Alongside a healthy diet, regular physical activity can improve joint health. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Everyone encounters stiff, achy joints at some point. And it isn’t always just a sign you’re getting older.

Certain foods can trigger inflammatory responses that can affect joint pain, including added sugars, highly processed foods and starches.

The good news: You can work to eliminate these problematic foods from your diet—and also incorporate foods that may help your joints.

“An inflammatory diet can hurt your joints,” Kristi Veltkamp, RDN, registered dietitian at Spectrum Health, said. “Inflammation is like a fire—you don’t want to add any more fuel to the fire.”

Foods to avoid

Added sugar tops the list of foods to eliminate, along with white flour, Veltkamp said. Both are key ingredients in many processed foods, including white bread and pasta.

“Keeping sugar at a minimum is very helpful for someone with joint pain,” she said. “And try to avoid white flour altogether.”

Saturated fats, including butter, cream, coconut oil and cream cheese, can cause inflammation. Also avoid trans fats and fried foods, as well as corn oil, soybean oil and vegetable oil, which is used in most fast food.

Steer clear of sodium, too.

When it comes to beverages, avoid soda, lemonade and sweet tea—anything with a lot of added sugar.

Try green tea, as it has a lot of polyphenols, which help fight inflammation, Veltkamp said.

Drink plenty of water—and avoid alcohol.

Foods to include

At the top of the list for improving joint health: fatty fish, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Fruits and vegetables also offer benefits. Try tart cherries, as they are especially good, Veltkamp said. You’ll find them whole—fresh or frozen—or you can try cherry juice concentrate.

Some of the best fruits for targeting inflammation are berries, blueberries and citrus fruits, such as lemons and grapefruit.

As for vegetables, leafy greens rank high in anti-inflammatory properties. Try kale, spinach or arugula in your salad and stock up on cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower.

Fresh spices and herbs are great, too. This includes parsley, oregano, ginger, garlic, turmeric and cinnamon.

Focus on healthy fats and good oils such as olive oil, olives and avocados. Some nuts, including pecans and walnuts, are also great for taming inflammation.

Lifestyle change, supplements

Key lifestyle changes can help fight joint pain. Losing weight is one of the most powerful shifts you can make.

“When you have extra weight on your body, it can be a burden on your joints,” Veltkamp said.

Ideal exercise intensity varies from person to person. Depending on the severity of the joint pain, some people may be able to exercise more than others, Veltkamp said.

Try to stay on the move. A short walk is a good start, as it’s relatively easy and it offers plenty of benefits. Stretching regularly is also helpful.

“It doesn’t need to be high-intensity activity,” Veltkamp said. “Just take it easy and keep your body moving.”

Fasting can also improve joint health. The Lifestyle Medicine team at the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids regularly hosts five-day, physician-led fast sessions.

Supplements can also aid in the battle against joint pain—including glucosamine and chondroitin—although it could be several months before you see improvements, Veltkamp said.

“It’s modest, not a miracle,” she said. “But some people say this helps quite a bit.”

Another anti-inflammatory supplement that can help is turmeric, which Veltkamp recommends in extract form. Collagen also has some benefits, but often not until two to six months of use.

“The bottom line is if you try to stay away from sugar, sodium and processed foods and focus on a whole food plant-based diet rich in anti-inflammatory items, your joints will be much happier and healthier,” Veltkamp said.