The role of diet in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) remains controversial and there have been no controlled studies on the use of elemental diet in the treatment of RA. Elemental diet is an hypoallergenic protein-free artificial diet consisting of essential amino acids, glucose, trace elements and vitamins. This study was carried out to assess the role of elemental diet and subsequent food reintroduction in RA. Elemental diet (E028) (and a small number of foods) was given to 24 patients with definite RA in order to induce a remission and then foods were gradually introduced. Where a food was suspected of causing symptoms it was removed from the diet. Twenty-three control patients supplemented their usual diet with E028. After the elemental diet there was a statistically significant improvement in the diet group in grip strength (P = 0.008) and Ritchie score (P = 0.006) but not in ESR, CRP, thermographic joint score or functional score. The diet group lost more weight than the control group and this correlated with the improvement in grip strength. This improvement was not present following food reintroduction. As the improvements took place in more subjective disease parameters and because of the difficulties in adequately blinding studies of diet in arthritis, a placebo effect must be considered. There was a high default rate, only 38% of those patients originally enrolled completed the study. In conclusion, this study shows that elemental diet can cause an improvement in a number of disease parameters in RA but this is not sustained by an individualized diet. It also illustrates some of the difficulties involved in the study of diet in arthritis.