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Shop for joints

Supermarket shopping for foods to help stiff and painful joints

Achey, stiff, and painful joints are a problem for many of us, but what we eat can make a big difference - and reduce our reliance on medicines to keep pain away. As these changes begin with our supermarket food shop, we explore the weekly shopping do's and don'ts that can help set us on the path to healthier joints.

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Eating for your joints

Whether your joints are getting in the way of day-to-day life, you're keeping them strong for sport and fitness, or are just thinking about age-related problems, your diet is an effective yet often overlooked element of joint care.

Perhaps you're already taking over-the-counter or prescription medicines for your knees, hands, hips, or other joints. These can bring a lot of relief, but it's worth bearing in mind that long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can sometimes cause gastrointestinal side effects. Adjusting your diet can help ease pain in much the same way, or if you use both strategies, this could bring you even greater relief. Remember, never stop taking prescription medicine without your doctor's approval.

Michael Mosley's 5 supermarket rules

Commenting on his 2024 TV series Undercover Doctor: The Secrets Of Your Big Shop, Dr Michael Mosley said that, in today's world, people often reach for a pill to cure their ailments. However, he believes that many health issues can be addressed by the foods we put in our shopping baskets.

The medical doctor and science journalist has shared his general tips for healthy supermarket shopping1:

  1. Prepare with a shopping list - to help you plan meals ahead for the week and avoid unhealthy impulse purchases.

  2. Start in the fruit and veg aisles - choose a variety to get a range of nutrients and help support a healthy gut, both of which ward off many health problems. Frozen is also a great option, and often more affordable as you can store at home for longer.

  3. Stay clear of the snack aisles - walking past sugary and ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can cause temptation and frustration.

  4. Choose full fat over low fat options - full-fat versions of products like milk, Greek yoghurt, and olive oil tend to be healthier and are even now thought to be better for healthy weight loss.

  5. Cut back on supermarket ready meals - these are handy for the busy days when you have little time to cook, but instead try batch cooking your own healthy 'ready' meals for later in the week instead.

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How to shop for healthy joints

The above five rules are a great basis for healthier supermarket shopping. Use these and focus your planned meals around anti-inflammatory foods to help reduce and prevent joint stiffness and pain. These specific foods are some of the most tried and tested.

Fermented food and drink

What: Fermented foods, also called probiotic foods, include kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and Greek yoghurt. The process of fermentation means they are naturally high in live 'good' bacteria.

How: There is mounting evidence that fermented foods can significantly reduce internal swelling in your body. This is known as inflammation, and it can cause swollen and painful joints - what we call arthritis. According to Dr Mosley, the good bacteria in these foods reduces inflammation by supporting your gut and immune system. In one study of 500 people with osteoarthritis (OA), consuming good bacteria everyday led to less knee pain and stiffness2.

Supermarket tip: in the UK fermented foods are widely available in supermarkets, often packaged in jars in the foreign foods aisle.

Oily fish

What: Oily fish includes salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, pilchards, and trout. These contain omega-3 fatty acids.

How: Omega-3 fatty acids - the healthy fats - in oily fish can have an anti-inflammatory effect, meaning they can reduce internal swelling and pain around your joints. Studies show a link between eating these healthy fats and having a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA)3.

Supermarket tip: fresh fish can have relatively short use-by dates and costs can add up, so opt for frozen to keep longer at home, or canned fish for a cheaper lunch-sized meal, such as sardines on toast.

Olive oil

What: Cooking and frying with olive oil is a healthier, more nutritious alternative to other vegetable oils.

How: The antioxidants and oleic acid found in olive oil can help fight inflammation. This has been shown to help people with painful and stiff joints4.

Supermarket tip: Be wary of marketing words that make olive oils sound more healthy - like 'light' or 'pure' - as these don't necessarily indicate superior quality. Instead, look for terms like 'extra virgin' or 'cold-pressed'. This indicates the purest form of olive oil, meaning it contains more antioxidants for your joints.

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Cruciferous vegetables

What: Cruciferous vegetables are so-called because their four-petaled flowers resemble a cross. Examples include broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, bok choy, rocket, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens.

How: While a diet rich in all vegetables and fruits will help keep your joints healthy, this group of veg is particularly useful because they contain phytochemicals like sulforaphane, which are anti-inflammatory5.

Supermarket tip: The fresher the vegetable, the better it's anti-inflammatory capabilities. When selecting broccoli, for example, avoid thinner or warm-coloured stems and buds that are uneven or protruding and about to flower.

Turmeric

What: Turmeric is a bright yellow-orange spice traditionally used to add flavour and colour to Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian dishes.

How: The main pain-relieving ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which acts as an anti-inflammatory on joints. In one study of people with RA, turmeric extract was found to significantly improve achey painful joints and stiffness6.

Supermarket tip: You can find turmeric powder in the spice aisle, and the recommended daily dose is around one-third to half a teaspoon per person. Some stores also sell turmeric root in the vegetable aisle. This is the rawest form of the plant, containing the highest concentration of curcumin. You can improve how well your body absorbs curcumin by consuming turmeric in a heated dish alongside black pepper and healthy fats like olive oil.

Green tea

What: Green tea is a popular hot drink made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. It contains much of this plant's health-boosting nutrients.

How: Green and matcha tea , a type of green tea, provide lots of antioxidants. These natural compounds help fight unstable atoms in your body that damage cells and accelerating ageing, which can cause several conditions, including arthritis. In one study of 120 people with RA, drinking green tea for over 6 months significantly improved their symptoms7.

Supermarket tip: To buy the best quality green tea with the most health benefits, choose a loose leaf option over teabags. The name of the tea can also indicate quality, and the more specific the better. For example, a tea simply called 'Green Tea' is unlikely to be as good quality as one called 'Japanese Green Tea' or 'Gyokuro'.

What to avoid in the supermarket

Just as there are foods that fight inflammation around your joints, there are others that trigger it.

Try to avoid or limit the following sugary and ultra-processed foods (UPFs), as they can damage your immune system, causing inflammation in your joints and other parts of your body. These foods can also lead to weight gain, which can exert extra pressure and damage on your joints, while excess fat tissue can send signals to your immune cells to produce inflammation8.

  • Fried foods - such as battered foods and chips.

  • Refined carbs - such as white bread and biscuits.

  • Saturated fats - such as cream and butter.

  • Processed red meats - such as sausages and bacon.

  • Refined sugary food and drinks - such as fizzy drinks and many breakfast cereals.

  • Alcohol - such as beer and spirits.

Supermarket tip: Beware of ready meals marketed as healthy. Ready meals are nearly always ultra-processed and contain additional preservatives and additives, which can also cause inflammation. Check the ingredients - as a general rule, the shorter the list, the better.

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Further reading

  1. The Fast 800: Secrets to improve your supermarket shop.

  2. Lei et al: The effect of probiotic Lactobacillus casei Shirota on knee osteoarthritis.

  3. Pablo et al: High erythrocyte levels of the n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid linoleic acid are associated with lower risk of subsequent rheumatoid arthritis in a southern European nested case-control study.

  4. Berbert et al: Supplementation of fish oil and olive oil in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

  5. Mazarakis et al: The potential use of l-sulforaphane for the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.

  6. Chandran and Goel: A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis.

  7. Alghadir et al: Green tea and exercise interventions as nondrug remedies in geriatric patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

  8. Christ et al: Western diet and the immune system: an inflammatory connection.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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