What is the best diet for muscle and joint health?
There is a particular type of diet that research shows can offer lots of benefits to the muscles and joints. This is a plant-based diet. To find out more, this blog covers:
- What is a plant-based diet?
- How can a plant-based diet help the muscles and joints?
- My guide to eating a plant-based diet
What is a plant-based diet?
In general, a plant-based diet primarily involves eating foods that are derived from nature, such as wholegrains, fruit and vegetables. Although some people may choose to avoid dairy whilst on this diet, it is not exclusively vegan. In fact, it isn't always entirely vegetarian either. The aim is usually simply to focus the diet around foods from plant sources as much as possible.
How can a plant-based diet help the muscles and joints?
Although there is some variation in regards to what form a plant-based diet can take, there is agreement that this way of eating can be very beneficial for our muscles and joints!
Improves nutrient intake
One of the big benefits of a plant-based diet is that we are likely to have a higher nutrient intake. This is because the focus is on consuming lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and pulses, which together offer a range of vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients are of particular importance to our muscles and joints, including magnesium, omega-3, vitamin C and zinc.
There's also lots of evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet can be a good influence on inflammation levels.
Something called C-reactive protein (CRP) can give an indication of how much inflammation is present in the blood. The higher it is, the more inflammation there is. A 2015 study found that a plant-based diet that omits dairy and includes lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, can improve inflammation levels as measured by circulating CRP. The higher inflammation was, the more noticeable the effects of a plant-based diet were seen to be.2
The authors noted that these effects were probably to do with the high vegetable and high fibre content of the diet. This, it is thought, can reduce CRP in the presence of obesity, in particular.
There's also evidence to suggest that following variations on a plant-based diet can improve dietary inflammatory index (DII) amongst overweight or obese individuals. DII is used to measure the influence of diet on inflammation. Those following vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian diets saw more significant improvements in their DII score after two months, when compared with participants on a semi-vegetarian diet.
So, these diets brought about change quickly and, therefore, could be an important part of managing inflammatory conditions.3
As a plant-based diet can reduce inflammation, it comes as no surprise that it is also very good for sufferers of arthritis. Research also shows that the dietary fibre found in a plant-based diet that excludes all meat can improve gut bacteria composition and increase bacterial diversity in those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA).4
This is significant as a compromised intestinal barrier may allow food components or microorganisms to enter the blood stream, triggering inflammation and pain in arthritis sufferers. Poor diet can also trigger autoimmune processes, which will only seek to make the problem worse still. So, a plant-based diet helps to avoid this.
Although the foods that trigger flare-ups in sufferers of RA will vary, this study does show promising results regarding the effects of a plant-based diet on symptoms.
My guide to a plant-based diet
So, by this point you've heard all about the benefits of a plant-based diet and you may be thinking about giving it a try. If so, here are my tips:
There are a lot of plant-based foods that come in a processed, pre-packaged form which aren't likely to offer your body as many health benefits as fresh options. Avoid these where you can and cook from scratch using new healthy recipes and your tried and tested favourites! You could swap out mince in your usual chilli recipe, for example, with some tinned chickpeas, beans or roasted veg.
Planning your meals is also a good way to ensure you are getting a variety of nutrients, and to make sure you aren't too reliant on processed options.
Make sure you are getting a variety of foods to reap all the benefits of a plant-based diet. Some foods you should be getting include: wholegrains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, pulses and legumes.
It is also quite important to choose brown rather than white varieties of rice, pasta and bread as these are much less processed and have greater nutritional benefits.
Think about nutrients
In general, a plant-based diet can be a very nutritious way of living. However, it is important to be aware that vitamin D, omega-3 and vitamin B12 are more challenging to obtain in a diet with no fish or meat. In this case, a supplement may be required, or you may have to choose some foods that are already fortified with these nutrients.
Introduce change gradually
Lastly, don't attempt to make big changes to your diet immediately. If a plant-based diet sounds like something you want to try, then do it once a week to begin with. If this feels easy enough, make 2-3 days.
Introducing change slowly means you are more likely to notice the effects it is having on your body. It is also a little less daunting than doing a huge overhaul of your diet. And who knows? If you make little changes here and there, these may be easier to maintain in the long term as well!