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Do sweets aggravate arthritis?

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain and inflammation in a joint. There are over 100 different types of arthritis, with the most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Many people with arthritis wonder if eating sweets can make their symptoms worse. This article will examine the evidence on whether sugary foods aggravate arthritis symptoms.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones breaks down over time. This causes inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints. The two most common types of arthritis are:

– Osteoarthritis – This is a degenerative joint disease that often affects the hands, knees, hips and spine. It is caused by wear and tear on the joints over time.

– Rheumatoid arthritis – This is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the joints, causing inflammation. It often starts in smaller joints like the hands and feet before spreading to larger joints.

Other common types of arthritis include gout, lupus, psoriatic arthritis and septic arthritis. Arthritis is very common, affecting over 54 million adults in the United States. It becomes more common as people age.

What are the symptoms of arthritis?

Symptoms of arthritis include:

– Joint pain, swelling and stiffness, especially after periods of inactivity or first thing in the morning
– Reduced range of motion in the joint
– Tenderness when the joint is touched or pressed
– Crepitus – a cracking or grinding sound when the joint is moved
– Joint deformity, like knobby finger joints in osteoarthritis
– Fatigue, low grade fever, and muscle aches with inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid

What causes arthritis?

The exact cause depends on the type of arthritis:

– Osteoarthritis is caused by gradual wear and tear on the joints over time. Being overweight, prior joint injury, genetics and aging can increase the risk.

– Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. Genetics and environmental factors are thought to trigger it.

– Gout is caused by uric acid crystals building up in the joints, often as a result of excess uric acid production or kidney problems.

– Infections, injury, autoimmune disorders and genetics can all lead to other types of inflammatory arthritis.

Do sugars impact arthritis?

There is some controversy over whether sugary foods can worsen arthritis symptoms. Here are a few key points in the debate:

Potential ways sugar may aggravate arthritis:

Increased inflammation – Eating lots of added sugars may promote systemic inflammation in the body, which could exacerbate inflammatory types of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis.

Weight gain – Sugary foods are often high in calories, which can lead to weight gain. Excess weight puts extra pressure on weight-bearing joints like the knees, hips and ankles, increasing arthritis pain.

Blood sugar spikes – Sugary foods cause blood sugar spikes, which some early research suggests could temporarily worsen arthritis pain and inflammation.

Reasons sugar may not affect arthritis:

Lack of evidence – Most research has not found a clear, direct link between sugar consumption and arthritis flares. Arthritis symptoms are highly variable in individuals.

Other dietary triggers – Saturated fat, trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and food sensitivities may play a bigger role in arthritis inflammation than sugar alone.

Medication effectiveness – Medications like DMARDs and biologics help many arthritis patients manage inflammation independently of diet.

Some experts recommend limiting added sugar intake

While evidence on sugar’s impact is limited, some doctors advise arthritis patients to minimize added sugars as part of an overall anti-inflammatory diet:

– Reduce sources of added sugars like soda, candy, baked goods, and desserts
– Limit fruit juice and dried fruit which are high in natural sugars
– Focus on getting nutrients from fruits and vegetables instead of sugary foods
– Avoid letting weight creep up, which adds stress to joints

However, there is no need to totally eliminate all sweets, especially if it affects quality of life. The key is moderation.

Do specific types of sweets affect arthritis more?

There are no studies showing that one type of sweet food is conclusively more inflammatory than others when it comes to arthritis. However, here are some hypotheses:

Sugars with higher glycemic index

The glycemic index measures how much and how quickly a food spikes blood sugar levels. There is some speculation that sugary foods with a high glycemic index, like candy, soda and syrups, could temporarily exacerbate arthritis more than lower glycemic options like whole fruits. But this theory requires more research.

Sweets with trans fats or saturated fats

Some sweets like baked goods, pastries, and chocolate contain saturated or trans fats in addition to sugar. These unhealthy fats are pro-inflammatory, so minimizing them may be wise for arthritis patients.

Sweets containing dairy and gluten

People with food sensitivities may find that sugary foods containing dairy or gluten, like ice cream and cookies, aggravate their symptoms more so than other sweets. An elimination diet can help determine individual food triggers.

Dried fruit and fruit juice

While whole fruits have fiber, dried fruit and juice concentrate their natural sugars and lose fiber. This makes their glycemic index shoot up, possibly affecting arthritis. Still, they offer more nutrients than sweets like soda and candy.

How might cutting out sweets help arthritis?

Here are some potential benefits arthritis patients could see by reducing their sugar intake:

– Lower systemic inflammation, if sugar does promote inflammation
– Avoidance of blood sugar spikes that may worsen symptoms temporarily
– Easier weight management, reducing strain on joints
– Reduced pain or flares if certain sweets are triggers
– Improved energy levels and arthritis symptom control
– Better nutrition from eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains

However, there are no guarantees that avoiding sweets will definitively improve arthritis. More research is still needed on sugar’s role. Some people report no difference when cutting out sweets.

Can natural sweeteners be used instead?

Some people with arthritis try using natural sweeteners as a substitute for refined white sugar. Options include:

Maple syrup and honey

These unprocessed sweeteners retain some nutrients like antioxidants. One downside is their high glycemic index, so they may still spike blood sugar.


Stevia comes from a South American plant. It contains zero calories and has a negligible effect on blood sugar.

Monk fruit

Also called luo han guo, monk fruit sweetener comes from an Asian fruit. It has zero calories and minimal impact on blood sugar.

Xylitol and erythritol

Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol have a low glycemic impact. But they can cause digestive side effects in some people when eaten in large amounts.

Always consult a doctor before making major diet changes like switching sweeteners. Moderation is key, even with natural sweeteners, as they offer little nutritional value.

How does arthritis affect blood sugar levels?

Having arthritis does not directly affect blood sugar levels or cause diabetes. However, some medications used to treat inflammatory arthritis like corticosteroids can raise blood sugar as a side effect.

The two conditions are linked in the following ways:

People with diabetes have higher arthritis risk

Having elevated blood sugar over many years does increase the risk of developing arthritis, especially osteoarthritis:

– High blood sugar damages joints over time through a process called glycation, where sugar molecules attach to joint proteins. This makes joints stiffer.
– Diabetes can affect cartilage, tendons, ligaments and bone health, leading to conditions like adhesive capsulitis (“frozen shoulder”).

Arthritis can make managing diabetes harder

Arthritis symptoms and complications can make dealing with diabetes more difficult:

– Finger joint arthritis can hinder monitoring blood sugar and giving insulin injections.
– Arthritis fatigue makes it harder to exercise regularly, which helps control blood sugar.
– Some arthritis drugs have hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) as a side effect.
– Arthritis pain and depression may reduce motivation for diabetes self-care.

Working closely with one’s healthcare team is important to successfully manage both arthritis and diabetes.


More research is still needed to definitively determine if sweets can exacerbate arthritis inflammation and pain. Simple sugars offer little nutritional benefit, so limiting added sugars and focusing on whole foods rich in antioxidants and nutrients makes sense. But there is no need to completely avoid all sweets. Natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit could be healthier alternatives to refined white sugar. People with food sensitivities may find specific sweets trigger their arthritis more than others. While arthritis itself does not affect blood sugar levels directly, diabetes does increase one’s risk of developing arthritis over time, and arthritis can complicate diabetes management. Overall, a balanced diet low in inflammation remains key for managing arthritis symptoms.