Inflammation is a hot topic in health and fitness these days. You’re probably most familiar with the kind of inflammation that accompanies a small sports injury. For example, perhaps your ankle swelled after twisting it. That swelling is an example of “acute” inflammation, which helps protect and heal the body after an injury or infection by improving blood flow and recruiting white blood cells to fight foreign invaders.
Although inflammation is beneficial initially, if it sticks around too long, it also can become destructive and cause long-lasting harm within the body. This inflammation is known as chronic, low-grade or systemic inflammation. The good news is that although chronic inflammation is a threat to health, there are steps you can take to greatly reduce inflammation, including avoiding lifestyle factors that are unhealthy and increase inflammation. These include being overweight, breathing polluted air, smoking, not exercising or sleeping enough, and having a stressful lifestyle. Controlling these factors automatically will put you ahead of the inflammation game.
When it comes to your diet, here are things to cut back on to fight inflammation:
- Excessive drinking. Stick to no more than one drink a day if you’re a woman or one to two drinks a day if you‘re a man.
- Trans fats. Read food labels and avoid processed foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Sugar and refined flour products. Consume these products in small amounts as an indulgence. Too much sugar can alert the body to send out extra immunity messengers, called cytokines.
- Omega-6 oils, found in seeds and vegetable oils. Choose omega-3s like fish and walnut oil instead.
- Animal fats, such as butter, fatty cuts of beef and pork.
Focus on eating more of the foods found in a Mediterranean-style diet, which has been shown to reduce inflammation in as little as six weeks. Specifically:
- Eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Toss spinach and mushrooms in omelets; stack sandwiches with tomatoes and lettuce; add peppers and onions to pizza; mix peas, broccoli and carrots in pasta. (See below for some particularly great options and ways to get them.)
- Choose healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil.
- Eat small portions of nuts. Nuts, along with fish, leafy greens, and whole grains) are a big part of the Mediterranean diet.
- For some, drinking red wine in moderation.
- Eat fatty fish (grilled or baked, not fried) like sardines, salmon, tuna or mackerel that are high in omega-3s. Aim for about 6 ounces per week.
Looking for some extra bonuses to fight chronic inflammation? Include these specific foods to fight chronic inflammation:
1. Cabbage, although it’s not a fatty food, provides the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This may be one of the reasons cabbage offers powerful anti-inflammatory benefits.
Try this Orange Chicken Salad to get some cabbage.
2. Beets have an enormous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory component that helps prevent the toxins that enter our body from oxidizing and causing inflammation and damage. Beets (and beetroot juice) have both been shown to reduce inflammation.
Try this: Beets with Feta and Walnuts.
3. Tart Cherries, according to some researchers may have greater anti-inflammatory properties than any other foods. In fact, studies have found that tart cherry juice can reduce the inflammation in lab rats’ blood vessels by up to 50 percent; in humans, meanwhile, it’s been shown to help athletes improve performance and reduce the use of anti-inflammatory pain meds. Eat 1.5 cups of tart cherries or drink 1 cup of tart cherry juice per day to see similar benefits. And yep, they’ve got to be tart—sweet cherries just don’t seem to have the same effects.
Try this: Add a 1/2 cup of tart cherries to nonfat vanilla yogurt. Or blend 1/2 cup of tart cherry juice in a smoothie with a banana, 1/2 cup of ice and nonfat yogurt.
4. Berries, because they’re low in fat and calories and high in antioxidants, have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties—likely due to their anthocyanins, the powerful chemicals that give them their vibrant color.
Go for all berries: Research has shown that blueberries can help protect against intestinal inflammation and ulcerative colitis; women who eat more strawberries have lower levels of CRP in their blood; and red raspberry extract has helped prevent animals from developing arthritis.
Try this: Berry Avocado Salad with Yogurt Cilantro
5. Turmeric, which is a spice common in Asian and Indian cooking and gives curry its yellow color, has been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties. In the body it works by helping to turn off a NF-kappa B, a protein that regulates the immune system and triggers the process of inflammation.