Inflammation is helpful, except when it doesn’t go away. It’s a key part of our immune response. For example, when you catch a cold and your immune system triggers a fever. Or, you twist your ankle and quickly your skin reddens and swells. That’s called acute inflammation.
Chronic low-grade inflammation is unhealthy because it sticks around. When your immune system is in a state of constant attack, inflammation starts to damage cells and tissues. Over time, it can cause a host of issues like obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and depression.
“Think of inflammation as the point where your body can no longer tolerate the burden of stress, junk food, poor sleep, etc., all of which lead to the tipping point,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Kylene Bogden, MS, RDN, CSSD, CLT, IFNCP, a performance dietitian for the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and chief operating officer of FWDfuel Sports Nutrition. “When your body can no longer handle this overload of toxins and stress, this is when you will start to see joint pain, headaches, the inability to lose weight, and significant medical problems.”
Do you have chronic inflammation? Only a doctor’s blood test can detect the markers, but you can ballpark the chances that you have some level of inflammation if you have one or more of these symptoms: you’re overweight with much of your excess carried around your middle, you eat a lot of packaged, processed foods, you are sedentary, you smoke, drink excess alcohol, or feel stressed most of the time. You can learn much more about the causes of inflammation and how to reverse it through our book The 14-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet.
But don’t wait for the book to arrive. Start lowering your inflammation right now with these suggestions from nutritionists. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
Eating lots of foods that come packaged and highly processed with sodium and preservatives creates two problems: 1. They often contain inflammatory additives and 2. Eating these foods displaces more nutritious foods in the diet, says Rachel Dyckman, MS, RDN, CDN, owner of Rachel Dyckman Nutrition.
Avoid foods like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and deli meats that have been linked to colon cancer and are considered a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, she says. “Also, limit artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, which have been linked to health issues associated with inflammation, including diabetes and obesity.”
Fatty fish like salmon are high in omega 3 fatty acids and well known for their ability to reduce inflammation, according to Arika Hoscheit, RDN LDN, a registered dietitian with Paloma Health, an online medical practice focused on treating hypothyroidism. “Their high content of anti-inflammatory PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) allows them to support the body by reducing risk for heart disease, supporting gut health, alleviating intestinal diseases, among other things,” she says.
“Omega 3 fatty acids inhibit an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which produces hormones that spark inflammation,” adds Daniel Boyer, MD, a researcher with the Farr Institute, a publisher of medical information.
“Blackberries, raspberries, and other berries are high in anti-inflammatory compounds like anthocyanins and are well known for their disease-fighting capacity,” says Hoscheit.
“Generally speaking, any bright colored, beautiful fruits and vegetables will help fight inflammation,” says Bogden. When it comes to bell pepper, choose red of the three bell pepper colors. Red peppers have the highest amount of inflammation-reducing vitamin C along with the bioflavonoids beta-carotene, quercetin, and luteolin, according to research in the Journal of Food Science. Luteolin has been found to neutralize free radicals and reduce inflammation.
Excessive alcohol consumption can increase inflammation. A study in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism found that the more alcohol the person drank the higher their C-Reactive Protein or CRP rose; CRP is an inflammatory marker measured by a blood test. “People that drink alcohol excessively may experience a condition called leaky gut, which is when bacterial toxins move out of the colon and into the rest of the body and causes widespread inflammation,” says Swedish nutritionist Marie Salbuvik, MS, a nutritionist with shopgiejo.com.
Fill up on beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. These foods are rich in fiber and antioxidants, both of which are key components of an anti-inflammatory diet, says Dyckman “Fiber promotes stable blood sugar, lowers cholesterol, encourages a healthy gut microbiome, optimizes digestion to help with the elimination of toxins, and helps us to maintain a healthy weight by keeping us feeling full. Antioxidants protect against inflammatory free radicals.”
It can be bitter. It can take some getting used to. But it’s worth a spot on our grocery list because kale is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, says Hoscheit. “It’s extremely high in phytochemicals, which help to reduce inflammation and fight off disease,” she says. It’s also high in fiber which can help you to feel fuller for longer. Try one of these 15+ Best Health Kale Recipes for Weight Loss.
Trans fats in the diet promote inflammation. Fats like shortening and margarine contain them, but they can also be found in many fast foods, especially those that are batter-dipped and fried, and red meats, says Dr. Boyer. “One double cheeseburger with fries can cause inflammation markers to appear in our blood plasma within a few minutes of eating it,” says Salbuvik. “This can last up to six hours.”
“Engaging in regular physical activity helps to reduce a type of inflammatory body fat, called visceral fat,” says Dyckman. “It also increases the production of certain anti-inflammatory proteins in the body and helps our cells to use the sugar in our blood for fuel, lowering insulin levels.”
The best news is that it doesn’t take much exercise to have an impact. “Gentle exercise like walking can help improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism and help lower overall inflammation,” says Samantha Presicci, RD, LD, CPT, a dietitian nutritionist at FOND Bone Broth. A study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity demonstrated that only 20 minutes of moderate exercise suppressed markers of inflammation.
“A great way for people to eat their way to improving inflammatory issues is to include anti-inflammatory herbs and seeds such as ginger, turmeric, guggul, ashwagandha, mustard seeds, and holy basil,” says nutritionist Poornima Sharma, PhD, a health coach at Art of Living Retreat Center.
Ginger is particularly beneficial and is easy to add to your diet. Researchers attribute ginger’s health benefits to gingerols, key compounds that are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-disease. According to numerous studies, these compounds block several genes and enzymes in the body that promote inflammation.
Numerous studies have linked “gut dysbiosis,” in other words an imbalance of good and bad bacterial in the gut, to inflammatory diseases. “One of the best things you can drink for gut-healing support against systemic inflammation is bone broth,” says dietitian Presicci.
“Bone broth contains micronutrients and healing amino acids like glutamine, glycine, and proline.” Dr. Sharma also recommends improving your gut microbiome by adding fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi and 35 to 50 grams of fiber to your diet.
It’s a fact: People who are overweight have more inflammation than people with normal weight, says the Farr Institute’s Dr. Boyer. But “you can control and even reverse inflammation by adopting a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle,” he says. Here’s a summary of how to do that:
- Include more whole foods in your diet like fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in omega 3-s.
- Reduce or eliminate inflammatory foods like processed, refined foods, red meat, fried foods, and anything that has trans fats, like crackers and shelf-stable baked goods.
- Avoid excessive alcohol.
- Control blood sugar. Avoid added sugars, refined foods, or anything with high fructose corn syrup.
- Eat more fiber-rich foods. High fiber foods reduce body weight and are also beneficial to the ‘good bacteria in the gut which release substances that lower levels of inflammation.
- Exercise regularly. “Physical activity helps reduce inflammation by preventing the accumulation of visceral fats and deactivating inflammatory pathways,” says Boyer.
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