Chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your body. The foods you eat can help you tame the flame. Here's your guide to an anti-inflammatory diet.
If you consider yourself more of a klutz than a graceful ballerina, you're probably painfully aware of the acute inflammation associated with a twisted ankle or a stubbed toe. This happens when the immune system releases inflammatory compounds to initiate healing.
On the flip side, silent or chronic inflammation is a much more subtle form of consistent low-grade internal inflammation in our bodies. You can’t feel it or see it, but over time it can undermine your health.
What makes this type of inflammation so dangerous? It can operate in stealth mode for years until it rears its ugly head in any number of conditions, including cancer, diabetes, cognitive decline or heart disease.
While chronic inflammation can occur for several reasons (including autoimmune diseases, toxin exposure, persistent emotional stress and aging), what we eat also plays a role.
Make the wrong food choices too often and inflammation can steadily increase. We're talking about foods like:
- Fried foods
- Ultra-processed foods made with white flour and other refined carbohydrates
- Foods with added sugars
- High-fat processed meats such as bacon and salami
- Red meat
- Sweetened beverages
But make some smart food selections and it will help keep inflammation in check.
Here’s your guide to an anti-inflammatory diet.
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Chase the Veggie Rainbow
Your shopping cart and dinner plate should be full of brightly coloured vegetables, such as dark leafy greens, pumpkin, tomatoes and bell peppers.
These types of veggies are the top source of carotenoids, a plant-based compound with strong antioxidant powers that can lower oxidative stress in our bodies and subsequent inflammation. They include lycopene, lutein and beta-carotene.
For an added benefit, seek out brightly colored fruits like berries. They are rich sources of anti-inflammatory compounds, like the anthocyanins in blueberries and blackberries.
Try the Mediterranean Diet
To keep inflammation in check, it can be a good idea to eat as if you were vacationing in Tuscany.
A 2021 meta-analysis in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that the Mediterranean eating style — one that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, whole grains and olive oil over ultra-processed foods and excessive meat intake — can lower inflammation in older adults.
For example, extra virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet staple, is a rich source of oleocanthal. This naturally occurring compound has anti-inflammatory powers similar to the pain reliever ibuprofen.
What’s more: Adding a source of healthy fat to your salads, like olive oil or nuts, can help your body better absorb anti-inflammatory carotenoid compounds.
Eat More Fermented Foods
From sauerkraut to kimchi to yogurt, these not-so-fresh foods may help keep inflammation at bay.
After analyzing blood and stool samples of healthy adults, Stanford School of Medicine researchers discovered that 10 weeks spent eating a diet higher in fermented foods resulted in measurable improvements in microbiome diversity, the population of beneficial bacteria living in our digestive tracts.
A healthy microbiome can increase the production of bacterial-produced postbiotics, substances that can have wide-ranging health benefits including lowering inflammation.
Bump Up Your Fatty Fish Consumption
While many older individuals can benefit from eating higher amounts of protein, it’s best to avoid getting too much of it from red or processed meats. Research suggests these foods can lead to inflammation.
Instead, prioritize getting more animal-based protein from fatty fish, such as sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel. These are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to have robust anti-inflammatory potential by impacting pathways involved in inflammation.
Eating more omega-3s from seafood can also improve your omega-3-to-omega-6 ratio in the diet, which is important for controlling inflammation. It's easy to eat too many omega-6 fats, as they are pumped into processed packaged foods and fast. But when the intake of omega-6 fats is far above omega-3s, it can lead to greater amounts of inflammation.
Eating plant-based sources of omega-3 fats like chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax and walnuts can also help.
Spice Up Your Life
Spices like cinnamon, cumin and turmeric don't just add a zero-calorie flavor boost to your food. They also appear to have robust anti-inflammatory powers.
A in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that people who increased their daily intake of a variety of spices tested lower for signs of inflammation in their bodies. It’s likely these spices have compounds that help limit inflammation-inducing stress in the body, but you need to use them regularly to see this benefit.
Pump Up the Plant Protein
Meat is a great source of protein. But certain ones, like steak and sausage, can promote inflammation in your body. Plant-based proteins like tofu, beans and lentils have compounds like fiber and antioxidants that can bring down inflammation.
A 2022 investigation in the journal Diabetes Care found that when adults substituted 5% of animal-based protein for plant-based protein in their diet, the risk for developing type 2 diabetes dropped by about 21%. At the end of the study, participants also showed lower levels of inflammatory markers in the body.
Eat More Nuts
From pistachios to almonds to pecans, nuts have a slew of anti-inflammatory properties. They also have important compounds like healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Take walnuts, for instance. Regular consumption of them (30 to 60 grams a day) resulted in up to an 11.5% reduction in inflammatory markers among older adults, including one marker, interleukin-1β, that has been linked with a risk of coronary heart disease, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Yes, they help tame the flame, but since nuts are fairly calorie dense you don't want to go overboard. Crunching your way through 1 to 2 ounces daily should be adequate.
See our sources:
How the Mediterranean diet affects inflammation in older adults: Advances in Nutrition
Effect of fermented foods on microbiome diversity: Cell
Link between spice consumption and inflammation: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
How plant-based protein consumption affects inflammation: Diabetes
Link between nut consumption and inflammation: Journal of the American College of Cardiology
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