dish, fish-oil supplements may help. Just be sure to read the label and determine how much omega-3 is in each gel cap; this is indicated by the amounts of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are two types of omega-3.

Saved by the bean
After fish, soybeans may be your next best source of omega-3 fatty acid. “This is a versatile vegetable that can become part of your diet in many ways,” says Dunn. “You can steam or microwave the pods and eat the beans like peanuts, buy them already roasted as soynuts, get soybeans as tofu or flour and incorporate it into your soups and baking, or even ask for soymilk next time you order a latte.”

Raw soybeans are a richer source of omega-3 than cooked pods; a half-cup of raw soybeans (100 grams) contains 1.5 grams of omega-3, while a half- cup of cooked soybeans contains 0.72 grams. A similar amount of soynuts is good for 1.7 grams of omega-3, while a half-cup of tofu will give you 0.4 grams of the fatty acid.

Other sources to chew on
Another rich source of omega-3 is flax seed, which can be found at health food stores. “You can grind the seeds up and sprinkle them on oatmeal, or add some to the batter next time you’re making pancakes or cookies,” says Dunn. Each tablespoon of whole flaxseeds contains 2.1 grams of omega-3. Flaxseed oil is richer still, with 7 grams of omega-3 per tablespoon.

And if you like walnuts, you’re in luck. Each one-ounce serving (14 halves) contains 1.9 grams of omega-3, and a half cup of walnuts will provide you with 3.3 grams of the fatty acid.

Direct is better
Farmers are coming up with clever ways to get omega-3 into their animal products. By raising chickens on diets fortified with flaxseed, algae, and other sources of omega-3, they are now selling eggs with a higher level of omega-3. Such “enriched” eggs often cost $4 or more a dozen, and contain about one-third the amount of omega-3 as a piece of fatty fish.

“Though enriched eggs may be interesting, I still recommend that you get your omega-3 directly from your food, using a variety of sources, and not from supplements or animals raised on special feed,” says Dunn. “With the direct sources of omega-3. you get the benefits of all the fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals, and other good things that these foods contain.”