Among all of the daily tasks your body does to keep you alive, inflammation is one of the most crucial - and also one of the most dangerous when left to run rampant.
When you get a cut, you might notice redness, injury, swelling, and heat at the injury site. This is a good thing, because it’s a sign that inflammation is occurring and helping to protect and heal your body from harm.
But this reaction also has a darker side: when it spirals out of control, chronic inflammation can lead to prolonged damage and is even linked to some of our most dangerous chronic health conditions. In a time when diseases like heart disease and diabetes are all too common, it leads to some very justifiable concerns about inflammation.
So what exactly is inflammation, and what can you do to combat it and stop it from hurting your health?
Hint: like many things, it can start with your diet.
In this article:
- What is inflammation, anyway?
- What are the symptoms & causes of inflammation?
- What’s the link between your diet and inflammation?
- The connection between inflammation and body weight
- The 8 best anti-inflammatory foods (and when to eat them!)
- The best anti-inflammatory supplements
Inflammation is your body’s first line of defense against harm, but chronic inflammation is the culprit behind many of our most-feared chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
A healthy diet is an important factor for controlling inflammation, but our modern diet is filled with inflammatory ingredients.
To minimize your risk of chronic inflammation, follow an anti-inflammatory diet that puts the focus on fresh whole foods and plenty of plant-based fare.
What is inflammation, anyway?
Under normal circumstances, inflammation is a good thing. In fact, it’s one of the mechanisms that keep our bodies safe from harm.
When your body detects a potentially harmful foreign invader (think bacteria, viruses, and injury), it goes through a system of defense mechanisms to prevent them from hurting us.
Here are the stages of inflammation that show how your immune system jumps into action:
Your white blood cells release chemicals to neutralize the threat
Blood, including white blood cells, rush to the site of injury
Those white blood cells then “attack” those pathogens to reduce their risk and initiate healing
So this kind of acute inflammation is necessary, both for preventing potential damage and helping you heal.
The problem begins when inflammation is chronic. Certain conditions can cause our body to maintain an inflammatory reaction - even if there’s no immediate danger - which can cause a world of trouble down the line. In the absence of actual harmful pathogens and invaders, your white blood cells turn and attack the closest thing: your own cells.
In short: acute vs. chronic inflammation are two different things. Acute inflammation is short-term, localized, and keeps your body healthy. Chronic inflammation is in it for the long haul, can occur inside of your body, and quietly wreaks havoc on your own cells.
What Are the Symptoms & Causes of Inflammation?
So how do you know if you’re experiencing chronic inflammation?
Unfortunately, inflammation isn’t always obvious. Some common symptoms of chronic inflammation you may notice include:
- mouth sores
- abdominal pain
- chest pain
And on the subject of how this happens, there are several conditions and lifestyle factors that can contribute to chronic inflammation, including:
- Expose to industrial chemicals or polluted air
- Infection or injury
- An autoimmune disorder (like rheumatoid arthritis or Celiac disease)
- Chronic stress
And here’s why chronic inflammation matters, and why you should be paying attention:
Chronic inflammation means that your cells are under attack from your own immune system. When it runs rampant, chronic inflammation has been linked to a wide range of serious, long-term health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and cancer.
What’s the link between your diet & inflammation?
The quality of your diet is intricately linked to your immune system.
In fact, scientists have found that people who have higher instances of inflammation are less likely to follow a healthy diet and have higher instances of conditions like heart disease and obesity. Why does this happen?
Immune System & Inflammation\ Inflammation is your immune system’s first line of defense against harmful pathogens and injuries. Because your immune system is so dependent on the nutrients you eat, a poor diet is often associated with inflammation, cell damage, and a lowered immune system.
Using foods to fight inflammation
Some of nature’s best foods (think fruits, vegetables, etc) have anti-inflammatory compounds that can reduce the risk of chronic disease and inflammation.
- Restore Balance With Your Diet
On the other hand, there are several foods that have been shown to increase inflammation when eaten regularly.
So in order to restore balance and minimize inappropriate inflammation, analyzing your diet is a good place to start.
