Knee pain sucks—and if you struggle with it, you're not alone. (Most runners and OCR athletes do at some point!) Bottom line: Knees are infamously known as the best and worst joint in the body for good reason. The key is to care for your joints by prioritizing cross training, recovery and eating right. With the proper rehab and enough pre-injury intel, you can circumvent inflammation, osteoarthritis and other game-stoppers down the line. In this series, we team up with DUROLANE® to bring you our top tips from MDs and pro trainers to treat your knees like the gold they are.
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All smart Spartans know that nutrition and fitness are intimately linked when it comes to short term victory and long term vitality. But when we think about preventing injury, we often forget about the diet dance in lieu of an aggressive rehab regimen.
Just as your muscles need proper glycogen replenishment and your bones need micronutrients to support mineralization, your joints also likely need anti-inflammatory foods that mitigate pounding and pressure needed to train hardcore and crush OCR. Skip a healthy, well-rounded diet, and you not only run the risk of poor performance but also total-body failure over time. (We’re talking about debilitating issues from muscular breakdown to knee pain to chronic fatigue.)
The Joint Pain and Anti-Inflammatory Diet Relationship
Joint pain from athletic-induced injury can result in osteoarthritis—a lifelong condition—if left untreated overtime. And while there’s not quite enough research (yet) on the effects of anti-inflammatory diets on OA biomarkers, according to a recent study in the Journal of Nutritional Science, there are promising investigations on the horizon.
In the meantime, Constance Chu, M.D. and Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Stanford University recommends eating heart-healthy foods. A diet like this may help manage 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 and other joint pain,” she says. “It can’t hurt—and it’s much cleaner than eating processed foods.”
Mike D. Ryan, PT, ATC, CES, PES, who has worked with athletes and their injuries for 36 years, agrees. “Inflammation is not our friend,” he says. “Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is an important step to help our body combat inflammation associated with joint injury. Having proven natural anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients in our diet, especially before aggressive workouts, is a helpful way to manage the changes taking place in and around our joints during exercise. Why wait for discomfort, pain, and/or injury to introduce anti-inflammatory nutrients into your diet?”
Consuming more whole grains, colorful fruits and veggies, and healthy fats and proteins, as well as cutting out junk food (like processed sugars and carbohydrates) should help decrease inflammation and support recovery.
The Inflammation Impact On Your Long Term Health
“It’s important to get enough antioxidants and fiber to ensure optimal health,” says Jackie Womble, MS, RDN, LDN, ACSM-EP. Joint inflammation is our body’s natural way of protecting those local tissues, but when you’re chronically inflamed, your body is in constant battle mode. “This can be detrimental to health long term,” she says, causing your immune system to take a hit, and increasing your risk for type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and even allergies.
So in addition to all of the stretches, pre- and-post workout exercises, and physical therapies you use, here are the anti-inflammatory foods you should eat to keep your joints in tip-top shape and remain injury free. (Because, when the structure caves, chasing your goals gets that much harder.)
3 Best Foods for Healthy Joints & Inflammation Management
1. Seeds & Nuts
Packed with unsaturated fats (like omega-3 fatty acids) seeds and nuts are not only healthy for your heart but may also help reduce inflammation in your joints and surrounding connective tissues, according to a study in American Journal of Epidemiology. Regular consumption of nuts is also associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes, so you can consider them a win-win. Opt for almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, or flax, chia and hemp seeds.
2. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous veggies inversely correlate with inflammatory biomarkers, according to a study in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which evaluated their impact on 1,005 middle-aged Chinese women. The study suggests in addition to other health benefits of cruciferous vegetables (like being jam packed with minerals like folate and key vitamins like A, C and K) they may also help lower your body’s inflammatory response. Regular servings of arugula, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and collard greens should do the trick.
Womble recommends eating colorful fruits, like berries rich in flavonoids (a powerful antioxidant) that helps lower inflammation. According to a study in Antioxidants, flavonoids help reduce the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS)—which can provoke damage to multiple cellular processes—and down-regulate inflammatory mediators by inhibiting key signaling pathways. In other words, flavonoids help shut off your body’s inflammatory response. Incorporate raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and cherries into your daily diet to potentially assist with joint-pain management.
BONUS: Other RD-Recommended Joint-Friendly Foods
Womble also says healthy fats, in general, help a lot with anti-inflammatory efforts. Adding foods like avocados, olives, and cold-water fish (like salmon) will go a long way.
Similarly, spices like thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, mint, turmeric, dill, parsley, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, chili pepper, clove, lemongrass and black pepper have all been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, according to a recent study in Genes & Nutrition. “Many of the anti-inflammatory compounds found in herbs and spices, such as curcumin, gingerol, and capsaicin, appear to operate by inhibiting one or more of the steps linking pro-inflammatory stimuli with cyclooxygenase (COX) activation [a key enzyme targeted for most nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs],” the study claims. In short, a diet rich in these spices may be a natural way to get the same effect as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory meds.
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