Anti-Inflammatory Diet: The Best and Worst Food for Inflammation

What is inflammation?

You might be hearing more about inflammation and its role in overall health lately, but what exactly is inflammation and how does it happen?

When inflammation becomes chronic

In the short run, inflammation can be helpful as a defense mechanism the body uses to heal injuries. But too much of a good thing can be problematic.

How diet affects inflammation

Certain lifestyle factors — specifically diet — may contribute to the development of chronic, low-grade inflammation, note researchers in a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It boils down to how the body negotiates nutrients and waste.

Plant-based diets may help reduce inflammation.

Because of the role diet can play in chronic inflammation, people tend to look to dietary changes to reduce inflammation and promote overall health and immunity, says Whitney Linsenmeyer, an assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Benefits of a plant-based diet

Plant produce contains a slew of helpful compounds that can reduce chronic inflammation, such as:

1. Asparagus

One stand-out piece of produce to add to your diet is asparagus. This spring vegetable is high in polyphenols, chemical compounds that research suggests could help protect against cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

2. Leafy greens

Leafy greens like spinach and kale are a great source of fiber, vitamin E, vitamin C and the whole scope of antioxidants.

3. Berries

Although they’re small in size, berries pack a nutritional punch. There are a wide array of tasty berries that are high in anthocyanins, which are responsible for berries’ red, blue and purple pigmentation. Berries’ high antioxidant content may also help prevent chronic diseases by protecting healthy cells from damage caused by free radicals.

4. Avocados

Besides being tasty, avocados are a great source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which is protective against chronic inflammation, says Maggie Michalczyk, a registered dietitian based in Chicago.

5. Beans

Eating one cup of beans at least twice a week will help fight inflammation, says Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian based in Miami and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

6. Citrus fruits

Most everyone knows that citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, which bolsters your immune system, promotes wound healing and fosters the development, growth and repair of body tissues. Citrus fruits also boast plenty of inflammation-fighting flavonoids.

7. Dark chocolate

Yes, you can reap some anti-inflammatory benefits by indulging in a little dark chocolate.

8. Herbs and spices

In addition to keeping dishes flavorful, herbs and spices are also considered part of a dynamic anti-inflammatory diet.

9. Olive oil

Olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy fats, as well as oleocanthal, an organic compound that is part of the polyphenols family and has properties similar to nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, Kimberlain says.

10. Fish

There’s a reason why the Mediterranean diet features seafood: It’s full of immune system-supportive omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids the body needs to support healthy brain function, the immune system, cell repair and a range of other functions.

11. Pineapple

This tasty fruit is rich in an enzyme called bromelain, which may help fight pain and swelling that occur from tendonitis, sprains and strains and other minor muscle and joint injuries.

12. Whole grains

Whole grains contain antioxidants and lots of prebiotic fiber, which helps your healthy gut bacteria flourish. One 2018 review study in the journal Medicine that included more than 800 participants noted that subjects who consumed more than 100 grams of whole grains per day had lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood when compared with participants who consumed fewer whole grains.

13. Walnuts

Another anti-inflammatory food that’s high in a form of omega-3 fatty acids — ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid — is walnuts. In fact, just a small handful, or 1 ounce, of English walnuts contains more than 2.5 grams of ALA.

14. Fermented foods

Fermented foods have also been found to help decrease inflammation and improve the diversity of food bacteria in the gut microbiome. They contain probiotics, a kind of bacteria that supports a healthy gut microbiome.

Stay away from foods and drinks that may worsen inflammation.

In addition to knowing which foods are good to keep inflammation at bay, it’s important to know which ones may exacerbate it. If you’re on an anti-inflammatory diet, you’ll want to avoid or limit your consumption of such foods.

Excess alcohol

While a glass of red wine with dinner can be part of the Mediterranean diet, excessive alcohol consumption is best avoided. Kimberlain says that “excessive use weakens liver function and disrupts other multi-organ interactions, and (it) can cause inflammation. Alcohol is best eliminated or used in moderation.”

Saturated fats

Wong recommends avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats. One way to do this is by cooking with heart-healthy oils, such as olive oil, instead of butter. Or, “choose avocado or nut spread instead of margarine-type spread where the main ingredient is palm oil,” she says.

Omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid that the body needs for normal growth and development, Kimberlain says. “The body needs a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.”

Refined carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are another type of ultra-processed food to watch out for, and they can include:

The takeaway

A balanced diet full of fresh fruits and veggies, lean protein sources and whole grains can help you keep inflammation at bay and reduce the risk of chronic illness. It doesn’t have to be complicated, Wroe says, just consistent.

14 anti-inflammatory foods (and 4 to avoid):

Anti-inflammatory foods to add to your diet:

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Anti-Inflammatory Diet: The Best and Worst Food for Inflammation originally appeared on

Update 01/23/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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