By Anne Underwood
Updated May 14, 2013
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Miriam Nelson, PhD, is a runner and hiker, the director of the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, and the author of several books on about strength training. But in her latest book, Strong Women and Men Beat Arthritis, she touts exercise and diet. Thanks to the anti-inflammatory effects of certain foods, she has seen arthritis sufferers reduce reliance on medication and improve their ability to function. Hoping to prevent arthritis herself, Nelson is busy applying her rules to her own diet. "Unless there's a lot of evidence, I'm slow to change," she says. Now she is adding flaxseed to her breakfast cereal and eating more tuna and salmon.

It's not just arthritis sufferers who need anti-inflammatories. Researchers now believe that inflammation contributes to heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, and type 2 diabetes—and that anti-inflammatory compounds in your food can counteract it. You don't have to go out of your way to find these substances: Try the fish market, produce bin, and even the curries at your favorite Indian restaurant.

Inflammation isn't always bad. A cut looks red and swollen because the body sends in white blood cells to fight infection, oxygenated blood for repair, and other fluids to cushion the injured cells. But a low-grade inflammation can result from less obvious damage, such as oxidation within blood vessel walls. Antioxidants can help prevent this damage. But when that fails, you need anti-inflammatories. Otherwise the body's attempts to repair itself can lead to chronic inflammation. Persistent inflammation slowly attacks healthy tissue in joints, arteries, and the brain.

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Among the most effective kinds of anti-inflammatory agents are omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in fish. In the body, omega-3s are converted into hormone-like substances that reduce inflammation.

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, found in corn and other oils, ratchet up inflammation. Omega-6s and omega-3s form a dietary yin and yang that must be kept in balance. By consuming roughly equal measures of each, inflammation is held in check. But doctors estimate most people eat as much as 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Processed foods, laden with omega-6-rich oils such as corn and sunflower, are the culprit. Conversely, people skimp on omega-3s, found in flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, and dark greens such as spinach and kale.

Aspirin and ibuprofen interfere with enzymes that contribute to the inflammatory properties of omega-6s. But some foods can provide comparable effects. Muraleedharan Nair, PhD, professor of natural products chemistry at Michigan State University, has shown in lab experiments that tart-cherry extract can stop the formation of some inflammatory agents 10 times better than aspirin. His findings fueled a cult of cherry-juice devotees among arthritis patients who swear by two tablespoons of concentrated juice daily. In recent research, Nair found that sweet cherries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries produce similar effects.

Another way to reduce inflammatory damage is to boost the body's repair crews. Rachel Galli, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Simmons College in Boston, has been measuring compounds called heat-shock proteins in the brain. "Think of them as the body's duct tape," she says. "They help cells repair the damage from oxidative stress, inflammation, and toxins." As you age, you produce fewer of these protective proteins. Galli has seen blueberry-fortified diets remedy that situation in the brains of aging rats, who responded to inflammatory challenges as ably as much younger animals.

In fact, most fruits and vegetables, especially the colorful ones, appear to fight inflammation, thanks to beneficial phytochemicals, such as bromelain in pineapples and quercetin in apples and onions. Even the nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes and bell peppers—long vilified for exacerbating arthritis pain—contain about 20 anti-inflammatory compounds apiece.

Fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains. It's the same diet nutritionists have been pushing for years. In contrast, diets high in sugar, refined flour, and trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) increase inflammation, as does obesity. Eating to fight inflammation could be one of the best things you ever do for yourself.