These 6 Nutritious Foods Help Support Healthy Joints

Got inflammation? What you eat can help protect your joints.

Until you experience the aches and pains yourself, healthy joints are something many of us take for granted. Without your joints, movement would be impossible—we’d be rigid skeletons incapable of bending, jumping, or moving in pretty much any capacity. Any time you wrap your fingers around your cup of coffee, hug a loved one, or walk up a flight of stairs, your joints are at work. And, after a while, they get pretty tired of near-constant use.

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“Joint health affects almost everything we do,” says Erin Nance, MD, orthopedic surgeon and owner of Nance MD Hand Surgery. Even the most basic parts of human life, such as walking, making food, and brushing teeth, are possible thanks to our joints, says Dr. Nance, so everyone, young and old, should consider keeping their joints oiled up and healthy.

Arthritis is a huge (and common) cause of joint pain. The term “arthritis” literally means joint inflammation, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, and it affects about one in four U.S. adults (although children can also get arthritis). Most commonly, it impacts the hands, hips, knees, and spine, which limits mobility and can really affect one’s quality of life. 

Though diet alone can’t cure arthritis, eating certain foods and nutrients regularly can help support joint health and keep inflammation at bay.

The Basics of Eating for Joint Health

What does a joint-friendly diet look like? What you’re aiming for is mainly an anti-inflammatory diet rich in certain ingredients, but limited in others. Focus on eating more whole, unprocessed foods (lots of plants!) and eating fewer sweets, processed foods, and certain proteins, like red meat. If this sounds familiar, this nutrition advice is also central to well-regarded eating plans like the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet, both of which have been shown to help reduce inflammation.

“There’s no single food, nutrient, or supplement that can immediately treat pain,” says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, “but shifting toward a Mediterranean-inspired eating plan—[high in] vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, pulses, nuts, seeds, and plant-derived oils—may be helpful in reducing the risk of chronic inflammation over time.”

Certain nutrients deserve a special call-out as key players in reducing inflammation that can aggravate joints:

Here are some of the best foods to eat to get these joint-healthy nutrients, according to doctors and dietitians.

Best Foods for Joint Health

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Turmeric

Carrot-And-Red Lentil Soup
Greg DuPree

Turmeric is a spice commonly used in curry recipes and Indian cuisine. Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory benefits are mainly attributed to its rich content of curcumin, the chemical compound that gives the plant its bright yellow color. “The joint-specific benefits of turmeric and turmeric extract have been found to be comparable to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS),” says Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian at Wholeistic Living. According to a 2021 review, turmeric therapy was shown to improve pain and function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis.

This all-star spice isn’t just for flavoring food. You can blend it into a vibrant smoothie, or Volpe recommends drinking turmeric in a concoction called golden milk—a warm, soothing beverage made from turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and milk or a milk substitute. The addition of black pepper is what makes the curcumin in turmeric more bioavailable (readily absorbed by your body). If golden milk is too savory or spicy for you, Volpe says to add a little bit of natural sweetener like a raw honey to help it go down easier.

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Walnuts

Honey Paprika Walnuts
Greg DuPree

Thanks to their rich content of omega-3 fatty acids, nuts and seeds—such as walnuts—are notably beneficial for joint health, London says. Frequent nut consumption is positively associated with a healthy profile of inflammatory markers, per a 2016 study

Walnuts are an especially potent source of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, London adds that walnuts “contain among the highest levels of alpha-linolenic acids (ALA, a.k.a. plant-based omega-3s) and a higher profile of polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants.” Walnuts are also a good source of fiber and antioxidants.

The American Heart Association recommends making room in your diet for nuts, but in moderation. One serving size of nuts is a small handful or 1.5 ounces. Or, you can swap whole nuts for 2 tablespoons of nut butter (read the label to be mindful of added sugars). When shopping for nuts, your healthiest bet is to choose unsalted varieties to keep sodium intake under control.

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Salmon

Sheet Pan Salmon With Potatoes and Broccolini
Victor Protasio

Like nuts and seeds, many types of seafood can be an excellent source of healthy fats that support optimal joint health. Salmon is a fatty fish with ample joint-friendly nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, and especially omega-3 fatty acids. While walnuts are rich in plant-based ALA, salmon is a good source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). “These omega-3 fats have immuno-modulating, anti-inflammatory actions in the body, serving to help reduce the presence of inflammatory chemical mediators linked with joint pain,” Volpe explains.

There’s a lot of evidence that links omega-3 fatty acids with heart health, but research also suggests they’re beneficial for reducing inflammation, soothing joint pain, and supporting individuals with various types of arthritis. They may help limit inflammatory responses, having a beneficial effect on swollen and tender joints in people with rheumatoid arthritis, according to 2020 research.

Aim to eat a 3-ounce serving of cooked fish, like salmon, at least twice per week, as recommended by the American Heart Association.

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Tart Cherry Juice

Cherry Gin Rickey
Victor Protasio

Berries in general—blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries—are lauded for their antioxidant properties, which help reduce a potential cause of inflammation called oxidative stress. But these aren’t the only berries that should be on your radar. Dr. Nance suggests adding a cup of tart cherry juice to your meal plan.

“In a double-blind study of patients with mild knee arthritis, those that drank two 8-ounce bottles of tart cherry juice every day for six weeks were shown to have greater symptom relief than those who took a placebo,” Dr. Nance says. “Markers of inflammation were also decreased in the tart cherry juice group.”

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Broccoli

Easy pasta recipes - healthy Roasted Broccoli Pesto Pasta
Caitlin Bensel

There are so many reasons to eat your vegetables daily, and joint health is one of them. For this, Mary Valvano, MD, a board-certified emergency medicine physician at BetterNow MD, recommends eating cruciferous veggies like broccoli.

Broccoli is a good source of antioxidants and fiber, but it’s also a source of sulforaphane, says Dr. Valvano. This sulfur-rich compound is found in cruciferous veggies like broccoli and has antioxidant activities that may help with arthritis symptoms. According to 2021 research, sulforaphane possesses anti-arthritis effects. Most of the existing research on sulforaphane involves animal studies, so more research is needed, but what we do know is promising—and it never hurts to eat more greens.

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Pulses

Big-Batch Slow Cooker Black Beans
Jennifer Causey

Beans and lentils often get a bad reputation for their links to gas and bloating, but these members of the pulse family are an important part of an anti-inflammatory—and joint-friendly—diet. Pulses (the edible seeds inside of legumes) are rich in protein, fiber, and other excellent nutrients. “The combination of antioxidants, minerals, protein, and fiber makes beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas an ideal swap for red meat in your day-to-day eating routine,” London says. 

They’re also a great source of magnesium, which has been shown to help reduce inflammation. Magnesium supplementation significantly reduces different human inflammatory markers, according to a 2022 meta-analysis, but magnesium supplements aren’t the only way up your intake. Pulses like lima beans, black beans, red lentils, and chickpeas are all strong sources of anti-inflammatory magnesium.

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