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Inflammation is a direct attack on the body by the immune system. It is generally visible in the form of red and swollen skin and is often accompanied by pain.
Inflammation itself is not a bad thing. However, chronic or ongoing inflammation can indicate health problems. There are many anti-inflammatory medications that people use daily to alleviate pain.
However, nature also produces anti-inflammatory substances in food that you can easily incorporate into your diet.
What Is Inflammation?
In a nutshell, inflammation is a response to a perceived threat in the body. It happens when immune cells produce inflammatory mediators (much like messengers) that can dilate blood vessels, allowing blood to better reach areas of injury.
Blood can quickly carry immune cells to injured parts of your body and initiate the healing process. Areas of inflammation can often be swollen and hot due to the blood flow and fluid buildup from the immune cells. (1)
The Diet-Inflammation Connection
It is vital to be mindful of your diet in order to help control inflammation. While some foods can aggravate or cause inflammation (pro-inflammatory foods), some other food groups help reduce inflammation (anti-inflammatory foods).
Foods that can cause inflammation
Diets high in saturated fat, trans fats, and refined sugar have been linked to a higher production of pro-inflammatory molecules, particularly in those who are already overweight or currently suffer from diabetes. (2)
You should limit your intake of inflammatory foods, including:
- Refined carbohydrates, such as donuts, cookies, muffins, and white bread
- Fried foods, such as breaded meats and vegetables as well as fries
- Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, sweet tea, and energy drinks
- Processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausage, and beef jerky
- Red meat, such as steak and hamburger meat
- Processed fats, such as shortening, margarine, and lard
Foods that can reduce inflammation
Studies have found that certain fruits and vegetables are naturally high in antioxidants and polyphenols that protect the body. (3) Even nuts have been associated with reduced inflammation markers and reduced risks of inflammation-related diseases.
When searching for anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables, aim for the ones that are colored blue, purple, and red. These are highest in certain flavonoids that support inflammation reduction.
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens
- Vegetables such as purple sweet potatoes, red cabbage, purple corn, tomatoes, and rice
- Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, cranberries, raspberries, red grapes, cherries, and oranges
- Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
- Fish, such as salmon, tuna, and sardines
- Olive oil (extra virgin)
- Green tea (6)
- Colored peppers such as chili peppers (7)(8)
- Mushrooms (9)
- Turmeric (10)
- Dark chocolate and cocoa (11)
- Garlic (12)
Focusing on a diet that consists mainly of whole foods and reducing your intake of processed foods are easy ways to promote a normal and healthy inflammatory response.
Preparing meals in advance and skipping takeout are good places to start. You can also replace your red meat with options such as turkey, chicken, or tofu. Also, aim for 5 servings of vegetables per day and at least 2 servings of colorful fruit.
Anti-Inflammatory Berry Salad Recipe
You can try including this salad loaded with anti-inflammatory compounds in your diet.
Prep time: 15 minutes; Serves: 2
For the salad:
- 6 cups spinach
- 2 cups arugula
- 1 cup strawberries, thinly sliced
- ½ cup kiwi, cut into quartered slices
- ½ cup raspberries
- ½ cup blueberries
- ¼ purple onion, thinly sliced and separated
- ½ cup walnuts, chopped
- ½ cup crumbled feta
For the lemon vinaigrette:
- 5 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil
- 3 tablespoons squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar.
- While whisking, add lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
- In a large salad bowl, combine all salad ingredients and gently toss together.
- Drizzle with vinaigrette and serve.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Jillian Greaves, MPH, LDN (Registered Dietitian)
No single food is going to impact inflammation by itself. Foods and nutrients are never consumed in isolation, and it is important to focus on the overall dietary pattern as a whole.
That being said, a dietary pattern that is rich in processed packaged foods, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, processed meats, vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, and alcohol is considered to be inflammatory.
Different people have different needs based on several factors, and this goes back to the fact that no single food by itself is going to cause or decrease inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. (13)
In general, limiting processed packaged foods and prioritizing a diet rich in whole foods can be beneficial. (14) Always work with a credentialed health professional to determine your personalized dietary needs.
The Mediterranean diet is a well-researched anti-inflammatory diet. (15) Keep in mind that this is not a rigid diet – it is a dietary pattern rich in brightly colored vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, fish and seafood, eggs, lean animal proteins, healthy fats, and herbs and spices.
In addition to incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into the diet, it is important to prioritize other behaviors that play a role in inflammation, including stress management, proper rest and sleep, (16) exercise, (17) social connection, and minimizing exposure to toxins such as tobacco and alcohol.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host.”
These microorganisms are important for maintaining a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. Also, they help in the modulation of immune and inflammatory mechanisms in the body. (18)
Unfortunately, the role of probiotic therapy in inflammation is not well understood, and more research is needed.
An anti-inflammatory dietary pattern is one important piece of the puzzle in reducing chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases the chances of developing or worsening the following conditions:
• Type 2 diabetes
• Digestive issues
• Autoimmune disease
• Skin issues
• Depression and mood disorders (19)
• Sleep disorders
• Excessive weight gain
• Chronic fatigue
A good source of monounsaturated fats, extra virgin olive oil, is one of the healthiest anti-inflammatory oils you can include in your diet.
It is best to consult a doctor about any diet you are going to follow. However, in general, the following tips may help when including anti-inflammatory foods in your diet:
• Aim for a variety of whole foods to diversify the types of nutrients you give your body.
• Minimize your consumption of processed foods.
• Eat an abundance of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. (20)
• Maintain adequate hydration with plain water.
• Utilize your spice cabinet!
• Focus on what you can add to your life versus getting obsessed about what to limit.
Inflammation is a defense mechanism of the body’s immune system against external stimuli. However, various foods can also promote inflammation.
To combat inflammation, make sure to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Keeping a check on what you eat can help prevent chronic inflammation in the body.