Many people living with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) find that making certain adjustments to their diet helps manage their condition. Although there's no diet proven to treat or cure AS, eating or avoiding certain foods can make a difference in how you feel.
Start by eating as healthy a diet as possible, says David G. Borenstein, MD,a clinical professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the George Washington University Medical Center and a practicing physician at Arthritis & Rheumatism Associates in Washington, D.C.
A healthy diet helps give you the strength you need to live every day at your best. It can also help keep off extra pounds that could put additional stress on your bones and joints. In addition, it can help stave off other conditions that sometimes occur as long-term complications of AS, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
There's still a lot the medical community needs to learn about nutrients for AS, but some specific dietary recommendations have research to back them up.
Foods to Eat for Ankylosing Spondylitis
Low-fat dairy products. Having AS puts you at an increased risk for osteoporosis, which weakens your bones. Dairy products are a good source of calcium, and, if fortified with vitamin D, they work together to strengthen bones. Choose non- or low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt to keep fat intake in check. Other good sources of calcium are canned sardines and salmon, kale and collard greens, and white beans, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Fruits and vegetables. These foods contain hundreds of phytochemicals, says Kim Larson, RDN, CD, CSSD, a Seattle-based dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Phytochemicals act as antioxidants, which absorb free radicals — unstable molecules that are the byproducts of turning food into energy — before they can cause inflammation and damage cells. Aim for a colorful range of fruits and vegetables: berries, purple cabbage, sweet peas, peppers, cherries, peaches, and cantaloupe.
Whole grains. Inflammation from AS can affect your heart as well as your joints. Whole grains can lower your risk for heart disease, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2015. Add whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa, and brown and wild rice to your AS diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Like whole grains, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are linked to protecting heart health, according to the National Library of Medicine. They may also help reduce inflammation. Good sources include fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel.
Spices. Ginger and turmeric are high on Dr. Borenstein’s list. “Both spices seem to have some anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving components,” he says. Garlic, basil, and pepper also have anti-inflammatory properties, according to Harvard Medical School.
Foods to Avoid for Ankylosing Spondylitis
What not to eat if you have AS could be as important as what you do eat. Empty calories — notably from sugar, refined grains, and unhealthy fats — can make controlling your weight difficult, Larson says. That's just one of the risks that these unhealthy foods pose:
Sugar. Sugar can set off an inflammatory response in your body that can exacerbate AS symptoms, says Nathan Wei, MD, director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland. Be aware of all sources of added sugar in foods like soda and desserts because these calories can quickly add up to extra weight and, in turn, more stress on inflamed joints.
Salt. Too much salt can lead to retaining water, putting pressure on your blood vessels and raising your blood pressure — another risk factor for heart disease. To cut back on salt but still make meals you'll enjoy, season foods with a variety of herbs instead, Larson says.
Alcohol. There are two good reasons to limit alcohol intake when you have AS: Certain medications can negatively interact with alcohol, and alcohol can weaken bones, according to the Spondylitis Association of America. “Talk to your doctor about what's safe for you and your circumstances when it comes to drinking alcohol,” Borenstein says.
Red meat. While results of studies on how red meat affects various forms of arthritis are mixed, some people believe that red meat can be inflammatory, Dr. Wei says. If you want to do everything possible to help improve your AS, eating less red meat may help. Just make sure you’re getting adequate protein from other sources.