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Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.
It causes inflammation and pain and affects many parts of the body, resulting in many different symptoms.
Medications that suppress the immune system and help control pain are commonly prescribed to manage lupus, but eating the right foods and limiting others can also help.
This article explains what to eat and limit with lupus to reduce inflammation and better manage your symptoms.
What is lupus?
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can damage many parts of the body.
There are four main types of lupus (1):
- Neonatal lupus erythematosus (NLE): A rare form of lupus that occurs in newborns.
- Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE): This type primarily affects the skin, usually of the face or scalp.
- Drug-induced lupus (DIL): An exposure to a drug or medication leads to this form of lupus.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): This type affects multiple organs and is the most common form of lupus.
When most people talk about lupus, they are usually referring to SLE.
The causes of lupus are unknown but are believed to be linked to environmental, hormonal, and genetic factors (1).
Like other autoimmune diseases, lupus causes the body to produce autoantibodies that attack its own healthy cells, causing inflammation, pain, and damage to many organs, including the skin, muscles, kidneys, lungs, heart, and intestines.
The symptoms of lupus depend on the severity and the organs affected but generally include (2):
- poor appetite
- skin rashes or sores
- persistent headaches
- joint pain, swelling, and stiffness that mimics rheumatoid arthritis
Treatment for lupus usually involves medications to prevent or reduce organ damage but diet also plays a central role in managing the condition.
The role of diet in managing lupus
Diet plays an important role in managing lupus.
Eating mostly anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can lower inflammation, helping to ease symptoms and reduce organ damage (4).
With inflammation under better control, you may also be able to reduce the number or dose of medications — many of which have adverse side effects — you take.
Conversely, eating a diet rich in pro-inflammatory foods like processed meats and fried and sugary foods can worsen inflammation that is already present, increasing the severity of your symptoms and organ damage.
In one study, participants with lupus who followed a Mediterranean-style diet for six months the closest experienced significant reductions in symptoms, signs of organ damage, and C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, compared with those who followed the diet less closely (5).
The participants also used fewer corticosteroids, a common anti-inflammatory drug.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins while limiting foods high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats.
Along with helping lower inflammation, eating the right foods can also provide the nutrients that many people with lupus tend to lack in their diets, such as vitamin E, vitamin D, iron, potassium, vitamin A, zinc, vitamin D, and several B vitamins (9).
Foods to eat
Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats to lower inflammation, alleviate symptoms, and protect against health complications.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in polyphenols, a group of beneficial plant compounds that have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Indeed, a review of 83 studies concluded that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables was significantly associated with lower levels of two inflammatory proteins — CRP and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) (12).
Examples of polyphenol-rich fruits and vegetables include (13):
- Fruits: black elderberry, blueberries, blackcurrants, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, prunes, apricots, nectarines, apples, grapes, and pears
- Vegetables: artichoke, chicory root, onions, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, and carrots
It’s best to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet since each offers its own unique polyphenol profile.
Herb seasonings like cloves, oregano, celery seed, rosemary, and basil are also rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols.
Whole grains are grains that have all three of their parts — the bran, the germ, and the endosperm — intact.
They are rich in fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, and magnesium (14).
Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains have also been shown to reduce inflammation.
A review of 9 randomized controlled trials found that eating a high intake of whole grains significantly decreased multiple inflammatory markers after 6–12 weeks (15).
Examples of whole grains include:
- brown rice
- whole-grain bread and pasta
Protein helps support a strong immune system and is a key nutrient for muscle and bone health.
You can get protein from both animal and plant sources.
Animal protein sources include:
- Poultry: eggs, chicken, duck, turkey, pheasant
- Dairy: cheese, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt
- Seafood: cod, crab, salmon, scallops, shrimp, tuna
- Meats: beef, lamb, pork
Plant protein sources include:
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios
- Seeds: chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils
Some animal proteins can be rich in saturated fats, so opt for leaner cuts of meats like those that contain the word “loin” or “round,” and stick with lean cuts of poultry like the breast.
Saturated fats don’t necessarily cause inflammation but they can worsen inflammation that is already present, like in lupus (16).
