Inflammation is a natural bodily process that aids in the healing of wounds or injuries. We need inflammation to occur when we get hurt so our tissues can heal and our white blood cells fight off infection. Unfortunately, inflammation can also have a dark side, despite how beneficial it can be.
Chronic inflammation, as opposed to acute inflammation, can be extremely dangerous to your body and lead to a wide range of health problems, as well as worsen ones you already experience. What many people don’t know is that diet can play a large role in moderating—or worsening—inflammation. Thus, an anti-inflammatory diet is key to achieving better health.
Why eat an anti-inflammatory diet?
Sometimes, the body triggers inflammation in response to an injury, but after the injury is healed, the inflammation doesn’t go away. In other cases, the body might trigger inflammation mistakenly, attacking aspects of the body unnecessarily. When inflammation persists needlessly, it is considered chronic inflammation, and it can do a lot of damage.
Chronic inflammation attacks healthy tissue and can alter normal bodily functions. Over time, this could increase your risk for heart disease, digestive problems, fatigue and more. Inflammation can also worsen existing problems like arthritis by making the joints stiffer and more painful.
Lots of things can contribute to heightened inflammation, including smoking, drinking alcohol and chronic stress, but one daily contributor most people don’t think about is diet. Eating foods that heighten the inflammatory response can potentially worsen pain and/or increase your risk for disease over time.
Fortunately, there are lots of other foods that help to reduce inflammation and stabilize the body. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is a much healthier and safer long-term solution than taking medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
The best anti-inflammatory foods
In order to potentially reduce your risk for health complications as a result of chronic inflammation, or to minimize pain for existing conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, you should aim to eat a diet filled with foods that combat inflammation. There are lots of foods that do this in practically every food group, so you can easily craft delicious, nutritionally balanced meals by incorporating these food items.
One key aspect of an anti-inflammatory diet is the inclusion of omega-3 fatty acids. These long-chain acids are broken down into resolvins and protectins, which help curb inflammation, whereas an excess of “bad” fats containing omega-6 fatty acids may promote inflammation. Although your body needs a balance of both, excess of the latter can trigger additional inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish, as well as leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Antioxidants, such as anthocyanins and catechins, and polyphenols are also believed to contribute to inflammation reduction. Fruits and vegetables tend to contain high quantities of these compounds.
Make sure to incorporate these anti-inflammatory foods, spices and beverages into your daily diet:
- Fatty fish, like salmon and tuna
- Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
- Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and collards
- Olive oil and extra virgin olive oil
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate
- Berries, like strawberries, cherries and blueberries
Avoid these foods, too!
Of course, an anti-inflammatory diet is not going to be nearly as effective as it could be if you’re balancing anti-inflammatory foods with foods that contribute to heightened inflammation. As part of your anti-inflammatory diet, reduce your consumption of these foods:
- Sugary beverages and sweets: Processed sugars trigger the release of cytokines, which regulate inflammatory responses.
- Refined carbohydrates: Foods like white bread and white rice are considered refined, or processed, carbs. These foods can stimulate inflammation, on top of contributing to obesity.
- Red meat: Red meat, including burgers and steaks, is high in saturated fat, which has been shown to increase inflammation.
- Full-fat dairy: Full-fat dairy products, including cheese, milk and butter, are also high in saturated fats. Combined with other fat-rich foods, these items can contribute to too-high levels of saturated fat intake.
- Margarine and shortening: These food items contain lots of artificial trans fats, or hydrogenated oils, which have been linked to inflammatory markers in the body.
- Fried foods: Fried foods are often cooked in oils that contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. Eating a lot of fried foods can expose you to higher levels than your body requires, resulting in inflammation.
Overall, eating an anti-inflammatory diet means cutting out foods that have already been shown as bad for your health and increasing the amount of healthy, nutrient-rich foods on your plate at every meal. Aim to eat a balanced amount of all food types to ensure you’re getting as many anti-inflammatory compounds as you can, alongside the other vitamins and minerals contained in these inflammation-fighting foods.