The body's inflammatory response isn't necessarily a bad thing. Inflammation is one of our defense mechanisms and creates increased blood flow to a damaged area to fight infection and promote healing. This is acute inflammation. It's the chronic kind -- that sticks around for months and years -- that we really need to worry about.
The diseases (in order) that kill the most people in the United States are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke. Accidents are right behind, followed by Alzheimer's disease. Many people are surprised to learn there's a lot they can do to help lower their risk of developing these illnesses, and diet plays a huge role.
All of the diseases listed above have an inflammatory component, and autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and fibromyalgia, also involve inflammation. Minimizing the inflammation in your body can lower your risk of developing these illnesses. And the fact that you can do it through food means you can do a lot to protect yourself!
Before we get into which foods fight inflammation, it's important to highlight the foods that cause it. Added sugars, refined carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats all cause inflammation in the body, so it's smart to minimize them. Reducing sodium to the recommended 2,300 milligrams per day is also important to help lower your risk of developing high blood pressure.
Adding the following foods to your diet can help to cut down on inflammation. Try incorporating these ingredients into your diet a few times each week.
Olive polyphenols have been shown to lower blood levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker for determining the likelihood of inflammation in the body.
Add it: Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over hot pasta and whole grains, and add olives to salads, pizza and grain dishes.
Studies show that these delicious, tart-sweet cherries can reduce pain from arthritis and post-exercise soreness. One study showed the fruit has the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food.
Add it: Look for tart dried cherries and tart cherry juice. Add tart cherry juice to breakfast smoothies, or sprinkle dried tart cherries over your morning bowl of oatmeal or yogurt.
This deep marigold root is a component of curry and offers anti-inflammatory benefits. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to be beneficial in treating the symptoms of Crohn's disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and stomach ulcers.
Add it: You can add a teaspoon of ground turmeric to smoothies, and use it in curries and soups.
This vegetable contains the flavonoid quercetin, which has been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Add it: Caramelized red onions are a wonderful addition to pizza, salads and pasta dishes. Slices of raw red onion add a burst of flavor to burgers, pasta salad and sandwiches.
Grapes contain a mix of antioxidants, including flavonoids and resveratrol, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is a potent antioxidant. Resveratrol shows promise in helping to combat a range of maladies, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases to cancer to aging.
Add it: Freeze grapes and eat them as a snack, use them whole in smoothies or halve and add to salads.
Chia contains alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods. ALA has anti-inflammatory benefits.
Add it: Sprinkle over yogurt and cereal, or use to make chia pudding.
The compound sulforaphane in broccoli may help prevent the formation of cancer cells by killing off potential carcinogens. Sulforaphane may also block enzymes linked to joint destruction and inflammation.
Add it: Whatever you do with broccoli, don't overcook it! It's best lightly sautéed or steamed until al dente. Add it to salads and pasta dishes, or simply serve it as a side dish with sautéed garlic.
The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and other fatty fish such as tuna and sardines help reduce inflammation throughout the body.
Add it: Eat at least one to two servings per week of fatty fish.Try it grilled, baked, poached and pan-seared. It's delicious!
Long know for its anti-nausea benefits, ginger also boasts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. In studies, ginger has been shown to relieve pain and stiffness in knee joints.
Add it: Fresh ginger is a great way to add some pep to a smoothie or a homemade dressing. It's also wonderful grated over cooked salmon, or steeped in hot water to make a soothing tea.
These little blue fruits contain anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant that fights inflammation and may help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Thanks to their polyphenol content (including anthocyanins), blueberries are quite promising for helping to reverse age-related declines in cognitive and motor function.
Add it: It's easy to add these sweet berries to smoothies and to sprinkle them over cereal, oatmeal and salads.
In addition to the foods above, make sure to eat in color and load your plate with brightly colored produce. Here's to less pain and hopefully, a longer, healthier life!
Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.