13 Foods That Fight Inflammation
Is there an anti-inflammatory diet?
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response; without it, we can't heal. But when it's out of control, it can contribute to serious health issues, including chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
Foods high in sugar and saturated fat can spur inflammation. “They cause overactivity in the immune system, which can lead to joint pain, fatigue, and damage to the blood vessels,” Scott Zashin, MD, clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, tells Health.
The good news is, plenty of foods can actually curb inflammation. Add these items to your plate today.
Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation. Aim to eat eight ounces of fish each week, and cook them in healthy ways. In one study, men who consumed the most omega-3s each day from baked or boiled fish (as opposed to fried, dried, or salted) cut their risk of death from heart disease by 23%, compared with those who ate the least. Women had a less dramatic drop but also decreased their risk of heart disease.
Not a fan of seafood? Fish oil supplements may help lower inflammation. Also, reduce your intake of omega-6 fatty acids (found in processed foods and some vegetable oils); a healthy balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is essential.
Consuming most of your grains as whole grains, as opposed to refined, white bread, cereal, rice, and pasta can help keep harmful inflammation at bay. That’s because whole grains have more fiber, which has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the blood.
some simple ways to incorporate 100% whole grains into every meal: Start the day with oatmeal or overnight oats, or whip rolled oats into a smoothie. Add cooked, chilled quinoa to a garden salad or grain bowl for lunch, then snack on popcorn popped in extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. Serve a veggie-filled stir fry over a bed of brown rice at dinner, or add wild rice to a veggie chili or soup.
Dark leafy greens
Vitamin E may be key in protecting the body against pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines. One of the best sources of this vitamin are dark green veggies, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and broccoli. Dark greens and cruciferous vegetables also have higher concentrations of certain nutrients—like calcium, iron, and disease-fighting flavonoids—than veggies with lighter-colored leaves.
Another source of inflammation-fighting healthy fats is nuts. Almonds are particularly rich in fiber, calcium, and vitamin E, and walnuts have high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat. All nuts are packed with antioxidants that can help your body fight off and repair the damage caused by inflammation.
Nuts (along with fish, leafy greens, and whole grains) are also a big part of the Mediterranean diet, shown in one study to reduce markers of inflammation in as little as six weeks.
Studies have suggested that isoflavones—compounds in soy that the body converts into estrogen-like chemicals—may help lower CRP and inflammation levels in women. One study published in the Journal of Inflammation found that soy isoflavones also helped reduce the negative effects of inflammation on bone and heart health in mice.
Look for USDA certified organic soy foods, and avoid heavily-processed soy whenever possible—which may not include the same benefits and is usually paired with additives and preservatives. Instead, aim to get more soy milk, tofu, and edamame (boiled soybeans) into your regular diet.
“Colorful vegetables are part of a healthier diet in general,” Karen H. Costenbader, MD, associate professor of medicine and rheumatoid arthritis doctor at Harvard Medical School, tells Health. "Colorful peppers, tomatoes, squash, and leafy vegetables have high quantities of antioxidant vitamins and lower levels of starch."
Bell peppers are available in a variety of colors, while hot peppers (like chili and cayenne) are rich in capsaicin, a chemical that’s used in topical creams that reduce pain and inflammation.
Peppers, however, are nightshade vegetables—which some doctors and patients believe can exacerbate inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. “What helps one person may be harmful to another,” says Dr. Zashin. “You just need to pay attention to your diet and your symptoms, and stick with what works for you.”
Tomatoes, another nightshade veggie, may also help reduce inflammation in some people. (Of course, Dr. Zashin’s advice about what works for you, individually, applies here, as well.)
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which helps reduce inflammation in the lungs and throughout the rest of the body. Cooked tomatoes provide even more lycopene than raw ones, so tomato sauce works, too—and a 2013 Iranian study found that tomato juice consumption was also beneficial for reducing systemic inflammation.
This vegetable’s brilliant red color is a tip-off to its equally brilliant antioxidant properties. Beets (and beetroot juice) can not only reduce inflammation but may also protect against cancer and heart disease, thanks to their generous helping of fiber, folate, and powerful plant pigments called betalains.
Ginger and turmeric
These spices, common in Asian and Indian cooking, have been shown in various studies to hold anti-inflammatory properties,” says Dr. Costenbader.
Turmeric, the pungent, golden spice used in curry, appears to work in the body by helping to turn off NF-kappa B, a compound that's integral to triggering the process of inflammation, research shows. Turmeric's cousin ginger, meanwhile, may cut inflammation in the gut when taken in supplement form.
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Ginger
Garlic and onions
These pungent vegetables are considered anti-inflammatory superstars for good reasons. Organosulfur compounds derived from garlic may lower the production of substances in the blood that boost inflammation. Quercetin, a flavonoid in onions, helps inhibit inflammation-causing agents at play in arthritis.
For the greatest benefits, eat garlic raw, or let crushed or chopped cloves stand for 10 minutes before cooking. And opt for red or yellow onions or shallots instead of white or sweet varieties.
RELATED: 6 Health Benefits of Onions
Anything that fits into a heart-healthy diet is probably also good for inflammation—and that includes healthy, plant-based fats like olive oil, says Dr. Zashin. In fact, one Spanish study reported that the Mediterranean diet's heart-health perks may be largely due to its use of olive oil.
Oleocanthal, the source of olive oil's distinctive aftertaste, has been shown to have similar anti-inflammatory effects as ibuprofen. A different study found that higher blood levels of alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E in olive oil, were linked to better lung function; more gamma-tocopherol, a kind of vitamin E in corn and soybean oils, was associated with higher rates of asthma—possibly due to vitamin E's role in inflammation.
Tart cherries contain the “highest anti-inflammatory content of any food,” according to a presentation by Oregon Health & Science University scientists. Research has found that tart cherry juice powder can reduce the inflammation in animal blood vessels by up to 50%; in humans, it helps athletes recover faster from intense workouts and decreases post-exertion muscle pain.
Experts believe that eating 1.5 cups of tart cherries or drinking 1 to 1.5 cups of tart cherry juice a day may yield similar benefits. And, yep, the cherries have to be tart—sweet ones don’t seem to have the same effects.
RELATED: 7 Health Benefits of Cherries
All fruits can help fight inflammation in the body because they’re high in fiber and antioxidants. But berries have especially strong anti-inflammatory benefits—possibly owing to the powers of anthocyanins, the antioxidant flavonoids that give berries their rich color.
A 2014 study found that higher blood levels of alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E found in olive oil, were linked to better lung function—possibly due to the protective impact of this specific type of vitamin E on inflammation.