The Best and Worst Foods for Inflammation That You Should Watch in Your Diet

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Here‘s How to Eat to Prevent Chronic InflammationMartin Poole - Getty Images

Inflammation is your body’s defense system—but it can get out of control. It’s a good thing when it plays a protective role in healing injuries, such as a cut or scrape, or illnesses, such as a cold. But chronic inflammation, which builds up over years, can damage tissue and organs, leading to health issues such as type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. So, you may want to consider adding the best anti-inflammatory foods to your daily diet.

Inflammation also may be the reason you feel brain fog or experience digestive issues, muscle aches, or skin rashes, say health coach Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., L.D.N. and chef Jessica Swift, R.D.N., in their book 28-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The authors explain that high levels of body-wide inflammation are at the core of many serious health problems.

Meet the Experts: Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet; Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., L.D.N.; Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board; chef Jessica Swift, R.D.N..

Kiros and Swift say many factors contribute to chronic inflammation, including prolonged stress, poor sleep, sitting too much, and excess body fat. But the biggest offender is a diet high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods. While there are no “good” and “bad” foods—for most people, everything in moderation is fine!—eating more whole, minimally processed foods (instead of less nutritious, processed ones) has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation in the blood by 20 percent, say Kiros and Swift.

If you’re trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, changing everything at once may seem daunting. Instead, try small steps to gain momentum. For example, by adding a few of these “best” foods and reducing the number of these “worst” foods in your diet, you can positively impact your health, say the authors.

The best type of diet for fighting inflammation is an overall healthy eating plan, such as the Mediterranean Diet, which includes plenty of antioxidant-rich foods and omega-3 fatty acids, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., registered dietitian and author of The Small Change Diet. But what we put in our mouths isn’t the only factor. “Though diet plays a major role in reducing inflammation in the body, it is also important to engage in regular physical activity, decrease stress levels and get an adequate night’s sleep,” says Gans.

Ahead, 28-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet authors Kiros and Swift, along with nutrition experts, suggest the best for inflammation.

Best foods for inflammation


Fiber-rich foods, like beans, prevent blood sugar spikes that cause the body to overproduce free radicals that release inflammatory messengers. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough; women under age 50 should aim for 25g per day, 38g for men. Over age 50, shoot for 21g for women and 30g for men. Fiber-rich beans such as cannellini, black or garbanzos are a great swap for fattier foods, such as beef. Here’s a list of our favorite black bean recipes for inspo!

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Avocados are rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants such as carotenoids, as well as heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamins A and E, which combat free radicals. Studies have shown that eating an avocado a day can better your gut health as well. They also contain soluble fiber, which can lower your risk for heart disease. Here is our list of our favorite avocado recipes so that you never let another one go to waste!

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Sweet potato

Instead of a regular potato, swap in a sweet potato. Its bright orange color indicates that it’s packed with polyphenols, which are antioxidants that may prevent or reverse inflammatory damage caused by free radicals. They also contain about 4 grams of fiber to work toward your daily goal.

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Citrus fruit

Citrus fruits contain polyphenols which may help “turn off” the body’s inflammation switch. They also contain flavanones, which can strengthen your immune system and stave off inflammation. Add them to salads for a flavorful antioxidant kick.

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Leafy greens

Bring on the leafy greens such as kale, spinach, mustard, and mesclun! These veggies are rich in carotenoids and vitamins A, C, E, and K, and studies have shown that eating several servings per week may lower the risk of stomach, breast, and skin cancers and decrease the risk of heart disease.

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Nuts contain protein which helps keep blood sugar levels stable, preventing the release of excess insulin and the formation of free radicals. Nuts also contain insoluble fiber to keep things moving in your gut. Studies have even shown that eating nuts can lower your risk of heart disease. A small handful of nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pecans or 2 tablespoons of nut butter make a heart-healthy snack.

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Fatty fish

Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and herring are full of omega 3-fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit the secretion of compounds that trigger inflammation. Aim for 1.1g per day omega-3s for women, 1.6g for men, and try to eat a couple of servings of fish per week. Check out our best salmon recipes here.

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Berries contain high concentrations of anthocyanins, which research says may reduce inflammation and keep your brain sharp. Toss with Greek yogurt for a breakfast full of protein and antioxidants, or freeze some to snack on when you have a sweet tooth.

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Tomatoes contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and carotenoids such as lycopene. Lycopene is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Top toast with Greek yogurt, sliced tomatoes and a sprinkle of lemon zest and mint for a fresh-tasting snack.

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Coffee or tea

Teas, including green, black, white and oolong, are full of polyphenols. Studies have even shown that drinking black tea may lower risk of early death. And contrary to popular belief, coffee is also rich in antioxidants that protect against cellular damage, and does not cause inflammation. Just be mindful of adding extras like high-fat cream or sugar.

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Apples contain polyphenols such as flavanols and anthocyanins. Research has also shown that flavonoid-rich foods, such as apples, may help to prevent frailty in older adults. Make sure to eat the skin, which also contains fiber for gut health.

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Whole grains

Whole-wheat bread or pasta, brown rice, barley, and oatmeal are better choices than refined grains. They contain fiber so your blood sugar won’t spike, and they haven’t been stripped of nutrients like most refined carbs. Swap brown for white when eating rice, pasta, or bread.

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Dark chocolate

Get your most bang for your buck when indulging by opting for dark chocolate! It contains polyphenols such as anthocyanins and catechins.

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Fermented foods

Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi, and other fermented vegetables are full of post-biotics, which research has shown has anti-inflammatory benefits, says Gans. These foods can also increase your healthy gut bacteria and the diversity of those healthy gut microbes, says Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “Studies have shown that these positive changes can reduce markers of inflammation in your blood.”

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Extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest fats you can eat, because of its richness in monounsaturated fats. The effect of oleocanthal, an antioxidant found in olive oil, has been compared to anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. Studies have also suggested extra virgin olive oil may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and dying from dementia. Plus, it’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is known for its anti-inflammatory benefits.

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Worst foods for inflammation

According to our nutrition experts, some of the worst foods for inflammation include:

  • Refined carbohydrates

  • Processed meats

  • Baked goods

  • Sweetened beverages

  • Trans fat

  • Added sugars

  • Omega-6 fatty acids

Remember that no foods are truly off-limits. It’s fine to indulge occasionally, but follow the 80/20 rule: Eat non-inflammatory foods 80 percent of the time, and enjoy your favorite foods from this list 20 percent of the time.

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