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Is Arthritis Keeping You Out of the Kitchen?

Suggesting opening jars or bottles, cutting fresh herbs or raw veggies, and even grocery shopping to someone with a pain level of 7 or 8 on a 1-10 pain scale seems like being more part of the problem than the solution. Here are expert tips for managing arthritis pain.
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I work with many patients who suffer from different forms of arthritis -- osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) -- and when we talk about the benefits of a healthier diet, including preparing eating occasions at home, I always feel like I am putting them between a rock and a hard place. Suggesting opening jars or bottles, cutting fresh herbs or raw veggies, and even grocery shopping to someone who begins each day at a 7 or 8 on a 1-10 pain scale (with 10 being unbearable) seems like being more part of the problem than the solution. That's why I was excited to interview several individuals who can provide solutions to enable healthier, and as a result healing, strategies for persons with arthritis. Their expert tips follow -- and the most remarkable piece is that while designed to aid those with arthritis, they are for the most part practical tips for a healthier lifestyle for all.

Speaking with the Food Network's dietitian, Ellie Krieger, I learned that, unlike the other experts I interviewed, she didn't have any firsthand experience with rheumatoid arthritis, but was intrigued and inspired to make holiday cooking enjoyable and healing for the 1.2 million Americans suffering from RA.

"That's my approach, I am always looking at it from a culinary way to live a delicious life and in this case I use foods that heal, but are equally delicious and beautiful." Krieger begins by explaining that RA is different from other arthritis and as such there are different nutrition goals. "This (RA) is not creaky bones arthritis, it's a chronic disease of inflammation and, as such, managing it by way of diet you can potentially reduce inflammation. That said, this is not a "weird special" diet, it's good for everyone."

So here are Krieger's tips:
The key elements:

  • The right fat profile -- more omega 3s -- the fat found in fish; so up your intake of salmon, sardines and taking it easier on other kinds of oils such as corn oils or vegetable oils or mayo, these are higher in omega 6 fatty acids which can increase inflammation.
  • Increase antioxidants: Look for richly colored produce; actually not just looking at them but eating them.
  • Spices like turmeric and ginger are big anti-inflammatories. They also provide flavor and color as well as pain relief.

Krieger points out that, depending on your culture, the holiday table could be rich in anti-inflammatory foods (here she cites the Italian tradition of seven fishes), or it could be filled with lots of cheeses, sausages, crackers and no veggies -- which can signal trouble from an inflammation standpoint. Her suggestion for keeping the table festive yet healing and delicious -- "I always bring red and green veggies with green goddess dressing, and people remark how beautiful it looks and it gets gobbled right up."

But what if cutting up the veggies or making the dressing challenges the person with RA? As the nutritional consultant for "New Way RA," Krieger developed cooking tips and recipes for people with RA. For these recipes, she's particularly conscientious about tasks like chopping, which can be painful and fatiguing for the person with RA. For instance, "buy a jar of garlic instead" or "use frozen butternut squash" for butternut squash soup. These alternatives for a person suffering from RA are just as nutritious and easier. And when it comes to sweets and drinks for the holidays. Krieger notes that it's best to limit one's intake of sugar as it negatively contributes to inflammation -- that said, she notes if you want to celebrate "have a little bubbly, it's lower in sugar and very festive."

"Arthritis isn't a disease of old people -- it's the #1 cause of disability in adults today." When I met Amye Leong, the author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide To Arthritis," on the phone and heard her story -- golfer, swimmer, tennis teen rendered wheelchair-bound in her early twenties from a combination of autoimmune diseases that included rheumatoid arthritis -- the magnitude of the disease's impact came alive for me. Amye shared the key to her success -- or one of them -- being her own advocate, which led her down a path to where she is today as a national United Nation's spokesperson and "health motivator" for persons with arthritis.

Amye offers tips to help make kitchen duty less painful and fatiguing:
1. Listen to upbeat music when cooking. Music helps create a great environment for an upbeat spirit! It's the old concept of "whistle while you work!"

2. Think Smart, Prepare for Success:

  • Grocery shop at the times of the day when you're feeling better or in less pain.
  • Arm yourself with your grocery list and arrange your list with items found in the same part of the store (e.g., produce, frozen foods, bakery, dairy, etc) to minimize walking.
  • Ask for assistance with carryout or delivery to your home. I prefer to keep my cabinets filled with the standard things I typically use, and then do weekly grocery shopping for the fresh items. This makes my weekly shopping less cumbersome or heavy.

3. Gadgets Help Make It Easier. I am known as the "Gadget Queen" in the kitchen and readily use all kinds of gadgets to make my life easier. The concept of Universal Design is great for people like me affected by RA, but also great fun and easy to use for anyone else. My friends love to come over to my kitchen to cook with me just because of the fun (and gadgets) we use!

4. Bring out all of the items and condiments you will use to prepare the meal. Arrange them on the counter within easy reach. Sit in a chair when possible.

5. Wheel it. Use trays on wheels to help carry items from the cabinets to the table.

6. Rubber Glove-y. I wear these fun rubberized gloves and let the hot water flow. Not only are they great for the dishes, but the heat is soothing on the hands (without the burns).

Tamer Elsafy's late grandmother was known for her cooking during the holidays until arthritis kept her out of the kitchen. Tired of watching her deteriorate from prescriptions or remedies that either didn't work or ones that brought unwanted side effects, Tamer, with a background in dietary supplements, created his own nutritional product that helped her ease the pain and get back to her love of cooking. The key: CM8 -- Cetyl Myristoleate -- discovered by Dr. Harry Diehl at the NIH in several decades ago. Elsafy included this ingredient in the first batch of a product (today known as Flexcin) for his grandmother, and waited to assess her results. When he didn't hear for weeks, he jokes "I was worried I had killed her," but when we finally spoke she said she'd been too busy gardening and doing all her favorite activities to check in. Her one request: "Please send me some more of that stuff, I am doing great." Today Elsafy's business is helping more than just grandmothers as the product appears to work on those with arthritis as well as pain from sports injuries (disclaimer: I cannot attest to this professionally as I have not used the product, but I did evaluate the ingredient blend, and the nutrients included make sense for addressing joint pain).