Nutrition for Juvenile Arthritis

Juvenile arthritis encompasses more than 100 inflammatory and autoimmune conditions in children under 16. A nutrient-rich diet is a crucial component of the treatment for this condition.

Juvenile arthritis (JA) refers to a number of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions that occur in children age 16 and younger. The most common of these is called juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or arthritis of spontaneous or unknown origin. General symptoms of JA include pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of movement in affected joints. For more information on the specific subtypes of JA, such as forms of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, see the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website.

JA is an area of intense research and may be caused by an interaction of genes and foods, environmental toxins, or allergies. Scientists currently believe that children who develop JA have both a genetic predisposition to the disease and exposure to something in the environment, such as a virus, that sets the disease in motion.

Goals of JA treatment are to maintain a high quality of life, both physically and emotionally, and to reduce the swelling, pain, and loss of mobility of affected joints. Treatment of JA is typically led by a pediatric rheumatologist, but the multidisciplinary treatment team might include any or all of the following: ophthalmologist, orthopedic surgeon, physical therapist, occupational therapist, psychologist, and dietitian, among others.

Appetite may be suppressed in children with JA – from the disease itself or from its treatments – so getting enough high-quality calories coming from protein, nutrient-rich carbohydrate, and healthy fat is critical. On the other hand, some JA treatments like chronic steroids may increase a child’s appetite, so finding the right nutritional balance is key.

JA may cause functional problems that interfere with a child’s ability to eat. For example, pain in the hands might prevent them from opening packages or feeding themselves. In addition, some children with JA develop other health conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, osteoporosis, or even depression. These secondary conditions should be identified and addressed with the multi-disciplinary care team. Regular physical activity such as afterschool sports, dancing, bike riding, and swimming is an important part of managing JA. When formal activity is too painful, even light stretching and toning exercises can help kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight, prevent and manage other health conditions, and even fight depression.

While there is no official diet for the treatment of JA, a nutrient-dense anti-inflammatory menu described below helps to ensure normal growth, development, and daily functioning. Plus…it’s delicious!

Adequate calcium and vitamin D: Because children with JA may be at increased risk of developing osteoporosis, getting enough calcium and vitamin D is key. Best sources of these nutrients include low-fat milk and yogurt, dairy substitutes like fortified soy and almond milk, and these non-dairy bone builders.

Whole grains: Eating more whole grains such as quinoa, faro, barley, oats, and brown rice may decrease C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation found in the blood. Whole grains also contain healthy complex carbohydrates and micronutrients like selenium that add to their anti-inflammatory effect. For a fun breakfast or snack made with whole grain bread, cereal, nut butter, and fruit, try my Happy Toast or this Quinoa Parfait with Grapes and Sunflower Seeds.

Colorful fruits and vegetables: The compounds that give fruits and vegetables their brilliant hues are also antioxidants that can decrease the inflammation of JA.    Red, blue, and purple foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, red cabbage, red peppers, and red grapes contain health-promoting lycopene, while raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, purple cauliflower, and purple carrots contain high levels of anthocyanins. Orange and yellow foods such as oranges, golden raspberries, and yellow peppers contain vitamin C while carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and cantaloupe contain beta-carotene. And green foods, especially kale, Swiss chard, collards, beet greens, and spinach contain lutein and zeaxanthin. Involve the kids in cooking and make fruit salads and vegetable plates that contain a rainbow of colors.

Healthy fats: Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and mackerel help decrease levels of inflammatory compounds called cytokines. Non-fish sources of omega-3s include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seed, and soybeans. Olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, contains a compound called oleocanthal that reduces levels of inflammatory enzymes similarly to medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. Other sources of monounsaturated fats include avocado, canola oil, seeds (like pumpkin and sunflower seeds), and nuts (like peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, and macadamias). For a stealthily healthy treat made with omega-3-rich flax seeds, try my Double Chocolate Chip Pancakes. Also, try swapping avocado for traditional mayo in my Tuna Avocado Salad.

For more food-related anti-inflammatory solutions, check out these home remedies.