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Foods That Fight Inflammation

And why you should eat them!

By Kate Rockwood | January 23, 2020 | Rally Health

Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. It’s often just a sign that your immune system is at work defending and healing your body. “If you get a scratch or a cut, you’ll feel pain, tenderness, swelling, and see some redness in the affected area,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, and author of “Eat Clean, Stay Lean.” That’s part of the healing process. Inflammation occurs inside the body, too — in the blood vessels, the joints, the gut, and even in and around our cells, she says. 

Temporary inflammation isn’t usually cause for worry. But when it’s ongoing or chronic, that’s a different story. There may be a number of causes for chronic inflammation — an ongoing infection, obesity, or an abnormal immune response (certain types of arthritis and lupus). Long-term inflammation can be bad news; it’s been linked to higher risks of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 

One way to fight chronic inflammation is well within your control — the food you eat. First, try to avoid or eat less of foods that cause inflammation. Those foods tend to be highly processed and loaded with sugar and saturated fats, Bazilian says. These are the typical dietary baddies: fries, soda, pastries, red and processed meats, for example. Then seek out foods that help reduce inflammation. Think Mediterranean diet foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, Bazilian says. 

To lower your risk of chronic disease, and promote heart, gut, and brain health, eat a variety of these inflammation-fighting foods:

Fatty fish 

Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies) are a rich source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. “Omega-3 fats help reduce inflammation by interacting with the chemicals in the cascade of inflammatory response,” Bazilian says. “They give rise to other chemicals that mediate the inflammatory response and they also affect the production of chemicals that mediate inflammation.” 

Fruits and veggies

“Fruits and vegetables have a variety of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, as well as vitamin C and dietary fiber,” says Jill Weisenberger, RDN, and author of "Prediabetes: A Complete Guide." In particular, grapes, cherries, and berries contain plenty of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory effects.

Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, which helps reduce inflammation. Weisenberger recommends cooking the tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil, which can help the body absorb it and has anti-inflammatory properties itself. Olive oil offers healthy fats and the antioxidant oleocanthal. Meanwhile, cooking tomatoes can increase the bioavailability of lycopene.

As for vegetables, look no further than broccoli. Rich in sulforaphane, another antioxidant that fights inflammation, broccoli is a solid addition to an anti-inflammatory diet, as are its cruciferous cousins like cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Other veggies to throw into the rotation include dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens, says Keri Gans, RDN, and author of “The Small Change Diet,” for the antioxidant rich vitamin E they contain. Onions and garlic may also be allies in the fight against inflammation. 

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are also a great source of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients and fiber. “Walnuts have omega-3 fatty acids, but they are a different form from the ones in fatty fish. It’s best to have both types,” Weisenberger says. Nuts like almonds or hazelnuts also provide plenty of vitamin E, which can help reduce inflammation. Remember that while the fat in nuts is a healthy kind, the calories will still add up. Keep portion sizes in mind when snacking.

Whole grains

Whole grains are another key part of a healthy anti-inflammatory diet, says Lauren Manganiello, RD. These grains contain all three parts of the grain kernel, while refined grains are processed to remove part of the outer casing or inner germ. Whole grains generally have a higher nutrient content than their refined cousins, with higher concentrations of fiber and vitamin B. And while refined grains have been known to exacerbate inflammation, whole grains may actually help: a recent study suggests that consuming whole grains reduces systemic inflammation. And you don’t have to stick to whole grain bread or pasta: brown rice, quinoa, and even oatmeal are also good whole grain options, Manganiello says. 

Beans, lentils, and peas 

And for anti-inflammatory protein, try to work some beans, lentils, or peas into your diet. These foods are packed with fiber and phytonutrients. According to the Arthritis Foundation, legumes can help lower C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a protein created by your liver and sent into your bloodstream in response to inflammation. One study showed that a high legume diet led to a 20% decrease in CRP. 

Tea and coffee

That’s right, including tea in your daily diet is another powerful way to soothe chronic inflammation. Regularly consuming tea and other plants high in polyphenols has been shown to reduce inflammation. “Tea contains catechins, which are really strong antioxidants that fight inflammation,” says Lyssie Lakatos, RDN. If tea isn’t your, well, cup of tea, coffee counts, too. Coffee also contains polyphenols. 

“We tell our clients to aim for three or four cups a day, but a typical cup of tea is four to six ounces so it’s very doable,” adds Tammy Lakatos, RDN, the other half of the Nutrition Twins. As for the type of tea, the Lakatos sisters recommend stocking up on green or white tea. Just watch out for calories from add-ons like milk and sugar. And if you’re sensitive to the effects of caffeine, this may not be your best anti-inflammatory choice.  

Herbs and spices

While herbs and spices might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about fighting inflammation, there are quite a few anti-inflammatory helpers. That includes ginger, which contains gingerol and shogaol, two chemicals that block inflammation pathways in the body. Other herbs and spices, including mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and cinnamon, have shown some promise for reducing inflammation. 

Meanwhile, turmeric, which contains the polyphenol curcumin, has been shown to improve pain and inflammation-related symptoms of arthritis, although more studies are recommended.

There’s no single food or food group that will singlehandedly cure chronic inflammation, Weisenberger says. So your goal should be to eat a varied diet rich in foods with anti-inflammatory properties, and fewer foods that cause inflammation.

“We need an arsenal of wholesome, disease-fighting foods,” Weisenberger says. “It’s important to choose an anti-inflammatory eating pattern and not just random anti-inflammatory foods.”

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health