In case you haven’t noticed, our food choices have evolved slightly since the days of early humans. And while that’s mostly a good thing (looking at you, maple almond butter), it also means we consume many things our bodies aren't familiar with.
When your body recognizes an invader—like a chemical or food allergen—it attacks, causing inflammation in the process. This is mostly a natural (and helpful) response, but when it becomes chronic, it causes trouble. Persistent inflammation has been linked to serious enemies like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer disease. Inflammation as a link between obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Esser N, Legrand-Poels S, Piette J. Diabetes research and clinical practice, 2014, Apr.;105(2):1872-8227. Yikes.
Read on for the best foods that fight inflammation (and a few of the worst).
The Best Foods to Fight Inflammation
Packed with antioxidants, berries are also a kick-ass anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown that they reduce a marker of inflammation called TNF-alpha, which means good things for your heart health.
Beans are bursting with anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, but there’s an extra reason to reach for the edamame. In one study, soybeans also caused a drop in several inflammatory markers in the body. Soy food intake and circulating levels of inflammatory markers in Chinese women. Wu SH, Shu XO, Chow WH. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2012, Oct.;112(7):2212-2672.
Just like their berry cousins, cherries are chock-full of antioxidants. They’re also teeming with a type of phytonutrient called anthocyanins, which does some serious inflammation fighting, helping to prevent the cell damage that leads to disease. Flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins, and inflammation. Mena P, Domínguez-Perles R, Gironés-Vilaplana A. IUBMB life, 2014, Dec.;66(11):1521-6551.
Most nutrients have a good and a bad side—and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are no exception. While both are essential—your body needs them to function and cannot produce them on its own—it is possible to get too much of a good thing. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are major inflammation fighters, whereas the omega-6 fatty acids found in most vegetable oils can be inflammation starters. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology? Calder PC. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 2013, Aug.;75(3):1365-2125. You can't exactly get one without the other, so the key is to always keep the ratio in favor of those good omega-3's. Not a fan of fish? A fish oil supplement will deliver all the omega-3’s you need.
We know—it's not the most original health food suggestion. But here's the thing: Kale is high in vitamin K, which has been found to reduce inflammation. Associations between vitamin K status and haemostatic and inflammatory biomarkers in community-dwelling adults. The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Shea MK, Cushman M, Booth SL. Thrombosis and haemostasis, 2014, May.;112(3):0340-6245. If you can’t stomach the bitterness—or think chewing raw kale takes jaws of steel—try massaging the leaves for a minute with a coarse salt, then rinsing them to remove the excess; or blanch them to make the leafy green more palatable.
When you’re raiding the kitchen for inflammation fighters, don’t skip the spice cabinet. Many herbs are chock-full of antioxidant phytonutrients, which can act as anti-inflammatory superfoods. Rosemary and basil are particularly potent inflammation fighters. Supercritical fluid extracts of rosemary leaves exhibit potent anti-inflammation and anti-tumor effects. Peng CH, Su JD, Chyau CC. Bioscience, biotechnology, and biochemistry, 2007, Sep.;71(9):0916-8451. In one study, rosemary oil—an antioxidant—also protected the liver from oxidative damage. Sprinkle the dried herbs into your favorite recipes or, even better, pick them fresh from your window sill garden.
Walnuts are another great source of omega-3s and tons of inflammation-fighting phytonutrients. The scientific evidence for a beneficial health relationship between walnuts and coronary heart disease. Feldman EB. The Journal of nutrition, 2002, May.;132(5):0022-3166. Researchers have linked a diet high in nuts to lower levels of inflammation, cholesterol, and oxidative stress.
Tea is essentially an anti-inflammatory elixir. Steeped in antioxidant catechins, both black and green teas put the kibosh on inflammation flare-ups. Tea catechins reduce inflammatory reactions via mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways in toll-like receptor 2 ligand-stimulated dental pulp cells. Hirao K, Yumoto H, Nakanishi T. Life sciences, 2010, Feb.;86(17-18):1879-0631.
Sweet potatoes aren't only for Thanksgiving. These babies are packed with carotenoids and vitamin C—a major inflammation fighter. Enjoy them all year by sticking to a simple recipe: Roast sweet potato slices in the oven with a little salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
Foods to Avoid
Lots of people are lactose intolerant—meaning their body is unable to process the sugar (lactose) in dairy products—making frozen yogurt an inflammatory trigger. Some types of fro-yo also contain a milk protein called casein, which has been shown to induce inflammation in the gut. Comparative effects of A1 versus A2 beta-casein on gastrointestinal measures: a blinded randomised cross-over pilot study. Ho S, Woodford K, Kukuljan S. European journal of clinical nutrition, 2014, Jul.;68(9):1476-5640. On top of that, all those sugary toppings are only adding fuel to the fire. Research has shown that diets high in refined starches and sugars (hello, graham cracker cookie crumbles) cause inflammation.
Despite the declarations of Tony the Tiger, cereal might not be great—at least when it comes to inflammation. Although the wheat grains found in most cereals are necessary for a balanced diet, they are capabale of activating pro-inflammatory pathways in some—which won't feel great for those with an intolerance. Plus, many cereal grains contain gluten, another no-no for those with a sensitivity or intolerance.
We hate to break it to you, but that prime cut filet is packed with saturated fats, which have been linked to low-grade inflammation. Saturated fat, carbohydrates and cardiovascular disease. Kuipers RS, de Graaf DJ, Luxwolda MF. The Netherlands journal of medicine, 2012, Feb.;69(9):1872-9061. Consuming too much can screw with your body's natural ability to fight inflammation.
Add liver inflammation to the list of reasons we hate MSG. This flavor additive has been linked to chronic inflammation, which is often associated with serious liver issues. Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a villain and promoter of liver inflammation and dysplasia. Nakanishi Y, Tsuneyama K, Fujimoto M. Journal of autoimmunity, 2008, Apr.;30(1-2):0896-8411. Always check your labels—your liver will thank you.