There’s no doubt about it: knee pain sucks. It typically starts as an injury (think: torn MCL, ACL, or meniscus) from overtraining or a race gone wrong. But beyond the typical surgery, rehab, and physical therapy needed to get back on your feet, cartilage loss from injury can develop into osteoarthritis over time — and earlier than you may think.
While knee OA is a chronic, lifelong condition — and there’s no hard and fast research (yet) on a specific meal plan to help with arthritis pain management — Constance Chu, M.D. and Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Stanford University, recommends eating heart-healthy foods to help mitigate inflammation and joint flare-up.
“There’s been a lot of research done on what’s healthy for the heart, and in my opinion, it’s a great place to start for athletes dealing with knee injuries,” she says.
Any smart athlete knows that nutrition makes a huge difference in the body’s ability to recover and perform. Essentially, if you eat like crap, you’ll feel like crap. The same goes for dealing with chronic inflammation from injury, too. Not only are heart-healthy foods good for your body’s metabolism and inflammation management, but they’re also good for your brain. Basically, by eating heart healthily as a general rule, you get more bang for your buck.
“Similarly, as we look more into the effects [of OA] on the joints, we suspect that eating heart-healthy foods are helpful for maintaining joint health, too,” Chu explains.
What It Means to Eat a Heart-Healthy, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory meal plans typically focus on (you guessed it!) reducing foods that induce inflammation. Upping whole grains, colorful fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and proteins — as well as decreasing processed sugars and carbohydrates — can go a long way in creating a stable internal environment for healing.
“Consuming [heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory foods] is important to ensure the body is getting enough antioxidants and fiber (35-45 grams per day) for optimal health,” Jackie S Womble, MS, RDN, LDN, ACSM-EP, says. “Inflammation is our body’s natural response to protect our health.
"Chronic inflammation is also referred to as long-term inflammation and can last months to years. The body is in constant 'fight' mode which can be detrimental to health, decrease immunity, and increase the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and allergies.”
Why Antioxidants Matter
One trick to OA pain management — according to doctors — is to eat well, preventing further cell damage (which is already, unfortunately, happening as cartilage is lost during injury or overuse). The good news? Antioxidants, found in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, spices, red wine, green tea, and more, help fight against inflammation by reducing levels of free radicals in the blood, which cause oxidative stress and cell damage.
“Phytonutrients, like flavonoids and carotenoids (found in many fruits and vegetables), act as antioxidants, which help to neutralize free radicals preventing them from causing cell damage,” Womble says.
Looking for Foods That Help Knee Pain? Eat These 4 Anti-Inflammatory Foods NOW
We asked Womble for her favorite anti-inflammatory foods that are easy to work into your diet and will help support your gut microbiome and body's natural metabolic response to inflammation.
“The gastrointestinal tract (GI or 'gut') is very important in the development and maintenance of our immune system, [which includes our body’s inflammatory response],” Womble says. “Our gut is the “epicenter” of human health, so keeping it healthy is essential for optimal health.”
And even though research is catching up, you don’t have to wait to start cleaning up your nutrition and aim to be pain-free. You’ve got nothing to lose.
Shoot for healthy, daily servings of kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Make sure each meal includes at least one or two servings.
Opt for fruits that are rich in colors, like berries. Womble recommends incorporating raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and cherries into your diet as much as possible. Smoothies are a solid way to do this.
Skip the processed fats and aim to get your dose of healthy fat from avocados, olives, and fish high in Omega-3s, like salmon. Remember that with fats — like all-things nutrition — anything synthetic will set you back.
Cook with turmeric and cinnamon as much as possible. Both have high anti-inflammatory properties, and when sprinkled on your sauté or baking dish, not only bring out bold flavor but also support your body’s efforts to mitigate puffiness.
Pro Advice on Adding Foods That Help Knee Pain to Your Meal Plan
Making diet changes to counter inflammation, from injury or otherwise, doesn’t have to be daunting. Actually, by keeping it simple, planning ahead, and keeping heart-healthy food options on hand, you’d be surprised how tiny tweaks go a long way in making you feel better. With a little more forethought into your meals (like sticking to foods located in the produce and seafood sections), you can’t go wrong.
In addition, proper post-workout replenishment is critical to supporting healthier, quicker recovery and preventing injury.
“Planning is essential for athletes to consume the necessary nutrients to fight inflammation, recover timely and optimally perform,” Womble says.
In addition to hydration, Womble coaches her athletes to have a bag of snacks that are rich in quality proteins, carbohydrates, and fats close by for après workout.
“A typical snack bag for my athletes would have a variety of things like dried tart cherries, mixed nuts with salt, Greek yogurt, beef sticks, granola bars, dried fruit bars, chocolate milk, and an electrolyte replacement beverage, in addition to water,” she says.
So You Have Knee OA, Now What?
Though knee osteoarthritis is a lifelong condition, and while there is no cure, in addition to proper nutrition, there are many treatment options clinically proven to help successfully manage symptoms over the long run. Hyaluronic acid injections, like Durolane injections, can also help mitigate pain from osteoarthritis and support you as you continue your physical activity.
Be sure to speak with your doctor about what treatment regimen is right for you, and what changes you need to make to get the most out of your knees — and prevent cell damage or inflammatory pain — right now.