Many people suffer from inflammation and are looking for ways to feel better. In estimates from the Rand Foundation in 2014, nearly 60% of Americans had at least one chronic inflammatory condition, 42% had more than one and 12% of adults had 5 or more chronic conditions. The good news is some foods act as natural anti-inflammatories and are easy ways to give your body the tools it needs to fight inflammation. This article will cover the best anti-inflammatory foods to add to your diet, as well as foods that cause inflammation and should be avoided.
What Is Inflammation?
At its simplest definition, inflammation is the body’s biological response to something it perceives to be an “irritant” or a threat. This could be triggered by something as small as a paper cut, to something more nefarious like a pathogen. The inflammatory response is the body’s way of removing or repairing the harmful stimuli in order to protect itself.
There are two main types of inflammation:
- Acute Inflammation: This type of inflammation is usually in response to a specific event, like spraining an ankle or getting the flu. Symptoms are short-lived but can be severe and usually include pain, redness, immobility, swelling and heat.
- Chronic Inflammation: This refers to inflammation that can last for several months to years. Think of it like a steady drip of low-level inflammation. Sometimes this occurs even when there are no apparent “invaders” to fight off, making it especially frustrating for sufferers and doctors alike to correctly diagnose.
During the inflammatory response, different immune system cells are called to action and release various substances, known as inflammatory mediators. These include the hormones bradykinin and histamine.1 They tell small blood vessels in the damaged tissue to dilate, allowing more blood to reach the injured tissue. This not only helps isolate the damaged tissue from other tissue, but brings with it fresh oxygen and nutrients from your blood. It also helps make it easier for immune system cells to pass out of the small blood vessels, so more can enter the affected tissue.
Interestingly, the hormones released during the inflammatory response also irritate your nerves which send pain signals to the brain, in turn telling you to protect that part of the body.
As the body heals, the acute inflammation gradually subsides until you’re back to healthy. That is unless you have chronic inflammation, in which case the body gets confused and never stops trying to fight off the perceived threat—even when there isn’t one. This is in part due to an overactive immune system. Your body may mistake a healthy cell as an invader, and start the attack, thus triggering the inflammatory response.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation can be hard to detect, but doctors can test for C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation in the blood.CRP levels can indicate an infection, or a chronic inflammatory disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While genetics may play a role in chronic inflammation, diet and lifestyle also have a huge impact. Whether you’re dealing with inflammation currently, or looking to stay on top of your health, it’s important to know what things can help you in the fight against inflammation.
10 Best Anti-inflammatory Foods
If you’re looking for natural anti-inflammatories, a good place to start is by looking at your diet. Research shows that diets rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and fatty fish can fight inflammation, as well as help you lose weight, which is also a contributor to chronic inflammation. Here are the best scientifically-backed anti-inflammatory foods to add to your diet:
Blueberries, strawberries and raspberries are chock full of antioxidants known as anthocyanins. These are what give berries their deep blue, purple and red color. Antioxidants help to fight free radicals, which are essentially unstable molecules that can be detrimental to your health when their numbers get too high.
Wondering how much you have to eat to reap anti-inflammatory rewards? Doctors recommend aiming for one cup per day. For most people, buying fresh berries every week can get expensive. Try swapping fresh for frozen to save money.
2. (Sustainable) Fatty Fish
Health writers have for years been talking about the health benefits of fatty fish, with salmon being heralded as the king of healthy fish. While salmon is indeed full of good fatty acids, there is concern about overfishing and hatcheries impacting the sustainability of wild salmon populations.
The good news is that there are plenty of other options for fatty fish! Try herring, sardines and anchovies, which are packed with the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA. Studies show that these dietary fats play a role in anti-inflammatory processes and the health of cell membranes. They can even be a key player in pain management, as one study reported that patients had equivalent pain reduction with fish oil compared to Ibuprofen.2
Because our bodies don’t easily produce these fatty acids on their own, and most people don’t eat enough fish in their daily diet, fish oil is a good alternative. (And if you really want a nice piece of salmon, check out Seafood Watch before buying!)
How much should you eat? 2-3 servings per week according to the FDA or 250-500mg per day of fish oil.
3. Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and collards are especially great at fighting inflammation due to their high antioxidant count. In particular, kale is especially high in the antioxidants quercetin and kaempferol, which studies have shown have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-viral activities.3,4
How much should you eat? 2-3 servings (about one cup) per week. Try blending them into smoothies (freeze them first and you won’t taste them as much!), or sauces. Try rotating through a variety of greens each week so that you reap the full benefits of each of them.
Juicy, ripe tomatoes are another good source of antioxidants, notably lycopene, which has impressive anti-inflammatory properties. Lycopene is a type of carotenoid that has been shown to fight cancer and disease by slowing down the anti-inflammatory response, although a lot of how it works still remains a mystery.5
How much should you eat? 3 servings of tomato or tomato-product (like red sauce or paste) per week. Did you know? Cooking tomatoes and adding a small amount of fat, like olive oil, can help improve lycopene absorption.6
5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Out of most household oils, extra virgin olive oil is one of the best for your health. It’s rich in monounsaturated fats, which can help lower bad cholesterol, keeping your arteries nice and clear. These fats also help develop and maintain your cells.
Extra virgin olive oil is also very high in polyphenols, which have been shown to offer protection against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases.7
What’s the difference between regular and extra-virgin olive oil? Olive oils are graded using the International Olive Oil Council standards. According to these standards, extra-virgin olive oil is made from pure, cold-pressed olives and regular oil is a blend. Extra virgin oil also retains more of its olive taste and has more natural vitamins and minerals. This type of oil is best to use in salad dressings or dipping sauces. You can use regular olive oil to cook with.