Foods that have been shown to have a hand in increasing inflammation include:
- Grilled or charred foods
- Examples: barbecued meats like burgers, hot dogs, and chicken
- How grilled/charred foods cause inflammation: Cooking your food at high temperatures can produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are toxins that may increase inflammatory reactions when eaten in large amounts.
- What to do instead: Try cooking with lower-temperature “wet’ methods like stewing, steaming, and braising.
- Examples: red meats like beef and pork, processed meat like lunch meat and bacon
- How meat can cause inflammation: Certain kinds of meat have higher levels of AGEs, and studies have shown that people who eat more red meat tend to have higher inflammatory biomarkers than others. Eating more meat also means that your intake of saturated fat is probably higher, which isn’t good either (more on that in a moment).
- What to do instead: Experiment with plant-based proteins more often.
- Refined grains
- Examples: white bread, white rice
- How refined grains cause inflammation: Refined grains have had their nutritious outer layers of bran and germ removed, and a high intake of these kinds of grains may be inflammatory. While whole grains are often celebrated for their heart-healthy effects, there’s evidence that people who eat a lot of the refined versions of grains have an increased risk of chronic diseases and inflammatory protein concentrations in their blood.
- What to do instead: Choose “whole grains” over refined or enriched variations.
- Saturated and trans fat
- Examples of trans fat: fried foods, margarine
- Examples of saturated fats: red meat
- How trans & saturated fats cause inflammation: While there are healthy fats that can be protective, high levels of trans fats and saturated fats can appear to your body as endotoxins that need to be dealt with - leading to an inflammatory reaction.
- What to do instead: Minimize your consumption of high-fat foods, and increase your consumption of lean protein and plant-based foods.
- Added sugars
- Examples of added sugars: Added sugars are in a ton of different foods from soda to salad dressings - just check the labels.
- How added sugar causes inflammation: Besides its effect on the waistline, excess sugar consumption is also linked to increased AGEs, which can lead to chronic inflammation over the long run.
- How to overcome this issue: Read nutrition labels and choose products with 0 added sugars. Or, even better, make more food from scratch!
It’s important to remember that inflammation comes down to your regular eating pattern. An occasional soda won’t cause immediate harm, but many of these foods are staples in our modern-day diet, and the more regularly they show up in your meal plan, the more likely you’ll be to develop chronic inflammation.
So if you want to get a handle on inflammation, you should be limiting these foods or even eliminating them completely whenever possible.
The connection between inflammation and body weight
Food itself isn’t the only issue that can spur on rampant chronic inflammation. If you’re eating a ton of poor-quality foods, you may also be bringing on other issues that compound the inflammation problem, like excess fat accumulation.
Your body stores excess energy in two different kinds of fat tissue. There’s subcutaneous fat, which lies under your skin. But there’s also visceral fat, which your body stores in your abdominal cavity. Visceral fat secretes inflammatory chemicals called cytokines and is associated with systemic inflammation.
Higher levels of visceral fat are also associated with increased obesity, which is part of the reason that having a high body fat percentage can lead to chronic diseases down the line.
The 14 best anti-inflammatory foods (and when to eat them!)
So there are plenty of foods that can contribute to chronic inflammation, but there are also plenty of foods that can minimize it.
An anti-inflammatory diet puts the focus on whole, unprocessed foods and is rich in nutrients and compounds that can reduce inflammation. For example, you would want to have plenty of polyphenols, or plant-based antioxidants that can reduce cell damage and inflammation.
The best part? Following an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t too complicated. When eating to combat inflammation, it comes down to healthy, consistent, and balanced eating patterns.
For the best results, you’ll want to eat several small meals throughout the day (four to six times a day) filled with anti-inflammatory foods. You’ll also want balance: that means making sure you’re eating proper servings of lean protein, healthy fat, and high-quality carbohydrates with every meal.
And of course, consistency is key! It’s not a “diet” in the short-term sense of the word: rather, you’d want to make anti-inflammatory eating a key part of your lifestyle.
