How to Eat Your Way to Pain-Free Joints

illustration of a woman holding her elbow in pain


How your diet can affect that pain in your neck.

Morning stiffness, creaky knees, or any other version of joint pain may seem inevitable as we get older. That crick in your neck no amount of kneading will fix, that cracking in your hip, and that lower backache that greets you each morning can all feel like familiar (and annoying) acquaintances by the time many of us reach our 50s and 60s.

But new research suggests that changing the way we eat can actually grant us some relief from those daily aches and pains in our joints. We spoke to nutritionist and cookbook author Maya Feller about the latest science around how diet impacts our joints, if supplements really make a measurable impact, and more.

The best foods for joint pain relief

Chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of conditions, from heart disease to diabetes and osteoarthritis. It occurs when the immune system is activated by an illness or wound but fails to completely shut down its response once the body has recovered. High levels of stress, autoimmune disorders, and being overweight can all lead to chronic inflammation, but changing your diet may stop the inflammatory process from kicking into overdrive and is thought to ease joint pain. 

So what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like? It turns out it’s pretty similar to another regimen of eating Feller has discussed before. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the Mediterranean diet — which is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish — can do a lot to curb inflammation. 

Colorful fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, Feller says, which lessen oxidative stress within the body, preventing inflammation. Fish — specifically cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines — is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been proven to lower two inflammatory proteins, C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Fiber-rich foods, like whole-wheat bread, quinoa, and brown rice, have also been found to lower C-reactive protein. 

And olive oil, a critical component of the Mediterranean diet, contains oleocanthal, José M. Ordovás, Ph.D., the director of nutrition and genomics at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, tells the Arthritis Foundation. Oleocanthal acts like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (think ibuprofen), reducing pain sensitivity while also lowering inflammation. 

Foods high in sugar, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates, as well as alcohol, have all been implicated in raising inflammation.

What about supplements for joint pain?  

There’s been a lot of research into fish oil and how it can help ease joint pain. Fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which have been shown to combat chronic inflammation. Studies have shown a daily fish oil supplement decreased morning stiffness, swelling, and discomfort in joints, and is especially beneficial for people with rheumatoid arthritis

One physician told Penn Medicine that there’s some evidence that consuming collagen “may have the ability to keep muscles and tendons together and even rebuild cartilage,” which could help relieve pain from osteoarthritis in the knees and other joints. But according to Feller, the research has been mixed.

Staying hydrated helps with joint pain

One of the easiest things you can consume to prevent stiffness or minor joint pain is to drink enough water each day, Feller says. Water helps produce synovial fluid, a thick liquid situated in your joints that provides cushion and reduces friction between connecting bones. When dehydrated, the body struggles to create this fluid, which can cause more joint pain. 

Remaining hydrated also keeps the cartilage in the joints soft and flexible, making the connective tissue more effective as a shock absorber. So if you’ve got a twinge in your knee that just won’t seem to quit, it’s probably time to pick up that Nalgene and drink up.