Understanding How to Eat Properly If You Have Lupus

Antiinflammatory and Special Diets for People with Lupus

A family picnic meal in the shade of tall trees. Man holding a bowl of fresh blueberries.
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You may have heard that a specific diet or specific foods may either worsen or improve lupus symptoms. What do we know about the so-called "anti-inflammatory diet?" What comprises good nutrition when you're living with lupus, and what should you know about the role of diet in various medical conditions related to lupus?

The Best Diet for People with Lupus

One common misconception for those diagnosed with lupus is that there are “good” and “bad” foods and that the inclusion or exclusion of those items in a lupus diet will either exacerbate or alleviate lupus symptoms.

That's usually not the case. There is little evidence that a particular food or any one meal can trigger a lupus flare. Bad diets, however, do exist and can be detrimental in your journey with lupus.

In general, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that minimize pro-inflammatory foods is the best approach. Let's take a look at what a diet like this looks like.

An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Some foods are much more pro-inflammatory than others. Saturated fats found in fatty beef are more pro-inflammatory than certain polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, which are found in fish oil. Fatty beef may activate the immune system, so it's wiser to choose lean beef whenever possible. Diets rich in fish and low in fats from meat may also be helpful for those with lupus anticoagulant.

Good Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Foods which are good include foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel,) flax seeds, and walnuts.

Food which is high in antioxidants includes berries (try a mixture of blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries,) broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, and nuts (especially brazil nuts and almonds.)

Don't forget the spices. Anti-inflammatory spices include garlic, ginger, and turmeric.

As you get started on an anti-inflammatory diet, you may want to find ways to incorporate these 15 anti-inflammatory foods into your recipes.

Pro-Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

Foods which are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, in contrast to omega-3's tend to increase the number of inflammatory chemicals in the body. Foods to minimize for this reason include meats (with the exception of fish,) dairy products and foods that are high in sugar or are extensively processed.

And, as in any diet, moderation is a key factor. A slice of rich cheese, for example, won’t trigger a flare or inflammation. But a diet consumed with rich cheeses may.

A good place to find recipes which are are rich in anti-inflammatory foods and low in pro-anti-inflammatory foods is a Mediterranean diet cookbook. Consuming a Mediterranean diet appears to have a mediating effect on inflammation at least when it comes to cardiovascular disease.

Nutrition Related to Specific Conditions with Lupus

Those with lupus or conditions related to their lupus may encounter specific symptoms that could be tied to diet. On the other hand, certain diet restrictions may be recommended depending on specific symptoms or conditions related to lupus.

Here are some examples:

  • Weight loss/no appetite: A loss of appetite is common in those newly diagnosed and often attributed to the illness, the body adjusting to new medications or both. Consulting your health care provider to discuss adjustments to your diet may alleviate those concerns. Eating smaller meals more frequently can be helpful in many ways.
  • Weight gain: It's common for people to gain weight with the use of corticosteroids. It's important to talk to your rheumatologist to make sure you are on the lowest dose possible which will still control your symptoms. Beginning an exercise program can be very helpful, and again may help with more than just weight control. Short-term nutritional counseling has also been shown to help.
  • Medications: Treatment with medication can cause a number of issues, from heartburn to painful mouth ulcers, which can affect how a person eats. Speaking with your health care provider will determine if adjustments in your medication or dosage are necessary. In some instances, anesthetics for use in your mouth (similar to the Orajel used for babies who are teething) can decrease the pain of mouth ulcers.
  • Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is a condition in which the body’s bones lose density and, thus, break easily. Although this condition often affects older, postmenopausal women, it can also affect anyone who takes corticosteroids for a period of time. In fact, some studies have shown that bone loss can occur even within a week of taking steroids. It's important to get enough vitamin D (and anyone who has lupus should have their blood levels monitored) and you may need to take a calcium supplement as well.
  • Steroid-induced diabetes: Long-term use of corticosteroids may cause diabetes. If you are diagnosed with this condition, you will receive standard treatment for diabetes. That could include a special diet and medication to help regulate glucose levels in your body.
  • Kidney disease: If you are diagnosed with kidney disease as a result of your lupus (lupus nephritis,) along with standard treatment options, your doctor may suggest a special diet, potentially one low in sodium, potassium or protein. The spice turmeric (curcumin) appears to have a protective effect against lupus nephritis, at least in mice.
  • Cardiovascular disease: Lupus can cause cardiovascular complications, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries,) lupus myocarditis and high blood pressure. A low-fat diet can aid in managing atherosclerosis, and a low-sodium diet may help maintain normal blood pressure. Medication may also be prescribed.

As always, consult your healthcare provider for more information.

Bottom Line on Healthy Eating When You Have Lupus

We've learned that diet can play a large role in health and how you feel and this is no different with lupus. Adopting a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods and low in pro-inflammatory foods has only recently been studied, but makes a great deal of sense scientifically.

In addition to a healthy diet, lupus can pose many challenges with regard to diet. Talk to your rheumatologist. Some rheumatologists may recommend working with a nutritionist who specializes in nutrition for those who have immune disorders such as lupus.