Unsaturated fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are known as “good” fats because they tend to be anti-inflammatory (17).
Healthy sources of fat to eat include:
- nuts and seeds
- olive oil
- fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
- whole eggs
Many of these foods are also good sources of protein.
Foods to limit
Limit fried foods, processed meats, and added sugars as eating too much of these foods can worsen inflammation and increase your risk for health complications.
Frying food not only adds extra calories but also produces free radicals from the oil that damages your body’s cells and promotes inflammation (18).
You can fry just about anything, but some of the most popular fried foods include fish, french fries, chicken strips, and cheese curds.
Processed meats are those that have been smoked, cured, dried, or chemically preserved.
These processing methods produce harmful chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs) that promote inflammation (19).
Processed meats to limit include:
- hot dogs
- beef jerky
- deli meats
Added sugars and other highly-processed foods
Added sugars are not naturally found in foods and beverages but are added during the manufacturing process.
Foods that contain added sugars include:
- bakery products
- fruit snacks
- dairy desserts, like ice cream and flavored yogurts
- sugar-sweetened drinks, like soft drinks, energy drinks, teas, and coffees
- some breakfast cereals
- granola or cereal bars
- condiments like barbeque sauce, ketchup, and dressings
You should also limit other highly processed foods rich in saturated fats like chips, crackers, and the like.
3-day sample lupus diet menu
Here’s a three-day sample lupus diet menu to give you an idea of what your meals should look like.
- Breakfast: veggie and egg scramble
- Snack: Greek yogurt and walnuts
- Lunch: chickpea salad
- Dinner: grilled chicken with roasted brussels sprouts and potatoes
- Breakfast: spinach egg omelet with oatmeal topped with blueberries
- Lunch: vegetarian black bean burrito bowl
- Snack: veggies and yogurt dip
- Dinner: baked pork chops with sweet potato and sauteed green beans
- Breakfast: poached eggs with broccoli, tomatoes, and whole-grain flatbread
- Snack: cottage cheese and sliced peaches
- Lunch: baked chicken and roasted carrots
- Dinner: baked salmon with mashed butternut squash and sauteed asparagus
Supplements for lupus
Taking some supplements may help lower inflammation and improve lupus symptoms (22).
Most people have inadequate vitamin D levels — this is especially true for people with lupus (23).
Although you can make vitamin D by exposing your skin to sunlight, you may not produce enough if you have naturally dark skin, use sunscreen, or have limited exposure to sunlight.
And while you can get vitamin D from your diet, very few foods contain the vitamin.
This makes supplementing with vitamin D a much easier way to ensure you’re getting enough.
A vitamin D supplement that contains 1,000–2,000 IU (25–50 mcg) is a good place to start for most people.
Find vitamin D online.
Fish oil is rich in the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
A review of five studies demonstrated significant decreases in inflammation and symptoms in people with lupus who supplemented with at least 3 grams of fish oil daily for at least 12 weeks (26).
Another study found significant improvements in symptoms and reductions in oxidative stress in people with lupus after 24 weeks of fish oil supplementation (27).
Three grams of fish oil daily appears to be the most effective dose for lowering inflammation and alleviating symptoms.
Shop for fish oil here.
Curcumin is the main bioactive component found in the spice, turmeric.
Curcumin has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can help lower inflammation and reduce organ damage.
In one study, participants who took a curcumin supplement daily for three months had lower blood pressure and experienced decreased signs of lupus nephritis, a common complication that causes kidney damage (28).
Other studies have shown that curcumin can ease joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, which can help reduce reliance on medications used to alleviate these symptoms (28).
By itself, curcumin is poorly absorbed by your body, so look for a supplement that contains BioPerine, a black pepper extract, to enhance curcumin absorption, like this one from Doctor’s Best.
The bottom line
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and pain in many parts of your body.
Emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats, while limiting fried foods, processed meats, and added sugars can help lower inflammation and alleviate symptoms.
Taking a vitamin D, fish oil, and curcumin supplement can also lower inflammation and may decrease symptom severity.