What is inflammation?
Unless you've lived your life in a bubble, you've experienced inflammation. Some inflammation is good. It helps the body heal from illness or injury.
Chronic inflammation, though, isn't so good. It can damage healthy tissues and organs. That's why it's important to adopt a healthy lifestyle, including an anti-inflammatory diet.
When your body suffers an illness or injury, your immune system responds. Your body increases the blood flow to the affected area, and white blood cells multiply to fight the invasion. This response is known as acute inflammation. When the healing response takes weeks instead of days, it may be called subacute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation lasts months or years. Many chronic diseases cause inflammation, putting the body under stress but not fixing the underlying condition. Chronic inflammatory diseases include:
- Heart disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Allergies such as asthma
Inflammation is associated with these diseases, though that doesn't mean that inflammation causes them or that an anti-inflammatory diet will necessarily make them go away. Still, it could help.
Why should you reduce inflammation?
If you've been eating a high-fat diet of mostly processed foods, switching to an anti-inflammatory diet may improve your overall health. You'll still need help from your doctor to diagnose and treat your chronic conditions, of course, and eating one or two specific foods will not radically change your health.
For the best results, adopt an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, which includes:
- Exercise. You should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week and avoid too much sitting.
- Mental health. Recognize any mental health issues you have and get help for them. Help can include counseling and self-help techniques such as meditation.
- Substance use. Don't smoke and avoid excessive use of alcohol.
- Sleep. Get 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night. Talk to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
There are two elements of an anti-inflammatory diet: foods to avoid and foods to include. The best anti-inflammatory diet is low in highly processed foods and in foods with unhealthy fats. Reduce your usage of foods such as:
- Fried foods
- Refined carbohydrates
- Saturated fats
- Drinks sweetened with sugar
- Red meat
- Processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, and sausage
Include foods that fight inflammation in different ways. Foods that may reduce inflammation often contain:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Unsaturated fats
Consider these foods, which contain several anti-inflammatory substances:
The pungent compounds that give onions their taste and smell are anti-inflammatory. Onions have fiber and vitamin C for additional benefits. They are low in calories, and their flavor can make other healthy foods more palatable.
Brightly colored vegetables are usually high in healthy plant compounds. The orange hue of carrots indicates beta-carotene. Carrots also contain vitamin A and fiber, which fight inflammation:
3. Olive oil
Experts say the Mediterranean diet is a good example of an anti-inflammatory way of eating. Most Mediterranean-style diets include olive oil. Besides being a healthy fat, olive oil contains oleocanthal, a special anti-inflammatory compound. Choose extra-virgin olive oil, as it is less processed and retains more nutrients. Keep in mind, though, that all oils are high-calorie foods.
Beans are a low-cost source of protein and contain anti-inflammatory compounds. They are rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc, and potassium. They are also one of the most fiber-rich foods you can eat. Thanks to the wide variety of beans, it's easy to find a type you like.
Nuts contain selenium and vitamin E, both inflammation fighters. Walnuts are especially valuable because they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Intensely colored fruits such as blueberries have compounds called anthocyanins that may reduce inflammation. Blueberries also contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are a delicious way to get one of your nine recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Tomatoes are low in calories and high in vitamin C, which fights inflammation. They are categorized as being in the nightshade family. Some people believe that nightshade vegetables increase their inflammation, but no studies have shown this to be true. If you eat tomatoes and other nightshades, track your symptoms to see if they are helpful or harmful to you.
Most Americans get less than half the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and other fatty fish are the best sources of these acids. Although these acids are called fatty, the fish are relatively lean and make a good addition to your diet. Some people are concerned about mercury in fish. Mercury is mostly a concern for children and for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, though. To be safe, eat no more than 12 ounces a week of canned salmon.
If you don't like fish, you can get omega-3s from flaxseed. Flaxseed may help with many inflammatory conditions, including heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and arthritis. You can also use flaxseed oil, but the oil does not provide all the benefits of the seeds themselves.
Not that flaxseed contains phytoestrogens, plant substances that act similarly to estrogen. If you have hormone-related conditions, ask your doctor before using flaxseed.
Dark green leafy vegetables are powerhouses of nutrition, and spinach may be the best. A single serving contains several times the recommended daily portion of vitamin K, a potent inflammation fighter. Spinach is also high in vitamin A and vitamin C. It contains a variety of minerals, including manganese, iron, magnesium, copper, and calcium. All this, and it's low in calories, too.
Cherries have antioxidants like blueberries and other fruits with a lot of pigment. Cherries have another benefit as well. Research shows they increase the amount of uric acid in urine. This helps people with gout, an inflammatory disease.
Look in the spice department for turmeric or check the produce section for turmeric roots. People have used this interesting plant for medicinal purposes for many years. It contains the anti-inflammatory compound curcumin.
Turmeric is an ingredient in many curries. You can also use it in teas and other hot drinks, such as golden milk.
The vibrant hues of mango tell you that it is high in antioxidants. One serving provides 100 percent of your daily need for vitamin C. It also contains vitamin A and vitamin K and more minerals than most fruits.
14. Brown rice
You need fiber for an anti-inflammatory diet, and whole grains are a good source. Consider brown rice. It's gluten-free, in case you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, and it has a delicious nutty flavor. The drawback to brown rice used to be its long cooking time, but now, you can find quick-cooking varieties.
15. Brussels sprouts
Once one of the most maligned vegetables in America, Brussels sprouts have won many fans. For the best flavor, roast or grill them or shred them and put them in a salad. Brussels sprouts are high in vitamins C and K, both powerful antioxidants. They are low in calories and contain several important minerals.
What are the takeaways about anti-inflammatory foods?
If you don't like a particular anti-inflammatory food, look for another food in the same category. Use tuna instead of salmon or kale instead of spinach. You'll get many of the same benefits.
You can buy supplements that contain anti-inflammatory substances, but food sources are often better. Healthy foods give you a variety of nutrients. Also, it's hard to get too much of a nutrient in food. Since supplements are concentrated, you can take too much.
Expanding your diet to include more anti-inflammatory foods isn't difficult. Many healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts, can be delicious when properly prepared.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Arthritis Foundation: "Anti-Inflammatory Diet Do's and Don'ts," "The Ultimate Arthritis Diet."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods That Fight Inflammation," "Why all the buzz about inflammation — and just how bad is it?"
Mount Sinai: "Flaxseed," "Nutrition and Your Immunity."
Oregon State University, Moore Family Center Food Coach: "Inflammation: Is it the super hero or the villain?"
Pahwa, R., Goyal, A., Jialal, I. StatPearls, "Chronic Inflammation," StatPearls Publishing, 2022.
Produce for Better Health Foundation: "Health and Wellness Resource Guide for Fruit & Vegetables."
UChicagoMedicine: "What foods cause or reduce inflammation?"
USDA Agricultural Research Center: "Eat fish! Which Fish? That Fish! Go Fish!"
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