How to Fight Inflammation with Food
There’s a simple thing you can do to control systemic inflammation: focus on nutrition, with delicious foods like berries. Here’s what to choose, and what to skip.
Health is complicated these days. We are discovering we’re made up of interlocked systems that are all sharing the same boat. One of the most complex of those systems is the microbiome, with its billions of tiny houseguests who have actually turned out to be more like our metabolic crew, rowing the ship of our body forward. Warning: You need to be very careful who you hire. The wrong gut biota are associated with a host of negative health effects, including (or especially) chronic inflammation, which has been linked to many health woes. (For more, read “Top Seven Myths About Inflammation.”)
Fortunately, even though your systems are complicated, there’s one simple thing you can do to control systemic inflammation: Eat in an anti-inflammatory way. Broadly, that means choosing a diet that hones in on whole, unprocessed ingredients, particularly vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. If you want a starter playbook for anti-inflammatory eating, here it is. Please adjust for your own particular sensitivities.
- Fatty fish. Salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines—all these fish contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, which calm inflammation on the cellular level. For best results, consume fatty fish two to four times a week.
- Red and blue fruits. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, red grapes, even delicious pink-fleshed apples—all of these contain potent antioxidant anthocyanins, which are responsible for their blue and red color. Many studies have shown that anthocyanins function as anti-inflammatory agents.
- Purple sweet potatoes. They’re not available everywhere (try Asian markets), but if you can find them, you’re in luck; purple sweet potatoes (also called Okinawan sweet potatoes) are a nutritional powerhouse. In addition to containing vitamins A, C, B6, iron, and potassium, this subtropical crop’s vibrant purple color when cooked is a clue that it's also dense with anthocyanins. Eat these delicious and versatile creamy-fleshed tubers steamed and sliced, mashed, or in stews.
- Leafy greens. Kale, spinach, lettuces, beet greens, turnip greens, chard, endive, the list goes on—dark, leafy greens are packed with nutrients that have been shown to fight inflammation by providing the body what it needs to get its signals straight: vitamins A, D, E, and K. In general, the darker the green, the better for you it is.
- Alliums. Onions, garlic, leeks, chives, shallots, scallions—delicious alliums have long been on the menu for their ability to elevate almost any savory dish. But they’re also flavorful little weapons in the fight against inflammation. Collectively, alliums contain compounds (quercetin in onions, thiocremonone in garlic) that nip inflammation in the bud.
- Whole grains and beans. Lentils, black beans, barley, whole wheat. These nutrition-dense cultivated seeds are full of prebiotic fiber, which provide biofuel for the good gut bacteria you want most. Having a healthy, thriving gut microbiome goes a long way towards controlling inflammation throughout the body.
- Ginger and turmeric. Two of the pillars of ayurvedic medicine, the rhizomes of the ginger and turmeric plants, which look similar when harvested, both contain powerful anti-inflammatory compounds, gingerol and curcuminoids. While you can take ginger and turmeric in tonic or tea form, try branching out to turmeric- or ginger-rich soups and stews. The cuisines of Asia, particularly India, are full of delicious recipes.
- Beverages. Water or green tea. The elixir of youth turns out to be nearly free, and calorie-free, too. A plain, old-fashioned glass of water helps the body flush out inflammation-causing toxins. If you want a hot drink, try green tea, richer in anti-inflammatory polyphenols than either black tea or most herbal teas.
Here are the foods that are associated with higher levels of chronic inflammation. You don’t need to do without; we’ve suggested less inflammatory replacements.
Processed sugar. Any ingredient ending in –ose (sucrose, glucose) is a sugar, and consumption of processed sugars have been associated with increased levels of inflammation-causing cytokines.
Choose instead: Honey, maple syrup, agave. Honey, in particular, has long been used as an anti-inflammatory agent. And add it yourself; you’ll taste the sweetness more and be able to control how much you add.
Red meat. Harvard Medical School says that red and processed meats promote inflammation. We won’t argue with it.
Choose instead: Try fish, poultry, or tempeh for flavorful proteins.
Refined carbohydrates. White breads, pastries, white rice, processed snacks, most breakfast cereals—these foods may be convenient, but heavy consumption of them is also implicated in chronic inflammation.
Choose instead: Whole grains and whole grain products. Unprocessed and less-processed grains provide prebiotic fuel for the right kind of gut bacteria and can be an important way to fight inflammation.
Saturated and trans fats. Most oils, marbled steaks, deep-fried foods, even cheese, butter, and full-fat milk—these are all sources of the saturated fats that researchers say can ignite adipose (fatty) inflammation.
Choose instead: Extra virgin olive oil, or oils derived from grapeseed, walnut, canola, or avocado are all compatible with an anti-inflammatory diet, says the Arthritis Foundation.
MSG. The chemical compound additive monosodium glutamate activates the umami receptors in your taste buds—those are the pathways to savory, delicious tastes. Unfortunately MSG consumption has also been strongly associated with high inflammation markers.
Choose instead: Other intense umami flavorings abound. Mushrooms, anchovies, tomatoes, Southeast Asian fish sauce, and Worcestershire sauce are all examples.
Read more from Lavonne’s series on inflammation, including “Fight Inflamm-Aging.”