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Up to 2 million Americans are living with rheumatoid arthritis, and as many as 18 percent of them are overweight or obese. Besides the normal health risks of obesity, carrying around extra pounds puts more stress on already painful joints. That’s why it’s very important to lose any extra weight you’re carrying and maintain a healthy weight once you reach your goal. Here’s the tricky part: Though weight loss can help reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, dieting can be very difficult. This is especially true if you’re taking corticosteroids to ease your pain because a side effect of these drugs can be increased appetite. Here are seven steps to help you take control of your weight.
2 / 8 Choose Low-Calorie, Healthy Options
A weight-loss diet for rheumatoid arthritis is based on the same principles recommended for just about everyone, says Brian Huh, MD, a rheumatologist at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles. You want to eat fewer calories by choosing mostly fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. Minimize sugar and fat in your diet. Foods that are rich in fiber will help you feel fuller and thus help you eat less. Avoid processed foods and foods that are fried.
3 / 8 Avoid Alcohol
Some medications given for rheumatoid arthritis, such as methotrexate (Trexall), can cause liver damage, Dr. Huh says. So if you’re taking methotrexate, certainly steer clear of alcohol, also a threat to liver health. Though studies show that consuming some alcohol may ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, you shouldn’t drink if you’re trying to lose weight. Alcohol has calories — empty calories, the kind you want to avoid on a weight-loss diet. If you do drink on occasion, do so in moderation.
4 / 8 Plan Joint-Friendly Workouts
It’s not always easy to get motivated to exercise when your joints ache, but exercise can help to boost weight loss and is often recommended because it can actually easerheumatoid arthritis symptoms. You might find exercising easier if you choose low-impact activities, such as walking or riding a stationary bike, Huh says. Water aerobics in a heated pool are an excellent choice because the warm water can be soothing and help relieve pain and stiffness from arthritis. Also, the water provides some resistance, which helps you tone and build muscle strength.
5 / 8 Make Muscle Strengthening a Must
In addition to low-impact aerobic exercises, you want to strengthen the muscles around joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Strengthening your muscles will improve joint stability and allow you to perform daily tasks more easily. Equipment choices for strengthening exercises range from lightweight therapeutic bands to medicine balls, dumbbells, and resistance machines. Start with 5 to 10 minutes three times a week and do more as you build strength. Remember, the more you move, the more calories you burn, and the more calories you burn, the more weight loss you’ll achieve. If you’re unsure of how to begin a strength-training program, hire a personal trainer who can map out a regimen tailored to your ability level.
6 / 8 Work With a Nutritionist
If you’re not satisfied with your own low-calorie, healthy weight-loss plan, ask your arthritis doctor to recommend a nutritionist who can help you. Together, you can develop a rheumatoid arthritis diet that includes the foods you like to eat but in quantities that will enable you to lose weight and that contain the nutrients you need. “Because they’re in pain, people with RA can easily get discouraged,” Huh says. “Sometimes you just need to seek that extra support.”
7 / 8 Take Note
Many weight-loss experts recommend keeping a food diary. It helps to write down everything you eat — including how much and when — and review it carefully; you could be eating much more than you realize, which could explain why the bathroom scale isn’t moving. As you write in your food diary, be honest with yourself. Also, if you decide to work with a nutritionist, this diet journal could be a good starting point.
8 / 8 Review Your Medications
The steroid prednisone isn’t prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis as much as it once was, says Huh, but you may need to take it at times, and it can lead to weight gain. “It increases your appetite and you retain water,” he explains. Talk to your doctor if prednisone is keeping you from reaching your weight-loss goals. It’s important to treatinflammation from rheumatoid arthritis, but your doctor may be able to adjust your medications or find alternatives so that you have an easier time achieving weight loss.