Anti-inflammatory diet: Foods that may reduce inflammation
If you've ever twisted your ankle or jammed a finger, you know what happens to the area: It swells. But you might not know that certain foods can trigger inflammation that you can't necessarily see. Here's a closer look at what causes inflammation and how an anti-inflammatory diet can help:
What is inflammation and what causes it?
Inflammation is the body’s immune system response to an irritant, which could be a physical injury (a sprain), foreign object (a rusty nail); germs (bacteria or a virus); or disruptive molecules found in certain foods and drinks.
When you encounter an inflammation trigger, the infection site becomes red and puffy as the body works to clear up and repair the issue. In some cases, minor inflammation can be a good thing—a sign the body is doing its job and on the mend: “Without inflammation," says New York-based dietitian Allison Knott, MS, RDN, "the body wouldn’t be able to heal properly and could experience lasting, negative effects."
There are two types of inflamation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is short-term; it often happens after physical activity, injury, or a bacterial illness. Besides pain, symptoms of acute inflammation may also include redness, heat, swelling, and loss of function that comes on quickly and lasts for just a few days. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though it can be painful,” explains New York-based dietitian, Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D.
However, too much inflammation in the body can lead to a host of health concerns, from short-term to chronic illnesses including bronchitis, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. “Any [condition] with ‘itis’ at the end [of its name] means it’s inflammation,” Rizzo says.
While acute inflammation is a normal part of the recovery process, chronic inflammation is slow-moving and can last for months or even years. Globally, chronic inflammatory diseases such as stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes are the cause of death for some 60 percent of people, according to the World Health Organization.
While there is no one particular cause of chronic inflammation, risk factors include age, with older populations at greater risk; obesity; smoking; low sex hormones; stress; and sleep disorders.
Foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, and refined sugar can also be a trigger. That's because they promote high levels of “pro-inflammatory” molecules including free radicals, or molecules in the body split in half through a process known as oxidative stress, which irritates the body and causes inflammation, Rizzo explains.
What are anti-inflammatory foods?
While weight loss can reduce inflammation, foods containing high levels of antioxidants can also act as a natural remedy against inflammation, helping your body begin to heal itself and stave off or even reverse some related conditions, Rizzo says.
That said, "there is no single food or beverage that will eliminate chronic inflammation,” Knott says. Rather, there are overall eating patterns that may reduce inflammation.
Consuming a diet that's full of foods rich in healthy fats, antioxidants, or both may have anti-inflammatory properties: Antioxidants counter inflammation by binding with the free radicals produced by oxidative stress, while consuming fatty acids, which are part of the cell membrane structure, play a role in changing the cell composition and influence inflammation.
What conditions can anti-inflammatory foods help?
An anti-inflammatory diet can play an important role in easing the symptoms of certain conditions caused by inflammation including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
While following an anti-inflammatory diet won’t cure RA, a type of arthritis caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues, it can help control the inflammation that contributes to symptoms, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Plus, choosing the right nutrient-dense foods can help people with RA manage their weight—excess weight adds pressure on already sore joints, and body fat may produce proteins called cytokines, which can cause even more inflammation.
Anecdotally, people living with psoriasis, an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own healthy skin cells, have reported that diet changes reduced their psoriasis symptoms—particularly when that diet results in weight loss, according to a 2018 review paper published in JAMA Dermatology. That’s because excess body fat can promote inflammation, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation.
Regardless of whether an anti-inflammatory diet improves psoriasis symptoms, it can improve overall health and reduce the risk of developing related conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Asthma is a condition in which a person’s airways are inflamed. A diet that's rich in anti-inflammatory foods such as almonds, broccoli, and kale, which contain a form of vitamin E called tocopherol, may help improve symptoms like coughing or wheezing.
- Eosinophilic esophagitis
This condition causes inflammation via a buildup of a type of white blood cells in the esophagus. Eating anti-inflammatory foods may be able to help reduce this inflammation.
That said, doctors may recommend that people with eosinophilic esophagitis adhere to a diet that focuses on removing food triggers such as milk, wheat, eggs, soy, nuts, fish, and shellfish—even though peanuts, tree nuts, and fish are considered anti-inflammatory foods thanks to their vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acid content. If you have been diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional to determine whether an anti-inflammatory diet is right for you.
- Crohn's disease
Eating certain foods—and avoiding others—is a huge part of managing Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that can contribute to malnutrition, among other health concerns. However, the relationship between anti-inflammatory foods and Crohn’s is a bit more complicated.
