Health: New books suggest that diet and nutrition can ease the pain of arthritis, but medical specialists remain skeptical.


July 19, 1998|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Aching from arthritis?

Relief is as near as your kitchen, according to three just-published books that claim you can cure, or ease, arthritis symptoms through your diet.

The authors point to familiar magic bullets, including antioxidants and bioflavonoids, found in fruits and vegetables and already touted as helpful to good health ` from staving off old age to helping prevent cancer.

But it's not so simple, many doctors say. "There is no one magic food, diet or supplement that will cure or even dramatically improve your arthritis," says Dr. Doyt Conn, senior vice president of medical affairs for the Arthritis Foundation.

The latest spate of books continues decades-long debates about food and its connection with arthritis. With 40 million Americans - nearly one in every six - affected by one or more of the 100-plus types of arthritis-related problems, there's an audience for anything that claims to ease chronic pain.

Doctors, in fact, do consider diet important in treating arthritis and don't disregard food-related research. But many argue that enough clinical studies haven't been done to prove specific claims.

"Through the years, people have tried a lot of different diets," says Dr. Marc Hochberg, head of the rheumatology division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Some eliminated foods with high acid content, like citrus and tomatoes. Some eliminated whole food groups. The problem is, there are so few well-done studies out there that can support the claims."

To support their positions, the authors, who aren't rheumatologists, rely on selected studies, and they note that medical science is limited in what it can offer. By changing your diet, they write, you can help yourself.

"If you suffer from the chronic pain of osteoarthritis, your doctor will probably tell you there's noting to be done except take painkillers that only mask the symptoms and can make you sick," says Brenda Adderly, who wrote "The Arthritis Cure Cookbook" (LifeLine Press, $24.95) with Lissa De Angelis. "But there's more you can do."

Adderly, who has a master's degree in health administration, and Drs. Joseph Kandel and David Sudderth, neurologists and authors of "The Anti-Arthritis Diet" (Prima Health, $16) focus on easing symptoms of osteoarthritis, which affects the joint cartilage and is the most common type.

A third book, "Foods That Fight Pain" (Harmony Books, $25), is by Dr. Neal Barnard, a psychiatrist and president of the %o Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes preventive medicine. In addition to osteoarthritis, his book looks at rheumatoid arthritis, which can be disabling, and fibromyalgia, which affects the muscles and their attachment to the bones.

The recipes in all three books call for eating whole foods, with an emphasis on nutrient-rich vegetables, whole grains and fresh fruits. For instance, an "Eternal Life Stew" from Adderly's book uses seven vegetables, including eggplant, snow peas and turnips. In the Kandel-Sudderth book, a grilled chicken breast recipe gets a vitamin boost with a sauce made from bananas and grapes.

Part of Barnard's approach is, for four weeks at a time, to eliminate such "trigger foods" as eggs, citrus fruits and dairy products that some research links to arthritis flare-ups. If your symptoms disappear or improve, he says, avoid that food. His book includes such recipes as rice pasta with zucchini pesto.

All three authors stress eating food with antioxidants - vitamin C, A (or beta-carotene) and E, plus the mineral selenium - which are found in fruits and vegetables, including carrots, bell peppers and asparagus. The reason: Unstable molecules known as "free radicals" roam about the body, attacking and destroying healthy tissue, including tissue found in the joints. The theory is that antioxidants stabilize these molecules and prevent them from doing more damage.

Two of the three books also tout the power of bioflavonoids, plant pigments believed to help like antioxidants. They're found in citrus, onions, green beans and broccoli, among other plants.

Some doctors find the antioxidant theory intriguing, but unproven. In inflammatory types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid, there's evidence of joint damage that could be linked to free radicals. "In that case, the antioxidant theory could potentially have some credibility," says Dr. Alan Matsumoto, a rheumatologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "But there's no good clinical research to back it up."

The authors also focus on oils from cold-water fish, such as salmon and mackerel. Some studies show that people with rheumatoid arthritis may have a modest improvement in tender joints after eating these so-called omega-3 fatty acids over time.

"But the question is, can you safely eat enough to get the positive effect?" says Conn, of the Arthritis Foundation. "Maybe, maybe not."

People with arthritis are not particularly impressed with the eat-your-pain-away arguments.

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