Let’s talk about inflammation for a minute, shall we? More specifically, I want to explore which foods you should include in your diet to help reduce inflammation and which foods to avoid. This is a long post but I felt it was important to cover a few different key terms to help you better understand the role nutrition can play in regards to reducing inflammation, and other chronic diseases. So, here’s a list of anti-inflammatory foods you can include in your diet and why.
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Inflammation is when your body fights against something that it feels is harming it. This may occur when you’ve had injuries, infections, or inadvertently introduced toxins into your system. It’s your body’s triggered response coming from your immune system to release chemicals to help heal itself. 1
So inflammation as described is good for you! It’s your body working the way it should. Chronic inflammation, however, is not good. Chronic inflammation is when your immune response doesn’t really subside and your body is in a constant state of high alert. That’s not what we want, it’s not good for us.
The longer this response continues, the more harmful the effects are on your tissues and organs. Researchers believe chronic inflammation is behind many conditions ranging from asthma to heart disease to cancer. Think about it: arthritis is inflammation of the joints, heart disease is inflammation of the arteries. 2 Symptoms of chronic inflammation may include fatigue, fever, mouth sores, rashes, stomach pain, and chest pain — and just all-around not feeling great.
The National Cancer Institute shares the following:
“In chronic inflammation, the inflammatory process may begin even if there is no injury, and it does not end when it should. Why the inflammation continues is not always known. Chronic inflammation may be caused by infections that don’t go away, abnormal immune reactions to normal tissues, or conditions such as obesity. Over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer. For example, people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease, have an increased risk of colon cancer.”
It’s not a great way to go through life. So what causes your body’s regular immune response to become chronic inflammation?
“When you don’t eat healthy, don’t get enough exercise, or have too much stress, the body responds by triggering inflammation,” says Varinthrej Pitis, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Chronic inflammation can have damaging consequences over the long term. So the food you eat, the quality of sleep you get and how much you exercise, they all really matter when it comes to reducing inflammation.” 3
For some people, chronic inflammation is caused by smoking, obesity, alcohol, and stress.
For other people, chronic inflammation is the result of consuming certain foods. Yes, eating something could possibly trigger an immune response in your body that doesn’t turn itself off.
The good news is that while certain foods cause inflammation, other foods can help reduce inflammation.
Let’s start with the foods known to cause inflammation. You’re not going to see anything new here.
How about dairy?
If you’re wondering about dairy, well, the jury is still out on dairy. It’s got its pros and its cons. For some people, dairy causes inflammation and for others it’s a healthy protein that causes them no trouble. Whole milk and full-fat dairy products can be good or bad depending on the individual. 6 There’s no one answer that applies to all of us. You have to work out your relationship with dairy! Like I’ve said in so many blogs — Everything In Moderation! I find that I can tolerate dairy in small quantities; I do, however, have to know my limits.
For so many of us, it’s unrealistic to exclude all those items, those “usual suspects,’’ from our weekly food consumption (This girl loves a glass of wine every so often!). But if you’re being negatively affected by the symptoms of chronic inflammation, reducing or eliminating some of these items may help your body heal itself properly.
So what foods can help ease the body’s inflammatory response? Well, it should come as no shock that vegetables and fruits are at the top of that list. Think berries, tomatoes, avocados. Add to that coconut oil, nuts, and fatty fish, which are all good for reducing inflammation, as are Bell peppers and chili peppers, spices, and dark chocolate. Even though alcohol was on the inflammation list, red wine is on the anti-inflammation list — and as previously mentioned, everything in moderation.
The All-Stars of Anti-Inflammatory Foods
While the foods mentioned above all have anti-inflammatory effects on the body, there are a few that deserve a shout out.
Berries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins. These compounds have anti-inflammatory effects that may reduce your risk of disease.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable that is extremely nutritious. According to researchers, broccoli, along with cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale, is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and cancer. 7
Green Tea according to numerous studies, is one of the healthiest beverages you can drink. Many of its benefits are due to the polyphenols, particularly flavanols and flavonols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions. (You can read more about polyphenols here!)
Recently, many of the aforementioned beneficial effects of green tea were attributed to its most abundant catechin, (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a unique plant compound that gets a lot of attention for its potential positive impact on health. It’s thought to reduce inflammation, aid weight loss, and help prevent heart and brain disease.
Tip: To derive the optimal amounts of catechins from your tea, let the bag steep for at least three minutes in hot (boiled) water.
Turmeric is a deep marigold root, offers anti-inflammatory benefits thanks to its active ingredient curcumin — a polyphenol that at the cellular level may help reduce oxidative stress from environmental triggers and disease. Curcumin has been shown to be beneficial in treating the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and stomach ulcers.
Important Note: Ingesting curcumin by itself does not lead to the associated health benefits due to its poor bioavailability, which appears to be primarily due to poor absorption, rapid metabolism, and rapid elimination.
Chia Seeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods. ALA has anti-inflammatory benefits. You can read more about the health benefits of chia seeds here.
Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids as does other fatty fish such as tuna and sardines, which help reduce inflammation throughout the body. 8 Salmon is also high in protein which supports White Blood Cell (WBC) formation (immune cells), as well as high in Vitamin D and B6 which help with gene expression and upregulation of B and T lymphocytes.
The importance of B and T lymphocytes. According to The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, B and T cells are like “the “special ops” of the immune system—a line of defense that uses past behaviors and interactions to learn to recognize specific foreign threats and attack them when they reappear.”
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
According to Healthline, “studies link extra virgin olive oil to a reduced risk of heart disease, brain cancer, and other serious health conditions…The effect of oleocanthal, an antioxidant found in olive oil, has been compared to anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.”
Red onions, according to the Arthritis Foundation, “One flavonoid found in onions, called quercetin, has been shown to inhibit inflammation-causing leukotrienes, prostaglandins and histamines in osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), reduce heart disease risk by lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol and help prevent the progression of cancer.”
Research suggests that eating an apple on a daily basis might lower levels of cholesterol as well as C-reactive protein (CRP), is a key marker of inflammation in the blood. High levels of CRP is not a good thing, it could be a sign of a serious infection or other disorder. According to the National Institute of Health, “There’s no doubt that the very best way to lower CRP is through exercise, weight loss, and dietary control; of course, those are all proven already to lower vascular risk.”
Did you know? In a 2012 study of 160 women ages 45 to 65, half of the participants ate three-quarters of a cup of dried apples every day for a year, and the other half ate a cup of prunes – each 240 calories. Within six months, the apple eaters’ LDL (bad) cholesterol decreased 23 percent, their HDL (good) cholesterol increased 4 percent and their CRP fell 32 percent. 9
Eat your apple peel!
Make sure to eat your apple peel as peels contain anthocyanins.
What are anthocyanins?
Anthocyanins, found in fruits such as apples, strawberries, and blueberries, are colored water-soluble pigments belonging to the phenolic group. 10 According to Densie Webb, PhD, RD, “Plants produce anthocyanins as a protective mechanism against environmental stressors, such as ultraviolet light, cold temperatures, and drought. This production of anthocyanins in roots, stems, and especially leaf tissues is believed to provide resistance against these environmental hazards.” 11
Scientific studies show that anthocyanidins and anthocyanins possess antioxidative and antimicrobial activities, improve visual and neurological health, and protect against various non-communicable diseases. 12 They’ve also been found to help lower blood pressure, and make blood vessels more elastic. 13
Fun fact: Red Delicious apples provide more anthocyanins than Fuji apples; black raspberries are a far richer source than red raspberries; and Concord grapes are a much more concentrated source than red grapes. 14
Ginger, according to Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, “has anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer and antioxidant activities, as well as a small amount of analgesic property.” In studies, ginger has been shown to relieve pain and stiffness in knee joints. 15
One diet that incorporates many of these All-Stars?
The Mediterranean diet.
Frank Hu, MD, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, suggests that in order to reduce levels of inflammation, “aim for an overall healthy diet. If you’re looking for an eating plan that closely follows the tenets of anti-inflammatory eating, consider the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils.”
Dr. Hu also points out that a less processed diet can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health. “A healthy diet is beneficial not only for reducing the risk of chronic diseases, but also for improving mood and overall quality of life,” said Hu. 16
Additionally, an inactive lifestyle that includes a lot of sitting is a major non-dietary factor that can promote inflammation. Simple fix: go for regular walks with your pet, your kids, your friends — just make some time to get your body moving.
Added bonus: In addition to lowering inflammation, a more natural, less processed diet can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health. “A healthy diet is beneficial not only for reducing the risk of chronic diseases, but also for improving mood and overall quality of life,” Dr. Hu says. 17
Tip: Don’t forget to include carbs to your diet!
According to Kathleen Robins, MS, RDN, CSSD, CSOWM, “Enough carbohydrate intake is very important because too low of intake elevates stress hormones, and reduces white blood cell count. A diet low in carbohydrate is also a diet low in fiber which reduces gut microbiota diversity which can alter the immune system. High fiber foods include apples, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sweet potatoes, beans/lentils, berries and broccoli. Fiber is important because gut bacteria eats it resulting in short-chain fatty acids which helps to reduce inflammation in the colon and even reduce upper respiratory infections(!) You can read more about good and bad carbs and how they impact inflammation here.
Eating anti-inflammatory foods will not solve all your health problems but they’re likely to help your body in many subtle ways that will reduce inflammation, aid digestion, and improve mood. My best advice is to maintain a healthy diet as much as possible, exercise regularly in ways that are fun for you, and be conscious of your stress levels and try to reduce what’s causing you stress whenever and wherever you can!
Reviewed by Kathleen Robins, MS, RDN, CSSD, CSOWM: Kathleen Robins, is a mom, veteran, and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with 8 years of experience. Over the course of her 10-year military career in the US Army, Kathleen has helped patients lose weight, fight cancer, and heal from transplants or heart attacks. She has published research on the caloric needs of wounded warriors, ran nutrition and medical administrative clinics, and worked alongside fellow military dieticians to help heal wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Kathleen is also Board Certified in the treatment of overweight and obesity (CSWOM) and a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD).