Foods to Eat and Avoid — or at Least Limit — on an Anti-inflammatory Diet

Why eat anti-inflammatory foods?

Inflammation is the body’s response to injury and disease — like when you have swelling and redness around a wound or twisted joint, or fever while your immune system battles an illness. In the short run, inflammation can be helpful. However, chronic inflammation has been linked to a range of conditions, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and certain cancers.

Some evidence indicates that lifestyle — including what we eat — may contribute to inflammation. “The role of chronic inflammation in various diseases is fairly well-accepted in the scientific community,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, an assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University and a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Naturally, people are looking toward dietary changes to reduce inflammation and promote overall health and immunity.”

What you put on your plate could help reduce inflammation in your body and prevent disease.

Some fad diets may claim to be anti-inflammatory. But experts say eating patterns with the most science behind them, like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension), are your top choices for an anti-inflammatory diet. They include an array of foods that are healthy and that research suggests also have anti-inflammation benefits.

Anti-inflammatory foods include:

— Broccoli.

— Berries.

— Citrus fruits.

— Green, leafy vegetables.

— Black, kidney, pinto and other beans.

Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet, based on the Mediterranean diet, with a few added elements like anti-inflammatory green tea, is also OK — but expert panelists convened by U.S. News didn’t rank the diet nearly as highly as the Mediterranean or DASH diets. Here are some anti-inflammatory foods, as well as some foods that may contribute to inflammation:

Avocados

Avocados contain monounsaturated fat and antioxidants, while also containing tons of potassium, B vitamins and fiber, which all help decrease inflammation, says Stephanie Wood, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles and the clinical nutrition manager at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale, California. “Try adding avocado to your toast, salad, soup or by itself with a pinch of salt,” Wood says.

Antioxidant-infused fruits and vegetables

Foods generally considered anti-inflammatory have been proven to be healthy — for any number of reasons. Case in point: fruits and veggies. We know from reams of research that they’re good for us, even if it’s still not clear to what extent anti-inflammatory properties may deserve credit. To hedge your bets, choose colorful fruits and veggies that are high in antioxidants:

— For flavonols, try broccoli, kale and berries.

— For beta carotene, consider red and orange peppers.

— Get your vitamin C from citrus fruits and winter squash.

The bottom line: It’s hard to go wrong with fruits or veggies.

Whole grains

In addition to lots of fruits and vegetables, diets considered to be anti-inflammatory are usually rich in whole grains, such as wheat, oats and quinoa, Linsenmeyer notes. These and other whole grains like brown rice and barley are a great source of fiber, as are fruits and vegetables — especially raspberries, apples, peas and broccoli. The dietary inflammatory index, a review of research on foods that are anti-inflammatory and those that seem to promote inflammation, puts fiber squarely in the first camp.

Beans

Beans are another fiber-rich food firmly in the category of lean proteins. Dietary experts like Tamara Randall, a registered dietitian nutritionist and instructor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, say these should be considered as part of a healthy anti-inflammatory diet. Black, kidney, pinto and other beans are a great complement to any diet.

Omega-3 packed fatty fish like salmon

Omega-3 fatty acids not only battle inflammation, they’re also good for brain health. Foods high in omega-3 include fish, nuts (especially walnuts) and plant oils like flaxseed oil. However, the two most beneficial forms of omega-3 — eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid — come mainly from fish. The best sources for omega-3s are fatty seafood, which includes salmon, albacore tuna and shellfish. The American Heart Association generally recommends having two 3.5-ounce servings of non-fried fish per week, or around 200 to 500 milligrams of EPA or DHA total. Talk with a doctor about whether supplementation is recommended if you don’t eat fish.

Leafy green vegetables

If there’s one thing that you should eat every day or even twice a day, make it leafy green vegetables, says Leah Johnston, a registered dietitian based in Chicago. The food category that includes spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, bok choy and Swiss chard is packed with antioxidants, flavonoids and folate. These nutrients are associated with lower levels of biomarkers for inflammation and oxidative stress. “If you are bored with salads, throw some greens into your soups or mix some spinach into almost any hot dish until wilted,” Johnston says.

Walnuts and other nuts

Another anti-inflammatory food that’s also high in a different form of omega-3 fatty acids (called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) is walnuts. In fact, just a small handful, or one ounce, of English walnuts contains more than 2 1/2 grams of ALA.

While nuts in general are a healthful feature of anti-inflammatory diets like the Mediterranean diet, walnuts lead the pack in omega-3 content. Researchers studying the effects of eating walnuts “have found they lower C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and arthritis,” notes the Arthritis Foundation.

Oils

Featured in the traditional Mediterranean diet, olive oil is a source of healthy fat that’s also anti-inflammatory, Randall notes. Alternatively, a person wishing to eat an anti-inflammatory diet may sparingly use safflower or sunflower oil as well, she suggests. Use oils in moderation, like a tablespoon for cooking or as dressing for a salad. Flaxseed oil, which contains 7 grams of ALA per tablespoon, is another great anti-inflammatory option.

