When you think about why our bodies produce inflammation, it may seem counterintuitive to want to seek out foods that fight it. After all, inflammation is part of the body’s built-in defense against injuries and invading bacteria and viruses. When you sprain your ankle, for example, an inflammatory process kicks in that sends protective molecules to the area to help you heal, disappearing once you’re better. That’s a pretty important job. But there is such a thing as too much inflammation, and diet can play a big role in preventing it.
Unlike acute inflammation, which may announce its presence with short-lived discomfort or swelling, chronic inflammation can linger quietly for long periods anywhere in the body—from blood vessels to joints to organs to cells. Though it may not raise an obvious red flag, even low-grade chronic inflammation can put you at risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer. Genetics, your environment, stress and other causes can be at the root of the problem, but so can diet. Eating inflammation-fighting foods can keep things in check, especially since some of the other risk factors for chronic inflammation are beyond your control.
An anti-inflammatory diet follows the same recommendations you may have heard for addressing other health goals, like weight loss: Reduce sugar, processed foods, refined flour and so on. So, if you’ve already taken those steps, you’re on your way. Next, consider taking these additional measures:
Eat the Right Fatty Acids
Every cell membrane in the body contains fatty acids. The omega-3 type are found in foods like leafy green vegetables, walnuts, soy, fish, flax meal and grass-fed animal meats. It’s unfortunate that the diet of most Americans is lacking in omega-3s, since they help to reduce inflammation. Instead, we consume more of the omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid (AA), which increases inflammation. The body produces AA, but it is also found in animal fats and egg yolks.
While strategies for reducing inflammation by modifying fat intake are not yet completely understood, there is significant evidence to recommend trying to decrease your intake of omega-6 fatty acids and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
To help make that shift:
- Eat more fish. Salmon (including canned), mackerel, anchovies, herring, lake trout and sardines are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Try to get two to three servings a week. Canned light tuna is another source of omega-3s, but because of some concerns regarding the mercury level found in samples of canned tuna, it’s best to limit your consumption to one to two servings per week. (You can bolster your intake by taking fish oil supplements, too.)
- Minimize AA from food. The biggest sources are the visible fat on cuts of meat, but all animal foods—including lean meat, poultry, shellfish—contain this fatty acid. Trim all meat fat that you can see, and consider eating these foods less often and in smaller portions. When you eat eggs, choose the omega-3 enriched variety.
- Choose oils wisely. Replace corn, safflower or sunflower oils with cold-pressed, preferably organic, canola or extra-virgin olive oil, which contain fewer omega-6s.
Make Antioxidant-rich Choices
Chances are, you’ve already heard about the many benefits of eating a diet rich in antioxidants. By eliminating the unhealthy molecules known as free radicals from the body, antioxidants can help to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis and certain cancers. What you may not know is that these powerhouses can also reduce inflammation in the body by blocking the enzymes that set the inflammatory process in motion.
These foods contain vitamin E (especially gamma-tocopherol), the phytonutrient quercetin and/or the flavonoid anthocyanin (which gives red, blue or purple produce its color)—all shown to inhibit inflammatory enzymes:
- Bell peppers
- Dark-colored cherries, especially tart
- Red grapes and grape juice
- Red wine
Look to Your Pantry
Many anti-inflammatory foods contain salicylate, the same active ingredient found in aspirin. Getting enough salicylate should be simple, as you probably have many of the highest salicylate-containing foods in your pantry or spice rack already:
- Curry powder
- Dill powder
- Fenugreek powder
- Garam masala
- Mustard powder
- Worcestershire sauce
Other salicylate-rich foods include raisins, prunes, raspberries, licorice, mint (fresh), black pepper, and pickles. Those who are sensitive to aspirin should take care not to overindulge in salicylate-rich foods, as they may cause adverse reactions including breathing difficulty and hives.