How much to eat? The FDA recommends two tablespoons per day, however they type of oil and how you eat it is important. Cooking with extra virgin olive oil destroys some of its nutritional punch, so try drizzling it over salads or just taking it by the spoonful. Also, pay attention to quality. There’s considerable fraud in the olive oil industry. Make sure your oil is estate-pressed and bottled, and bonus points if you can spot one of these designations:
- The European Union’s PDO ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ stamp
- Italy’s new 100% Quality Italian stamp
- The California Olive Oil Commission’s “Extra Virgin Seal” for California oils
6. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are a good source of protein, healthy fats and minerals that can help fight inflammation. In fact, one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that regular consumption of nuts reduced concentrations of inflammation markers in the bloodstream, namely C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin (IL-6). Walnuts, pistachios, and almonds are among the best nuts that offer the most nutrition.
Seeds are high in fiber and a good source of monosaturated fats, unsaturated fats and polyphenols, which fight against inflammation. Take flaxseeds and chia seeds for example, which are incredibly high in an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic (ALA). Just make sure you’re using ground flax seed as most of the ALA is in the shell, which is hard for our bodies to digest in its raw form.
How much to eat? About a small handful of nuts and/or seeds per day.
7. Green Tea
Green tea is a rich source of polyphenols, which as mentioned earlier act as powerful antioxidants, reducing the negative impact of free radicals. One polyphenol, in particular, ECGC shows promise for limiting the production of certain molecules that trigger inflammation and joint pain in patients suffering from RA, according to one study published by the University of Michigan.
How much to drink? Some researchers say you have to drink 3-5 cups per day to reap the most rewards, however even just switching your daily coffee to green tea can help.
Cherries are a rich source of polyphenols and vitamin C which have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies also show that consuming cherries decreased markers for oxidative stress; inflammation; exercise-induced muscle soreness and loss of strength; blood pressure; arthritis and improved sleep. That’s a lot of health benefits in one little fruit!
How much to eat? One-two cups per week. They’re cheaper frozen, and delicious when added to smoothies. Add tart cherry juice to sparkling water for a great workout recovery drink.
9. Cruciferous Veggies like Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli and cauliflower, while rich in fiber and vitamins, also contain a high level of antioxidants. Broccoli, for example, is rich in sulforaphane, an antioxidant that fights inflammation by reducing levels of cytokines, which help regulate the inflammatory response.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center conducted a study that concluded that participants who reported eating the most cruciferous vegetables (1.5 cups per day) had substantially less inflammation than those who ate the fewest. The women who consumed the most cruciferous vegetables had, on average, 13%-25% lower levels of three (3) important inflammatory markers in their blood.
How much to eat? 1 cup per day (and at least 2 cups of vegetables total) Note: it’s best to lighlty cook broccoli and cauliflower so that they’re more digestible.
Last but not least, we have the noble bean. Often misunderstood for its potentially uncomfortable effects on the digestive system, beans pack a surprisingly healthy punch. Beans are high in fiber and magnesium, which has been shown to reduce inflammation.
How much to eat? The Mediterranean Diet—a staple in anti-inflammatory diets—recommends eating beans three times per week. Try swapping out a meaty meal for beans, which are a good source of protein.
Foods That Cause Inflammation
Just as there are foods that fight inflammation, there are foods that can contribute to it. These are often highly-processed foods that break down quickly and create a rush of chemical reactions in your body, including spikes in blood sugar and cortisol. If you’re trying to stay on an anti-inflammatory diet, make sure to avoid these foods:
1. Sugar and High-Fructose Syrup
Soda is an obvious culprit, but sugar is lurking in so many products. Make sure you read the nutrition labels—anything over 6 grams of sugar is too much sugar, especially if it’s added sugar. Here’s a helpful tip to visualize how much sugar is in your food: 4 grams is equal to one teaspoon. Next time you have a bowl of cereal with 12g of sugar, imagine pouring three full teaspoons of sugar on top of your cereal — that’s how much is in it! Doesn’t that seem like a lot now that you can visualize it?
Also beware that “sugar” comes by many names: sucrose, brown rice syrup, maltose, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, dextrose, and high fructose corn syrup among others. These are all essentially different forms of sugar, and have the same inflammatory effects on your body.
3. Refined Foods
Refined foods are highly-processed foods that lack nutrition. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the refining process removes many of the most important parts of grain, including vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Some examples include foods like white bread, white rice, crackers, chips, pastries, pasta, white flour tortillas, cookies and cakes. One of the reasons why these foods can be detrimental to our health is because of their high glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index measures how quickly a carbohydrate is broken down and causes blood sugar to spike. White rice, for example has a GI of 89, while brown rice has a GI of only 50. When your blood sugar spikes, it becomes harder for white blood cells to fight off infection.
4. Fried Foods
While delicious, fried foods like french fries, onion rings, and doughnuts are fried in oils that are typically full of harmful trans-fats. Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat, and the artificial kind like partially hydrogenated oil are commonly used because they become solid and shelf-stable at room temperature. While that may seem like a good thing for food producers, it’s not great news for your body. Not only are trans fats shown to increase your risk of heart disease, but observational studies have also linked trans fats to increased inflammatory markers, especially in people with excess body fat.8
In summary, inflammation can be influenced by your diet. If you’re suffering from inflammation and want to feel better, try reducing your sugar and processed food intake, and switching to fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts that are high in antioxidants. These anti-inflammatory foods are delicious, versatile and scientifically-proven to help.