Herbs and spices

In addition to keeping dishes flavorful, herbs and spices are also considered part of a dynamic anti-inflammatory diet. In 2020, in a randomized feeding study, researchers at Penn State University studied participants who ate a meal high in fat and carboyhdrates. Those who consumed six grams of a spice blend added to their food had lower inflammation markers versus individuals who ate a similar meal with no or less spices.

Linsenmeyer especially recommends turmeric and ginger. According to Harvard Health, in addition to turmeric, these spices may have anti-inflammation properties:

— Cumin.

— Coriander.

Other herbs and spices recommended for their anti-inflammatory properties include cinnamon, chili peppers, garlic, clove, rosemary, sage and oregano, Linsenmeyer says.

Limit sugar.

A diet that’s high in sugar is more inflammatory, says Joan Salge Blake, a professor of nutrition at Boston University and a U.S. News contributor. Still, Salge Blake, like many dietary experts, cautions against trying to cut things entirely out of the diet. Besides being difficult to sustain and usually unnecessary, extreme dietary changes or restrictions can lead to disordered eating. That said, limiting cakes, cookies and soda — what have become everyday indulgences for many — is key to strike a balance.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to 7% for individuals who need 2,000 calories a day (based on age, sex and physical activity level). Most Americans consume about double that amount. The AHA suggests sugar consumption should be limited to no more than 36 grams a day for most men and no more than 24 grams daily for the majority of women. However, the average daily consumption of sugar for per person in the U.S. is more than 126 grams a day, according to the Diabetes Council.

Limit refined carbohydrates.

Refined carbs are types of carbohydrates that don’t occur naturally but are derived from processing. For example, muffins and cookies, with added sugars, contain refined carbs. White bread and crackers fall into that category, too. Foods that contain refined carbs may contribute to inflammation. Rather than consuming foods with refined carbs, reach for natural, whole foods instead.

Such foods include:

— Fresh fruits.

— Fresh vegetables.

— Whole grain breads.

If you’re a pasta fan, consider a whole-grain pasta over white, refined pasta. Generally speaking, whole foods are best — and highly processed, carb-heavy foods should be limited.

Avoid processed meat and meat high in saturated fat.

An added benefit of consuming healthy fats is that you’re crowding out — or limiting — unhealthy ones in your diet that may be inflammatory, such as fatty red meats and processed meat like hot dogs and bacon. “So you’re eating a fish — a source that is very low in saturated fat and may be displacing in your diet a protein source that’s very high in saturated fat,” Salge Blake says. If you’re craving meat, look for lean proteins like poultry or leaner cuts of grass-fed beef, which may also be a good source of omega-3s.

Avoid trans fats.

Due to public health concerns, factory-made trans fats — aka partially hydrogenated oil — are mostly gone from foods today. Still, because of the risk they pose — like raising “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and the role they play in inflammation — it’s still worth double-checking food labels to make sure they don’t sneak into your diet. Trans fats are sometimes still included in processed baked goods and fried foods — essentially fare you’ll want to avoid or limit.

Alcohol in moderation and everything in context

Having a glass of wine with dinner isn’t discouraged with diets like the Mediterranean. But drinking in excess can increase inflammation, Salge Blake says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines suggest having no more than one drink per day for women and two daily for men. The department defines an alcoholic drink as a beverage that contains 14 grams of pure alcohol.

Examples of one drink under this definition include:

— A 12-ounce glass of beer.

— 5 ounces of wine.

— 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

Ultimately, if you’re trying to reduce inflammation and improve your health through diet and lifestyle, the point is to consider everything you eat and drink. Look at the big picture of your lifestyle. “You can’t say, ‘OK, I’m going to have salmon two meals a week, and then I’m going to smoke and take in excess alcohol, be overweight and (not) eat any fruits and vegetables,'” Salge Blake stresses. “That’s not going to work.”

Dark chocolate

Yes, you can reap those anti-inflammatory benefits by indulging in a little dark chocolate, Wood says. This satisfying treat contains flavonols, compounds that have antioxidant-like powers. Consumption of flavonols has been associated with increasing antioxidant activity in the body to help reduce inflammation. Not just any dark chocolate will do the job. “Make sure it’s a quality dark chocolate made from at least 70% cacao or more,” Wood says.

Anti-inflammatory foods

To recap, here are foods you should eat on an anti-inflammatory diet.

— Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

— Avocados.

— Whole grains.

— Beans.

— Salmon and other fatty fish.

— Leafy green vegetables

— Walnuts.

— Olive oil and flaxseed oil.

— Herbs and spices, including turmeric and ginger.

— Dark chocolate.

More from U.S. News

Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

How 16 Fruits Boost Your Health

Highest Protein Fruits

Foods to Eat and Avoid — or at Least Limit — on an Anti-inflammatory Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 01/21/21: This article was previously published and has been updated with new information.

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