There’s no particular diet for lupus, but good nutrition is paramount. Here are expert tips from lupus experts on how to eat well.
If you live with lupus, the autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissue, then you know there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all “lupus diet.” But that does not mean that a healthy diet is not important to lupus management. You have to eat foods that are balanced and heart-healthy, with nutrient-dense foods that minimize inflammation. It’s not complicated, but there are some basics to follow.
Jessica Goldman Foung, 34, a full-time food writer, has particular insight into both lupus and nutrition. The San Francisco–area resident was diagnosed with lupus in 2004 — something she says changed both her life and her diet.
“First and foremost, everybody — and every body — is different,” Goldman Foung says. “And depending on the kind of lupus you have and the drugs you might take, recommended diets will vary from person to person. This is why it’s important to discuss nutrition with your doctor or a dietitian before embarking on a new diet adventure.”
What to Include in Your Lupus Diet
“There’s no specific diet for lupus, but the Mediterranean-style diet comes close to what’s most ideal,” says Sotiria Everett, RD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of family, population, and preventive medicine at Stony Brook School of Medicine in New York. “You want to eat a diet that’s low in fat and sugar and has lots of fruits and vegetables. You should get some of your protein from fish and eat lots of beans and legumes because they’re high in fiber, vitamin B, and iron.”
According to Goldman Foung, “A diet rich in vegetables gives me energy and keeps me feeling strong and healthy.” She typically eats meals filled with dark leafy greens and other colorful vegetables, eats lots of whole grains, and limits her consumption of meat and processed foods. “I also try to drink fresh-pressed beet juice as often as possible,” she adds. “It’s a great way to sneak in some of those body-boosting ingredients.”
Everett adds that eating fish for protein is particularly good. Fish — especially salmon, tuna, and mackerel — contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are important because they help fight inflammation, she says. Omega-3s, which are also available as supplements, may decrease your risk for heart disease. This may be especially important for women with lupus because they have at least double the risk of heart disease compared with women who don’t have lupus, according to a review of studies published in August 2013 in Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism. “Lupus is an independent risk factor for heart disease, so you should maintain a heart-healthy diet that helps fight inflammation and keeps you at a healthy weight,” Everett says.
What to Take Out of Your Lupus Diet
For many people with lupus, the two big things to avoid are high-fat and processed foods. If you have issues like kidney disease, fluid retention, or high blood pressure, you may also need to talk to your doctor about salt restriction as well.
“Nightshade” vegetables — which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant — have gotten a bad rap when it comes to lupus because they’re believed to trigger inflammation. However, the Lupus Foundation of America notes that the evidence is anecdotal.
You might benefit from taking these items off the menu altogether:
Processed foods Think of these as any food that comes from a box or a can. Processed foods are higher in fat, sugar, and salt (check the nutritional information for amounts). Refined foods are on this list, too — typical white bread, pasta, and white rice. Goldman Foung says that “by replacing processed goods, packaged foods, and takeout food with meals full of fresh ingredients,” her diet is “tastier and healthier.”
Alfalfa sprouts and garlic Both these foods contain substances that rev up your immune system, which you don’t want if you have lupus. “I would recommend avoiding both alfalfa sprouts and heavy use of garlic,” Everett says. “You should also talk to your doctor before using any dietary or herbal supplements.”
Too much alcohol “A little red wine is a good source of an antioxidant that benefits heart health, but heavy, sugary alcoholic drinks are empty calories that can increase your risk of obesity and heart disease,” Everett says. “Safe limits for alcohol are one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men.”
Consider Goldman Foung’s advice: “Changing your diet for lupus doesn’t have to mean restricting or complicating your life. With the right attitude and a willingness to experiment, it might actually lead you to a more enjoyable, healthier, and tastier existence than you could’ve ever imagined.”