Foods to include in your anti-inflammatory meal plan:
- Fresh fruit (every day): More than just “nature’s candy,” fresh fruit provides a ton of health benefits including anti-inflammatory compounds. Many fruits contain a variety of antioxidants that fight off cell damage.
- Examples: grapefruit, grapes, blueberries, bananas, apples, mangoes, peaches, tomatoes, and pomegranates
- Dried fruit (Weekly): Fruits can also carry a ton of health benefits in their dried forms, and may be a more convenient option than their fresher forms. Just make sure to watch for any added sugars!
- Examples: Prunes
- Vegetables (every meal): You already know they’re good for you, and here’s one major reason: a high intake of veggies, especially the cruciferous kind, have been associated with lower rates of inflammation!
- Examples: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and bok choy
- Leafy greens (every day): Leafy greens are another good choice for fighting inflammation. They’re rich in Vitamin A, a natural antioxidant that can reduce the amount of inflammatory C-reactive proteins (CRP) in your blood.
- (Examples) including kale, spinach, and romaine lettuce
- Plant-based proteins (Frequently): Your immune system needs protein, but because meat (particularly the red and processed forms) has been proven to coincide with inflammation, more and more research is showing that plant-based diets may be a healthier choice.
- Examples: chickpeas, seitan, and lentils
- Fatty fish (2x/week): Oily fish are excellent sources of EPA and DHA, two omega-3 fatty acids with anti-inflammatory effects. In fact, omega-3s are so effective at fighting inflammation that they’re used as a popular supplement for chronic heart and brain conditions.
- Examples: salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, herring, lake trout, and mackerel
- Whole grains (every day): As opposed to their refined cousins, whole grains are still full of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber which can combat chronic inflammation and boost your heart health in the process.
- Examples: oatmeal, brown rice, barley, and whole-wheat bread
Ginger (frequently): This pungent root has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries, likely due to its pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Nuts (weekly). Nuts are chock-full of healthy fats like unsaturated fatty acids, protein, fiber, and antioxidants, all of which make them a great choice for satisfying your dietary fat needs for the day. In fact, one study found that people who frequently ate more nuts showed less inflammation in their blood samples!
- Examples: walnuts and almonds
- Seeds (weekly): Another nutrient-dense food, seeds are a great source of ALA, a form of omega-3 fatty acids that can be converted to EPA/DHA to fight inflammation.
- (Examples) such as chia seeds and flaxseed
Coffee (1-2 cups/day): You may reach for coffee for your daily morning boost, but it turns out that it’s also a good anti-inflammatory drink because it contains polyphenols. However, excess coffee consumption can also contribute to inflammation, so moderation is key here.
Green tea (daily): If you’re looking for a milder brew, you can’t get much better than green tea. Green tea contains powerful antioxidants called catechins that can reduce inflammatory responses, making it one of the best anti-inflammatory drinks to keep in your arsenal.
Dark chocolate (occasionally): Chocolate lovers, rejoice! Dark chocolate contains polyphenols that can reduce oxidative damage and minimize inflammation down the line. Just be sure to keep your portions moderate and to watch for added sugar.
Red wine (no more than 1-2 glasses/day): It’s true: red wine is also on the list of anti-inflammatory drinks! Resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant, can be found in glasses of red vino. As with any alcohol, moderation is key here - you don’t want to have more than one or two glasses a day, especially since alcohol itself can be inflammatory in large quantities.
Best anti-inflammatory supplements (in case you can’t get enough)
Ideally, you would want to get your nutrients from whole foods. However, this isn’t always possible.
So in cases like these, you can also opt to get your anti-inflammatory compounds in supplement form. Some of the best anti-inflammatory supplements you can take include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin A
In combination with an anti-inflammatory diet, these supplements can give your immune system a boost and minimize inappropriate inflammation.
Inflammation is an invaluable tool at a local level but becomes the culprit behind plenty of life-altering chronic diseases when it’s allowed to spiral out of control. Changing up your diet to focus on fresh whole foods is your first line of defense.