13 Foods That Fight Inflammation

Diet can help control chronic inflammation, which may cause a variety of serious illnesses.

Inflammation is part of the body's immune response. It's a process that occurs when tissues are injured by trauma, toxins, or other causes, and their damaged cells release chemicals that induce swelling, according to MedlinePlus. 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.

According to a 2018 review published in the journal Nutrients, research shows that foods high in sugar (especially sugar-sweetened beverages) may 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, told Health.

The good news is, there are plenty of foods shown to decrease inflammation.

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Fatty Fish

Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, are foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. According to a 2017 review published in the journal Biomedical Society Transactions, omega-3 fatty acids are known to help hinder processes in the body that promote inflammation.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends fatty fish as a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, as it's high in protein but also low in saturated fat.

Aim to eat 8 ounces of fish each week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends eating grilled or baked fish instead of fried or breaded fish.

Not a fan of fish? Taking fish oil supplements may be as effective as eating real fish, according to a 2019 study published in Circulation Research. Also, make sure to 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.

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Whole Grains

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, according to a 2018 study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, may be associated with reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the blood.

Here are some simple ways to incorporate 100% whole grains into every meal:

  • Start the day with oatmeal or overnight oats
  • Whip rolled oats into a smoothie
  • Add cooked, chilled quinoa to a garden salad or grain bowl for lunch
  • 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
  • Add wild rice to a veggie chili or soup
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Dark Leafy Greens

Vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, may be key in protecting the body against pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines, according to a 2020 study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.

One of the best sources of this vitamin are dark green veggies, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and broccoli. Such veggies are also high in nutrients like iron and vitamin A, according to a 2017 study published in Foods.

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Nuts

Another source of inflammation-fighting fats is nuts. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those who consumed five or more one-ounce servings of nuts per week had lower levels of C-reactive protein when compared to those who consumed fewer servings.

According to a 2018 review published in the journal Nutrients, almonds are particularly rich in fiber, calcium, and vitamin E. Additionally, authors of a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients, noted that 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 a key component of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, and olive oil. Following the Mediterranean diet can help you achieve AHA recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern.

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Soy

Isoflavones—compounds in soy that the body converts into estrogen-like chemicals—may help lower inflammation levels in some women.

One 2016 review published in Nutrients noted a study that found lower levels of inflammatory markers in postmenopausal women with metabolic syndrome (i.e., conditions occurring together that increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke) who consumed an eight-week soy nut diet.

The authors noted that previous research suggests that isoflavones have beneficial effects on multiple aspects of human health, including reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

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.

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Peppers

"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, told 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 (including chili and cayenne) are rich in capsaicin, a chemical used in topical creams that can reduce pain and inflammation, according to a 2016 review published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology.

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Tomatoes

Tomatoes may help reduce inflammation in some people. They are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant. According to a 2020 review published in the journal Molecules, some studies suggest that not having adequate levels of lycopene in the blood may be associated with increased inflammation in those with health conditions like chronic hepatitis, heart disease, and breast cancer.

Cooked tomatoes provide even more lycopene than raw ones, so tomato sauce works, too—and a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that tomato juice consumption was also beneficial for reducing systemic inflammation.

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Beets

This vegetable's brilliant red color is a tip-off to its equally brilliant health-promoting properties.

Beets are packed with fiber, folate, and powerful plant pigments called betalains that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, according to a 2017 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

Beetroot may not only reduce inflammation but also protect against cancer and heart disease, according to a 2015 study published in Nutrients.

Research is ongoing on the potential health benefits of beets. The authors of the 2015 study noted that it is "being considered as a promising therapeutic treatment in a range of clinical pathologies associated with oxidative stress and inflammation."

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Ginger and Turmeric

According to a 2022 study published in the journal Molecules, ginger and turmeric contain compounds known to reduce chemicals in the body that promote inflammation.

"These spices, common in Asian and Indian cooking, have been shown in various studies to hold anti-inflammatory properties," said Dr. Costenbader.

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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, according to a 2020 review published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Quercetin, a flavonoid in onions, helps inhibit inflammation-causing agents at play in arthritis. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that quercetin supplements resulted in significant improvement in women with rheumatoid arthritis.

Try eating garlic raw, as the beneficial compounds are more digestible than when cooked, according to a 2021 review in The Scientific World Journal. And opt for red or yellow onions or shallots, as a 2019 review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology noted that these types are high in antioxidants.

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Olive Oil

Anything that fits into a heart-healthy diet is probably also good for inflammation—and that includes healthy, plant-based fats such as olive oil, said Dr. Zashin. In fact, one 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients noted 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 anti-inflammatory effects similar to those of ibuprofen, according to a 2014 review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

A 2020 study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that higher blood levels of alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E in olive oil, in early-childhood was associated with better lung function at mid-childhood.

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Tart Cherries

A 2018 review published in Nutrients noted that consuming cherries may reduce the risk of several chronic inflammatory diseases, including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Tart cherry juice, in particular, offers such benefits as reduced blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, due to its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, according to a 2019 study published in Nutrients.

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Berries

Berries contain polyphenol compounds, which are known to have anti-inflammatory effects in human beings, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. And fun fact: these compounds are what give berries their distinctive colors of red, blue, and purple.

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