Fish like salmon and herring may help due to their anti-inflammatory omega-3 fat content. But fresh fruits and vegetables, which are high in antioxidants—and thus good for fighting inflammation—may actually worsen Crohn’s disease flare-ups.
While foods do not cause Crohn’s disease and no special diet has been proven effective against it, some additional foods, including dairy, high-fiber grains, alcohol, and hot spices, may also cause flare-ups, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The anti-inflammatory diet
Unlike popular fad diets you might hear about like Paleo and keto, the anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t have a specific set of rules. Instead, it’s an approach that emphasizes eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties—those that are rich in antioxidants and healthy fats—and minimizing foods that may contribute to inflammation.
If you’re suffering from a condition linked to inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet may reduce related pain, but the effects depend on your lifestyle, level of inflammation, and health history.
Another potential outcome of an anti-inflammatory diet could be weight loss since antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables tend to form the foundation of this eating approach. And remember, weight loss itself can further reduce inflammation.
While it can be challenging to change the way you eat, small steps can get you on the right track, according to Rizzo. Some ideas:
- Find one new food.
Just because you’ve committed to eating more anti-inflammatory foods doesn’t mean you need to eat only fruits and vegetables at every meal forever. Start by finding just one or two fruits and vegetables you like and work them into a few meals every week. Bell peppers, for example, are high in vitamin C—a powerful antioxidant—and can be tossed into a stir-fry or dipped into a yogurt-based dressing for a tasty snack.
- Start with a handful.
Rizzo says bite-sized dietary changes can help you ease into change—particularly when you focus on adding to your diet rather than subtracting from it. For example, add a handful of blueberries—an excellent source of antioxidants—to your yogurt, cereal, or oatmeal.
- Blend it.
Because they can conceal anti-inflammatory foods like dark leafy greens you might not love, smoothies are a great way to load up on the good stuff.
Blend baby spinach or kale with plain yogurt, a squirt of honey, a scoop of ground flaxseed, and lots of berries for a boost of both antioxidants and healthy fat.
- Sleep in.
Shut-eye isn’t food, but it’s just as important to fueling your day. And research has found that when people don’t get enough quality sleep, it can cause systemic inflammation in the body. Because your body repairs itself during sleep, it’s recommended to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night to help your body recover properly.
12 best anti-inflammatory foods
While no one food will cure you of inflammation or a related condition, incorporating more foods with anti-inflammatory properties into your diet can contribute to a healthy pattern of eating. Remember: In order for a food to fight inflammation, it should be a good a source of antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids. (In some cases, like with nuts, one food may contain both.)
Let’s take a look at some of the best foods to fight inflammation:
- Kale: Dark and leafy, kale is high in the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin C. It’s also a good source of flavonoids and polyphenols, plant compounds with antioxidant properties that may help fight inflammation, too.
- Spinach: Like its cousin kale, spinach is a dark leafy green that’s high in antioxidants as well as the mineral magnesium—a good thing since magnesium deficiency produces an inflammatory response, according to a 2018 paper published in the Journal of Inflammatory Research.
- Blueberries: Blueberries are high in antioxidant vitamins and polyphenols. They’ve also been linked with cognitive benefits in older adults.
- Cherries: Both sweet and tart cherries are packed with vitamins and polyphenols. What’s more, researchers found that cherries may promote health by preventing or decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation in a 2018 review of research published in Nutrients.
- Butternut squash: This gourd’s orange color is indicative of its beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, both of which are antioxidants, Rizzo says: “You can’t really go wrong with fruits and vegetables, but the darker a fruit or vegetable’s color, the more antioxidants it generally serves up."
- Salmon: Along with being high in antioxidant vitamin E, fatty fish like salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3 fat, which has been linked to reduced inflammation. The fatty acids in salmon—EPA and DHA—may slow the production of substances released during the body’s inflammatory response. It may be better to get your omega-3 from whole fish versus a fish oil supplement, according to Harvard Health Publishing. While research has looked at whether fish oil supplements can prevent illnesses related to inflammation, there’s currently no overwhelming evidence to recommend them.
- Walnuts: These nuts are high in vitamin E and omega-3s, making them a double whammy when it comes to fighting inflammation. Adding nuts to oatmeal or a salad is an easy way to add an anti-inflammatory food to your meal.
