Processed Foods and Chronic Joint Pain

Food can be either medicine or poison to your body. Eating processed foods can be a significant source of inflammation and discomfort for those suffering from chronic joint pain. Processed foods contain preservatives such as nitrates, sulfates, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sugar alcohols that are hard on the joints. These chemicals cause an inflammatory response in the body that can trigger or worsen joint pain.

In addition to preservatives, processed foods also usually contain high levels of trans fats and added sugars. Trans fats can interfere with the body’s natural inflammatory response. This can cause a build-up of fluid around the joints and lead to pain and inflammation in the affected area. Sugars are known to increase inflammation, which can lead to further joint pain and discomfort. Even further concerning is that food additives influence eating behaviors due to ready access to more calorie-dense foods.

Unfortunately, while processed foods have been associated with chronic disease, the evidence is weak for the following reasons:

  • Almost all foods are processed to some degree whether it’s as simple as heating,  steaming, or freezing. Many similar processing is done within the home to both improve the safety and preservation of food.
  • Additives such as preservatives, colors, and flavors differ widely in industrial processing, many of which are designed to improve food safety, increase shelf-life, and improve customer satisfaction.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shifted away from a food nutrient’s content to the degree to which it has been processed in response to growing concerns of food causing chronic disease. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) which contain formulations of ingredients mostly for only industrial use, are of the greatest concern and have been associated with increased body mass index (BMI) and chronic disease. One concern according to the Annual Reviews Annual Review of Nutrition, is that these foods have higher energy intakes due to1:

  • Sweetness of foods influences ongoing sugar and carbohydrate intake and interferes with an individual’s ability to self-regulate food intake.
  • Artificial flavorings may interfere with normal whole-food taste-nutrient relationships. As an example, processed foods contain more salt and increase taste intensity.
  • Increased availability of high-calorie liquid foods
  • Eating faster due to availability, and easier-to-ingest forms of UPFs
  • Processing of foods may impact a food’s structure and the body’s metabolism

Excessive intake of dietary sugars can cause metabolic disorders and increase inflammation through the release of inflammatory mediators and pro-inflammatory cytokines which can lead to insulin resistance and low-grade chronic inflammation. Dietary sugars especially the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has increased greatly over the last 30 years with a corresponding rise in chronic inflammatory diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and low-grade chronic inflammation.

It is well known that sugar-sweetened drinks can aggravate RA and reduce beneficial gut bacteria that can impact inflammation. Dietary sugars and processed foods may be a key factor in inflammation, whether it is low-grade or of chronic disease.2 In fact, one study of RA patients showed that the higher the UPF diet, the greater the association with cardiovascular disease risk. 3

Sugar-sweetened drinks increase inflammation and arthritis joint symptoms.

A whole-food diet may be a healthier alternative to a UPF diet. The whole food diet emphasizes fresh, unprocessed foods that are nutrient-rich and low in sugar and saturated fats. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats can help reduce inflammation in the body and minimize joint pain. Whole foods:

  • Provide essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for good health whole food diet is a much better option for those with chronic joint pain.
  • Provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help protect joints from inflammation and protect against further damage.
  • Are free of preservatives and unnecessary added ingredients which can be harmful to the body’s natural balance.

Making simple changes like replacing processed foods with whole foods can go a long way in easing joint pain and discomfort. A balanced diet of fresh, unprocessed foods provides essential vitamins and minerals that help protect joints from inflammation. Eating a whole-food diet is the best way to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and strong, even when suffering from chronic joint pain.  


1.  Forde CG, Decker EA. The Importance of Food Processing and Eating Behavior in Promoting Healthy and Sustainable Diets. Annu Rev Nutr. 2022;42(1):377-399. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-062220-030123.

2.  Ma X, Nan F, Liang H, et al. Excessive intake of sugar: An accomplice of inflammation. Front Immunol. 2022;13. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2022.988481

3.  Smaira FI, Mazzolani BC, Peçanha T, et al. Ultra-processed food consumption associates with higher cardiovascular risk in rheumatoid arthritis. Clin Rheumatol. 2020;39(5). doi:10.1007/s10067-019-04916-4  

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