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Chronic Conditions

Emily Johnson’s Top Tips on Using Diet to Live Well with Arthritis

Emily Johnson, creator of Arthritis Foodie

Emily Johnson

Creator of Arthritis Foodie

Mediaplanet chatted with author Emily Johnson, creator of Arthritis Foodie, about her experience living with arthritis from a young age and her top tips on using diet and nutrition to live happier and healthier with this chronic condition. 

When did you first get diagnosed with arthritis?

I’ve lived with arthritis for almost 10 years now. I have seronegative arthritis, which presents as being in between rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. Although the worst of it began in my twenties, I was hospitalized for a week with swollen knees when I was four years old. Despite being checked for juvenile idiopathic arthritis, my symptoms went away and I was signed off without any formal diagnosis. Sixteen years later, run down and low on sleep, I got food poisoning with symptoms lasting for over two weeks. In fighting the bad bugs, my body fought the good ones, too, and this was the start of my autoimmune disease.

There are over 100 different types of arthritis and it took a while to get diagnosed. With seronegative arthritis, your blood work doesn’t indicate that you have any disease activity. However, when I had an ultrasound on my fingers and thumbs, which were really swollen and painful, this was when I was finally diagnosed.

How has your experience dealing with the condition been?

Dealing with arthritis, especially from a young age, can be overwhelming. There have been really hard and difficult days, but over the last five years there have been more good days, as I’m in a much better place now.

The best thing that I’ve done in recent years is understand absolutely everything I can about my arthritis and how it manifests in my body. From this, I know what my needs and limitations are. Self-care is a bit of a buzzword at the moment, but I genuinely believe that taking care of yourself is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

Equipped with the right knowledge, I now know how to take care of myself with an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, which in turn helps my medication to do its job even better and helps me feel like I’m in control most of the time. Flare-ups used to be hard to predict, but now I know exactly what may bring on more pain, swelling, and inflammation. It can vary from person to person, but for me, stress, lack of sleep, and certain types of dairy products are instigators to pain.

As an author and blogger with an active life, how has your lifestyle changed after being diagnosed?

Before I started Arthritis Foodie, I wasn’t the best cook. When I started to overturn my diet, I had to learn how to cook from scratch and make whole-food meals from home.

It wasn’t easy, but I was determined to focus on my health and well-being, and the more I read research on the anti-inflammatory properties of the Mediterranean diet and began to feel its benefits, the more motivated I became to learn more about not just diet, but the whole holistic approach of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, from sleep to exercise to stress and pain management.

My lifestyle has changed a lot, because I no longer see myself as an afterthought — I make sure to tend to my physical, mental, and emotional needs to ensure that I’m able to manage my pain levels. I do yoga weekly, go for walks in nature (for mental health as much as physical health), meal prep delicious anti-inflammatory foods from scratch, and take care of my sleep routine and emotional well-being as best I can.

What motivates you to advocate for arthritis patients?

When I was in the waiting room of the rheumatology department at age 20, I had never felt so alone, abnormal, and ashamed. Not only were my joints swollen and stiff, I was exhausted, in a lot of pain, and didn’t know what on earth to do.

All I wanted to do was to hide away from the world, and so I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me, apart from close family. My life was in the hands of my immune system, the medication, and my rheumatologist — I felt like I had no control over my health — and I didn’t know where to turn.

Now, I have a strong ownership of my own health and my arthritis, too, because I understand my body more than ever. Not only that, but I see now how many other young people are living with this condition and sitting in waiting rooms feeling exactly how I did. Even if you aren’t young, it’s still such a daunting condition to be faced with, and when you’re told that there’s nothing you can do, you feel helpless. But there’s actually so much you can do to feel good every day, even if it they’re small things.

So, my motivation is all of you — all of you who are living with this condition and thinking that it will never get better. You can find ways to feel better, and you will.

Tell us a bit about your recent books on arthritis, Beat Arthritis Naturally (2021) and Eat Well with Arthritis (coming this May).

My debut book, Beat Arthritis Naturally, is the ultimate guide to living well with arthritis. After a five-year battle with the condition, I embarked on a journey of healing — with food, exercise, and healthy living — and this book has helped thousands of people in taking back control of their own body, reducing pain, and living happier and healthier with their arthritis.

Beat Arthritis Naturally shares my top tips and tricks for managing symptoms, along with quick exercise sequences and delicious recipes made with unprocessed whole foods, such as Cajun Salmon Burgers, Warming Parsnip Soup, and Bright Blueberry Muffins.

There’s a variety of topics to help you naturally feel better, including:

  • Healthy delicious recipes
  • Key anti-inflammatory foods and potential inflammatory foods
  • Pain management
  • The importance of sleep
  • Mindset and how to think more positively

Combining my own challenges with seronegative arthritis and backed-up expert advice from leading therapists and rheumatologists, Beat Arthritis Naturally provides people with the confidence they need to live a healthier and happier life.

Out for pre order now, my second book, Eat Well with Arthritis, is packed with more delicious anti-inflammatory recipes and tips for those living with arthritis. After the great success of Beat Arthritis Naturally, where I detail my journey with arthritis and how you too can live well with it, this cookbook is specifically tailored to those suffering with arthritis, but can be shared with the whole family.

In Eat Well with Arthritis, I share over 85 brand new recipes, alongside advice on how to adapt cooking techniques to reduce pain from leading occupational therapist Cheryl Crow and pain management tips from leading pain consultant and NHS doctor Deepak Ravindran.

These anti-inflammatory recipes include freezable meal prep, one-pan recipes, “fakeaway” meals, meals for friends and family, and less-than-10-ingredients recipes. They cover everything from breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, and snacks to drinks, smoothies, sauces, jams, and dips.

Recipes include Sweet Potato Hash Brown Patties and Perfect Poached Eggs, Vegan Chili Con Carne, Goan Prawn and Cod Curry, Fakeaway Katsu Curry, Apple and Berry Bake, Mint Choc Chip Smoothies, Chili Apricot Chutney, and so much more!

As the Arthritis Foodie, how would you say nutrition and diet can help manage inflammatory arthritis?

As 70 to 80 per cent of our immune system is in the gut, you can imagine the impact that food can have when you have an autoimmune condition.

The Mediterranean Diet is largely cited as the most anti-inflammatory and healthful diet you can eat. It’s where the foundation of all my recipes comes from — all recipes are packed full of nutritious fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, beans, herbs, and spices, as well as unsaturated fats and omegas with a low intake of meat and dairy foods.

However, managing inflammatory arthritis should involve not only nutrition and diet, but an anti-inflammatory lifestyle in general. This includes everything from sleep to mindfulness and exercise to avoiding the more inflammatory things in life (certain foods, being sedentary, lack of sleep, alcohol, and stress).

Super-food smoothies won’t do an awful lot if you’re not sleeping properly and if you’re sitting stationary at a desk all day. That’s why it’s best to take a holistic approach to your health and well-being.

Also, I’m still on medication and would never advise anyone to stop theirs. It’s about the things we can do alongside our medication — big and small — that can ease the overload of inflammation.

What are some of the key messages you’d like to tell patients with inflammatory arthritis?

The three things I would ask people to take away after reading this are the following:

  • Be your own advocate: learn and get to know your body and your condition, ask the right questions, and figure out what you need for the best of your health.
  • Small or big, there’s always something you can do to help yourself. If it feels overwhelming, break it down one day at a time.
  • Be kind to you: have compassion and kindness for yourself, rest when you need to, say no when you need to, and take care of you.

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