Turmeric-rich golden lattes might have helped bring anti-inflammatory foods and drinks into the mainstream in recent years. But eating to fight inflammation isn’t just a fad.
“Inflammation is not bad, per se,” says Dr. Elizabeth Swenor, a functional medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System. It occurs naturally in your body all the time, and acute inflammation is necessary to, say, heal a scrape or recover after a hard workout. It becomes an issue when the immune system gets overwhelmed, however, as with chronic diseases such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. “It’s like a dump truck constantly dumping inflammation over and over again,” Swenor says, and that can lead to a host of health problems.
You don’t need to have a chronic disease to see benefits from foods that combat inflammation, though. “When you go on an anti-inflammatory diet, you’re really just eating healthy, nature-made food with lots of color,” says Dr. J. Patricia Dhar, the program director of the rheumatology fellowship program at Ascension St. John Hospital and a clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University. Here are a few expert tips to adapt your diet.
Focus on healthier choices.
The typical American diet is heavy on processed and fried foods, which trigger inflammation, says Lisa McDowell, director of clinical nutrition and lifestyle medicine at St. Joseph Mercy Health System and the Detroit Red Wings’ team dietitian. Aim to eat more food in its original form. Not sure where to start? Look at what your family eats and tinker with it. Take oatmeal, for example: “By itself, it’s OK,” she says. “But if you can add blueberries, and walnuts, and chia seeds, and ground flax seeds, maybe some cinnamon — things that are very, very high in antioxidants — you can take a food from an average choice to an A+ choice.”
Eat more plant-based meals.
Animal proteins — especially red meats — often increase inflammation because our bodies break them down in an entirely different way than with plants. “Everyone thinks ‘plant-based’ means ‘salads,’ ” Swenor says. “But there are so many delicious foods out there.” Something as simple as avocado toast for breakfast can be an easy — and healthy — plant-based swap.
Colorful food is your friend.
Vibrant produce, such as berries and dark leafy greens, is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Studies have shown that fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with substances that decrease inflammation, Dhar says. But preparation matters: “Try to preserve the colors,” she says. That means don’t boil broccoli until it’s sapped of color, and don’t blacken things, either — charring adds oxidation, which contributes to inflammation.
Say no to sugar.
It’s difficult for many to turn down sweets, but science is pretty clear: “Sugar is bad,” Dhar says. “And it causes a lot of inflammation.” Blood sugar stability is also connected to inflammation, McDowell says: “The more sugar in your diet, the more your blood sugar levels are elevated, the more damage is done.”
Consume more fiber.
Fiber nourishes your gut bacteria, or microbiome. “You can’t really talk about inflammation if you don’t mention the microbiome,” Swenor says. There is a lot of what she calls “cross-talk” between your immune system and your gut. Food-based probiotics can also aid your microbiome. Reach for fermented or cultured foods — like kimchi or plain yogurt, which are rich with live bacteria — over supplements, as many are not FDA approved.