One day in 431BC, Hippocrates said “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Ever since, the healing properties of various foods have been espoused by different cultures.
Scientists now know that a diet that includes lots of fruit, vegetables, lean protein and unprocessed whole grains can help us to stay healthy. They also know that specific foods – or rather, nutrients in those foods – can help when it comes to certain illnesses and conditions. For instance, rates of scurvy – a disease first identified by Hippocrates – were reduced after ship’s doctor James Lind realised in 1747 that oranges and other citrus fruit help to prevent the disease thanks to their vitamin C content.
Fast forward to last century, when it was discovered that calcium in food helps build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. Doctors began recommending people increase their intake of calcium-rich foods such as dairy products. (Hippocrates pops up in this connection as well: he came up with the notion of immobilising broken bones to allow them to knit together.)
Although knowledge about the healing properties of certain foods continues to increase, we’re not yet at the point where doctors routinely hand the sick a list of foods they should be eating along with a drug prescription.
In some quarters, though, medical experts are recommending dietary and other lifestyle changes as part of an overall treatment plan. And some of the illnesses they believe can be helped by improving what we eat may come as a surprise.
Osteoarthritis, for example, is typically seen as an unavoidable consequence of ageing, especially for people who have subjected their joints to a lot of wear and tear by exercising or obesity, or have a family history of the disease. Research suggests lifestyle has a bigger influence than genes on whether you get the condition and how severe it is.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and eventuates when the cartilage between joints is worn away, causing pain and reducing mobility. What you eat can play a part in improving those symptoms, as some foods can reduce inflammation and ease pain.
Foods with anti-inflammatory properties include fish such as salmon and sardines, which contain omega-3 fatty acids. As a bonus, they’re also a good source of the nutrients that help to build stronger bones, including vitamin D, magnesium and calcium.
Dark-green vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli are sources of magnesium and calcium, which are good for maintaining bone structure, and have the additional benefit of vitamin E. This helps to protect the body from cytokines, the molecules that promote joint inflammation.
Avocados are also a good source of magnesium and boron, an essential element that helps the body to absorb minerals.
Nuts and seeds contain many of the nutrients needed for healthy bones, such as calcium, magnesium and boron, as well as inflammation-battling omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts, brazil nuts and almonds are believed to be the best nuts to eat for arthritis, along with pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds.
Olive oil is good for joint problems because it contains the compound oleocanthal, which has similar effects to anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
Broth made from simmering bones in water is another good food. It’s rich in nutrients including phosphorus, potassium and the all-important magnesium and calcium. Turmeric, meanwhile – a common curry ingredient – has myriad health benefits, including the ability to ease joint pain. It’s thought this is due to the compound curcumin, which gives this spice its bright yellow colour.
Certain foods may have a role in preventing arthritis in the first place, according to one study, which found that cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts have that ability.
As a bonus, a healthy diet can lead to weight loss, and if being overweight has put a strain on your body and contributed to arthritis, you may notice less joint pain if you shed kilos.
Eating what’s good for you is one thing; it’s also wise to cut out food that makes arthritis worse. Anything that’s fried, processed or full of sugar, salt or preservatives should be avoided, as should alcohol and tobacco.
Words by: Donna Fleming
Photo: Getty Images