- Avocados: Not only are avocados excellent sources of omega-3s, they also contain vitamin E, vitamin C, and fiber. Some studies have found that people who follow high-fiber diets have lower blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation that has been linked to diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Chia seeds: Small but mighty, chia seeds are packed with omega-3s and fiber. Mix them into your smoothie, oatmeal, yogurt, or salad for an inflammation-fighting boost.
- Turmeric: The spice turmeric has been long-touted as an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. Research suggests there may be an association between a compound in turmeric called curcumin and reductions in both chronic and acute inflammation, promoting muscle recovery. Because most research has been done on curcumin supplements, a sprinkle of turmeric in your rice dish probably won’t do much to combat inflammation, Rizzo says, adding that you’d need at least a quarter cup of turmeric to reach the curcumin dosages studied—but a little turmeric may still be better than nothing.
- Red wine: Red wine is rich in the polyphenol resveratrol, which like other polyphenols, may help fight inflammation, Rizzo says. Similarly, the grapes that wine is made from contain anthocyanins, naturally-occurring pigments with anti-inflammatory qualities. But before you get too excited and down a whole bottle, it’s important to remember that too much alcohol can cause inflammation. Experts recommend not more than one glass of wine per day for women and two for men.
- Extra virgin olive oil: High in good-for-you fat, including anti-inflammatory omega-3s, extra virgin olive oil has been linked with lower levels of inflammatory markers, including CRP. Virgin olive oil, which is slightly more refined than extra virgin, contains oleocanthal, which has similar anti-inflammatory properties as the medication ibuprofen. Anti-inflammatory benefits are stronger in virgin or extra virgin than more refined olive oils, according to a 2010 paper published in FASEB Journal.
Foods that may cause inflammation
Certain foods and beverages can increase inflammation and should be consumed in moderation on an anti-inflammatory diet. These include:
- Sugary beverages
Not only do sugary beverages like soda and juice cocktails fill you up on calories that don’t contain much nutrition, they may also lead to increased inflammation. That’s because sugar triggers the release of cytokines, those pro-inflammatory proteins. However, according to a 2018 paper published in Nutrients, some experts point out more research is needed about whether sugar increases inflammation, and if so, what types of sugar.
- Refined carbs
You’ll most likely find refined carbohydrates in packaged desserts and snacks; they’re the simple white sugars that don’t carry any nutritional value, Rizzo explains. So when you consume large amounts of refined carbs, you’re probably getting lots of sugar and trans fats.
- Processed meat
Processed meats like hot dogs and deli meats aren’t just high in nitrates, chemical compounds that have been shown to be carcinogenic. They contain high levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), compounds that contribute to inflammation.
“Dietary patterns that include processed meats are associated with an increased risk for chronic disease,” Knott says.
People with chronic inflammation may also be at a higher risk of developing certain cancers, which may be one reason why the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week and avoiding processed meats completely.
- Trans fats
Trans fats, which are manufactured by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, are usually found in packaged snacks and fried foods. While the mechanism isn’t entirely understood, it’s thought that consuming large amounts of trans fats increases the body’s inflammatory response.
Overconsumption or abuse of alcohol is a major contributor to chronic inflammation. “It’s a toxic substance we’re putting into our bodies,” Rizzo says, pointing out that alcohol releases pro-inflammatory markers known as cytokines.
Anti-inflammatory diet recipes
Ready to put anti-inflammatory ingredients to work? Begin with these recipe ideas:
Lemon-herb roasted salmon
Load up on omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon with this quick and flavorful entree. Bonus: Lemon contains plenty of vitamin C, an antioxidant.
Blueberry streusel muffins
Blueberries add an antioxidant punch to these breakfast (or mid-morning snack!) muffins. It doesn’t hurt to add a small handful of fresh berries on the side.
Crunchy kale Parmesan chips
Your potato chips don’t have antioxidants, do they? Bake nutrient-packed kale with a sprinkle of Parmesan for a tasty anti-inflammatory snack.
The upshot: Should you try the anti-inflammatory diet?
When your body is functioning normally, some degree of inflammation is a natural response. But when your body is overwhelmed by oxidative stress and the release of pro-inflammatory markers, it can’t heal itself, and inflammation becomes chronic and dangerous.
An anti-inflammatory diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can contribute to healing. But food is just one component of reducing inflammation. Other aspects of an overall healthy lifestyle, including physical activity, stress management, and sleep also play a role.
The bottom line: If you’re looking to reduce inflammation by tweaking your diet, it’s always wise to consult a physician or registered dietitian for advice on your specific dietary and medical needs.