After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, one of the first “facts” I ran across was that I should avoid eating foods from the nightshade family. Although nightshade is a deadly poison derived from atrope belladonna, an inedible weed, its distant relatives just happen to be potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. In some people, I read, they might trigger flares.
Of course I was devastated. Those are just about the only veggies I’ve ever liked, other than lettuce and green beans and corn. OK, and carrots. And maybe celery, once in a while.
Here’s the thing: I heart potatoes just about any way you can make ‘em: potato chips, mashed potatoes, spuds baked in their jackets. Fried potatoes—oh, my. Roasted taties—delectable! And there are so many, many dishes that include potatoes. How in the world could I ever cut such a humble but mighty food out of my diet?
And … tomatoes. Really?? What’s a tossed salad without tomatoes? Is a hamburger still a hamburger without a thick slice of beefsteak tomato tucked between the onion and melted cheese? You can eat a pizza without tomato-based pizza sauce, I guess (there are pizzas out there made with that white garlic sauce stuff, but they don’t really deserve the name). I prefer the traditional version, myself. And without the lovely tomato in all its many varieties, how can you eat spaghetti? Or chicken cacciatore? What would you dip your French fries in? There are entire categories of cuisine that wouldn’t exist without the humble tomato.
Then there’s eggplant—or aubergine, to you foodies out there. It’s an odd vegetable, I’ll admit that. It’s a rich, lovely purple, only vaguely resembles an egg, and it makes me giggle. But what would eggplant parmesan be without it? Just plain ol’ parmesan. Meh. What about ratatiouille, that fabulous French Provençal rat—I mean veggie dish—that was the subject of that delightful animated movie a few years back? And let’s not forget the surprisingly scrumptious Middle Eastern dish called babaganoush. Not only would we not get to say that really-fun-to-say word, but it wouldn’t even exist without eggplant.
Finally, there’s the pepper. Most Hungarian, Serbian, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Mexican dishes would be dull, bland and blah without peppers. I’m probably missing several countries that revere peppers in all their fiery grandeur, but you get my gist. What would we do—I mean, what would I do—without peppers to keep me on the straight and narrow?
So you can imagine that I was deeply, greatly, incredibly relieved to learn that I didn’t actually have to avoid eating potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers just because I had RA. There’s no hard scientific evidence that those veggies cause RA flares, or make it worse or whatever. It’s just a myth, repeated so often and by so many people that it has become a pseudo-fact.
Here’s the truth: “Nightshade” the weed (atrope belladonna), potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are distant members of the same family, but it’s Solanaceae, not nightshade. And contrary to what alternative medicine/foods texts and websites may state, those veggies do not contain evil oxalic acid, which inhibits the absorption of calcium. Nor do they contain the toxic alkaloid compound called solanine, a defense mechanism found in some Solanaceae plants that protects them against natural threats such as insects.
What it all comes down to is this: If “nightshade” family foods seem to trigger a flare if you eat them, then don’t eat them. Same with cake and ice cream. If it makes you hurt, avoid it. When you eat foods that have wheat gluten in them, and you flare soon afterward, well, try not eating them and see if it helps.
The fact is that in most people, most foods have little if anything to do with their rheumatoid arthritis, unless they eat too much of it and become overweight, which can place more stress on weight-bearing joints. RA is, after all, an autoimmune disease. No one knows what triggers it or what triggers its characteristic inflammatory flares. The food we eat? The weather? Mitch McConnell? Maybe all of the above?
There are foods that have been proven to be anti-inflammatory, though, and they can be beneficial when it comes to RA. Click right here to read all about them.
Editor’s Note: I’m aware that some readers will heartily disagree with this post; the belief that vegetables in the Solanaceae family (and related to nightshade) trigger arthritic flares is pervasive. I did search for solid evidence regarding the phenomena. I found a few studies, but none produced any hard scientific evidence. That said: if you find that potatoes, tomatoes, peppers or eggplants seem to trigger painful osteoarthritis or RA flares, it is always your right to avoid eating them. I’d be the last person to blame you.