The old adage "you are what you eat" is especially poignant when you think about how our food can influence our health. "It's a large piece of the puzzle when it comes to reducing or ramping up inflammation in our bodies," says Caroline Margolis, RDN, a registered dietitian at Lifeway Foods.
In short, inflammation, which is categorized as acute or chronic, is a physiological response to infection and injury to help promote healing. Acute, short-term inflammation is totally normal and your body's natural way of fighting infection and injury. But ongoing, systemic, or chronic, inflammation can impair normal immune function and increase disease risk, leading to a variety of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders. In fact, chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world.
That's why "we want to eat in a way that supports normal, acute inflammation, but not systemic chronic inflammation," says Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, a Los Angeles–based sports and performance nutritionist.
An anti-inflammatory diet can do just that: help "reduce the underlying processes that cause inflammation in our body, which in turn helps to reduce the risk of chronic disease," Margolis says.
What Exactly Is an Anti-inflammatory Diet?
Think of an anti-inflammatory diet as a set of guidelines—versus a strict diet with specific rules like, say, the DASH Diet, or other more formal nutrition plans. Everything from a traditional, non-Westernized Mediterranean Diet to a whole-food, plant-based diet, to The Longevity Diet can be considered a type of anti-inflammatory diet. No matter the "plan," the key to nailing this type of eating is prioritizing fresh, whole, plant-based foods, and omega-3-rich fish, and avoiding processed foods—which includes highly processed meats (luncheon/deli meats, hot dogs, bacon), canned soups, chips, packaged baked goods, ice cream, sweetened breakfast cereal, and fast food.
There are tons of foods that are considered anti-inflammatory, and most often your best bet is to reach for fruits and veggies.
Some Anti-Inflammatory Vegetables:
Cruciferous vegetables: like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and bok choy
Leafy greens: like spinach, kale, swiss chard, lettuces, arugula
Peppers: like bell peppers and chili peppers
Some Anti-Inflammatory Fruits:
Berries: like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries
Nuts, mushrooms, pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), wild salmon, and sardines also have excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Even spices, specifically turmeric, which contains the protective compound curcumin, have been shown to reduce inflammation. "Kefir may have additional anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting effects thanks to its probiotics and the production of bioactive compounds," says Margolis. "Probiotics work to strengthen the intestinal lining, helping to stimulate the appropriate immune response by inducing a network of signals that decrease proinflammatory cytokines and increase anti-inflammatory cytokines to reduce inflammation in the body."
Many of these anti-inflammatory foods are also high in antioxidants. "Antioxidants are molecules that fight cell-damaging free radicals formed by normal cellular activities or by extrinsic factors like smoking, stress, and chemicals," says Silvia Carli, RD, 1AND1 Life's registered dietitian and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. "Free radicals are associated with the development of a number of diseases, further inflammation, and aging."
Why Choose an Anti-inflammatory Diet?
Research shows that everything from alcohol to refined carbs to sugar in heavy amounts can be a culprit. (FYI: The amount of time spent sitting has also been associated with biomarkers linked to chronic low-grade inflammation and poor metabolic health, specifically in women.) A great way to decrease anti-inflammatory food intake:
"Eat more home-cooked meals, find ways to sneak more vegetables into our dishes, and avoid fried foods," Carli says.
Doing so can reduce markers of inflammation as well as result in a drop in glucose, lipids, and triglycerides, all of which are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2019 Journal of Restorative Medicine study. Another 2019 Journal of Internal Medicine study reported that a high-inflammatory diet may lessen all-cause cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality, and increase life span in smokers.
"Studies have shown that an anti-inflammatory diet has been associated with microbial diversity of the gut, where 70 to 80 percent of our immune cells live," Margolis adds. "We know a balanced microbiome is important for appropriate immune response and a decrease of inflammation in our body." Plus "anti-inflammatory foods are also rich in other nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and bioactive compounds that support health in other ways, including immune function and mental health," says Sass
With so many good-for-you benefits, choosing an anti-inflammatory diet seems like a no-brainer. Plus, chronic inflammation can seriously reduce your quality of life.
No, "the anti-inflammatory diet is not the sole treatment necessary for some of these conditions," says Cali, but "it can improve its symptoms and reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups." And that means one less health concern to consider.
When you're ready to start cooking and eating with a goal of reducing chronic inflammation, here are 10 of Real Simple's favorite anti-inflammatory recipes that'll make you feel better than ever.