The Mediterranean diet and osteoarthritis
Marion Hauser, MS, RD
Many researchers and doctors consider the Mediterranean diet a healthy eating lifestyle. The diet is modeled around the everyday eating habits of people who live in the dominance of the Mediterranean Sea. These are the people of Spain, Greece, and the southern portions of Italy, France, et al.
In many of my articles I have discussed olives, red wine, spices, and other components of the Mediterranean diet as having a healthy impact on osteoarthritis and quality of life. In this article we will look at the Mediterranean diet as a whole.
As we discussed, the key components of the Mediterranean diet are:
- Olive oil. Olive oil is the source of almost all fat in the Mediterranean Diet. People in the Mediterranean region consume very little saturated fat (such as butter) and hardly use other vegetable oils. Coincidentally these other vegetable oils have been shown to promote heart disease and inflammation when used as cooking oils. This is a subject we will cover in another article.
- Bad oils when used as cooking oils: Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn oil, Peanut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Safflower Oil, Cottonseed Oil.
- Drinking red wine in moderation is an important part of The Mediterranean diet
- Proteins come from fish and poultry, red meat very rarely
- Herbs and spices replace salt as a flavoring
- Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, lentils, and peas are important staples.
The Mediterranean Diet also requires a person have an active lifestyle.
The anti-inflammatory characteristics of the Mediterranean Diet
In the context of our work, we will focus on the the aspects of the Mediterranean diet that have been shown to help people with arthritic joint pain.
For background please see my articles on foods that have a positive impact of joint pain and are recognized as key components of the Mediterranean diet
- Broccoli and osteoarthritis In this article I look at the research surrounding broccoli’s beneficial effects on knee osteoarthritis by protecting the knee cartilage.
- Resveratrol and osteoarthritis – Here I discuss foods that are rich in Resveratrol including Red Wine, peanuts, pistachios, cranberries, strawberries, almonds, and berries.
- Olives and osteoarthritis – In this article I look at the research surrounding the ability of olives and their components to alleviate and possibly reverse the symptoms and degenerative aspects of osteoarthritis.
An October 2020 study in the aptly named medical journal Nutrients (1) suggested that “food and nutritional interventions are considered beneficial in the treatment of pain and inflammatory conditions. For example, vegan and Mediterranean diets and the consumption of blueberry, strawberry, passion fruit peel extract, argan oil, fish oil (omega-3), olive oil, and undenatured type II collagen (a supplement from chicken sternum cartilage) and vitamin D gel capsules reduce musculoskeletal pain, specifically in adults with osteoarthritis. Besides pain improvement, nutritional interventions, including the consumption of strawberry and vitamin D gel capsules, decrease the levels of several inflammatory markers including IL-6, IL-1β, and TNF-α.”
In other words, these types of nutritional programs have an anti-inflammatory effect. The researchers also cited previous research that assessed and compared the effects of a Mediterranean diet and a normal diet and demonstrated significant reductions in musculoskeletal pain with specific diets.
Three more sudies on the Mediterranean type diet
At the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, researchers published a paper entitled: “Effect of a Mediterranean type diet on inflammatory and cartilage degradation biomarkers in patients with osteoarthritis.”(2)
Here are the leaning points:
- A Mediterranean type diet (e.g. abundant in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, olive oil and fish, and less red meat than typical Western diets) has been linked with reductions in joint inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. This study then examined the Mediterranean type diet in patients with osteoarthritis. This was done by measuring the effects of a short-term (16 week) dietary intervention (in accordance with a Mediterranean type diet) on perceptual, functional and serum biomarkers in test subjects with osteoarthritis.
- The main findings of the study were that:
- dietary intervention (advice and guidance from health professionals) was successful at changing eating behaviors in the Mediterranean type diet test group, and this was associated with weight loss.
- The inflammatory cytokine IL-1α (a small protein which initiate tissue breakdown,) which has been implicated in the development and progression of osteoarthritis was significantly reduced in the Mediterranean type diet test group.
- Significant improvements were seen in the the Mediterranean type diet test group for range of motion at the hip (rotation) and knee (flexion).
- Body mass reduction or weight loss is clearly important in helping patients with joint pain and osteoarthritis.
Please see our related articles on the impact of weight and joint pain.
- Belly Fat, Back and Nerve Pain
- Metabolic syndrome and osteoarthritis joint pain
- What is obesity induced osteoarthritis?
- Excessive weight and joint pain – the inflammation connection
- How diet, Type II diabetes and obesity compromise tendon healing
Okay it works great in Europe but how about in the US?
Researchers from England, the United Kingdom, and Italy measured the impact of the Mediterranean diet on over 4,000 North Americans. The results were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The average age of the study participants were 61 years old and the majority were women.
Here are the learning points of their study:
- The study demonstrated that North Americans who are more adherent to the Mediterranean diet reported a substantially better quality of life and decreased pain, disability, and depressive symptoms.
- Of particular relevance is the finding that higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduced prevalence of fractures. These findings seemingly support recent research that showed that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk in hip fracture in postmenopausal women.
- Higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a decrease in inflammation, oxidative stress markers (please see our fascinating article Extracellular matrix in osteoarthritis | The soup of healing).
- The Mediterranean diet seems to increase adiponectin, a hormone secreted by adipose tissue, with relevant insulin-sensitizing, antidiabetogenic (diabetic effect), and anti-inflammatory effects.
- The study also suggest that a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet has an anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.
- Because of unhealthy dietary habits in Westernized countries, including the United States, these findings emphasize that the Mediterranean diet may be one way to improve quality of life.(3)
Nicola Veronese of the Italian national research council, the lead researcher on the above study, lead another research team in publishing a 2018 follow up in the journal Clinical rheumatology. In this study on the diet’s effect on knee osteoarthritis, the researchers noted that: “Higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet was found to be associated with a significant improvement in knee cartilage as assessed by MRI.”(4)
If we put the Mediterranean Diet all together, we have the olive oil, vegetables, legumes, fish, chicken, fruits, and red wine. What you also have is FRESH food. Those in the Mediterranean parts of the world typically shop at fresh markets a couple times per week. They are not consuming food out of boxes or cans. They are definitely not using microwaves to cook their food and are certainly not eating at fast food restaurants. On top of these facts, the Mediterranean ’s perception of life, food, and culture is very different than the Americans. Italians in particular have a reverence for food and good conversation. Meals are pleasurable. People enjoy their food and fellowship, meals are a family and friends event. Certainly this interaction with our friends and families can have a positive impact on our quality of life.
1 Mendonça CR, Noll M, Castro MC, Silveira EA. Effects of Nutritional Interventions in the Control of Musculoskeletal Pain: An Integrative Review. Nutrients. 2020 Oct;12(10):3075. [Google Scholar]
2 Dyer J, Davison G, Marcora SM, Mauger AR. Effect of a Mediterranean type diet on inflammatory and cartilage degradation biomarkers in patients with osteoarthritis. The journal of nutrition, health & aging. 2017 May 1;21(5):562-6. [Google Scholar]
3 Veronese N, Stubbs B, Noale M, Solmi M, Luchini C, Maggi S. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with better quality of life: data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2016 Nov 1;104(5):1403-9. [Google Scholar]
4 Veronese N, La Tegola L, Crepaldi G, Maggi S, Rogoli D, Guglielmi G. The association between the Mediterranean diet and magnetic resonance parameters for knee osteoarthritis: data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative. Clinical rheumatology. 2018 Apr 3:1-7. [Google Scholar]
This article was updated February 21, 2021