#1 Food to Fight Inflammation, According to a Dietitian
Sometimes inflammation is a good thing—it's a defense mechanism. For instance, inflammation helps heal a cut. But then there's the type of inflammation that is a slow, ongoing simmer in the background of your body. That's called chronic inflammation and over time it will take a toll on your health and ups your risk of developing some major diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune conditions, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. (Try these 10 ways to reduce inflammation.)
Chronic inflammation also has no overt symptoms so it's hard to know if you're experiencing it. Fortunately, you can be proactive: research shows you can reduce inflammation with your diet.
The #1 Food to Eat to Lower Inflammation
"There is one food that has the most tangible research specific to inflammation," says Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., author of Meals that Heal. "It's omega-3s, which is technically a nutrient. So that's eating salmon, and other oily, fatty fish, or taking a supplement."
For instance, research shows that the omega-3s EPA and DHA pull double-duty: they can play a role in preventing pro-inflammatory compounds and inflammatory processes, and also in encouraging the production of anti-inflammatory compounds. There's even research that supports taking omega-3 supplements as a way to help quell inflammation related to various conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's, lupus, type 1 diabetes, asthma, psoriasis, heart disease, and more. One study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that overweight middle-aged and older adults who took omega-3 supplements for 4 months, lowered their inflammatory markers compared to their counterparts who didn't take any omega-3 supplements.
"Omega-3s would be #1 across the board. But there are 3 other foods that are right behind omega-3s for their anti-inflammatory benefits," says Williams. "These three foods kept popping up over and over and over again in the research."
They are: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and berries. "I tell people: if you can do three things, this is it: get leafy greens into your diet every day. Eat berries several times a week and cruciferous vegetables several times a week," says Williams.
Other Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat
Why these three foods? Here's what the science says.
"The research behind eating leafy greens is some of the strongest," says Williams. Eating them has been shown to lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and brain deterioration. You want to eat leafy greens, such as lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, etc. every day, or at least get in 6 cups a week, says Williams. Try these healthy recipes with greens to get your fill.
It's the sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates in these veggies that are so beneficial. You also get vitamin C, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants. In one study, healthy adults who ate 2 cups of cruciferous vegetables a day (for two weeks) saw an improvement in some inflammatory markers—and more so than when they ate just 1 cup a day or no veggies at all. Aim for at least 5 servings a week, according to Williams, of veggies such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, radishes, etc.
In particular, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, and cranberries. They're packed with anthocyanins and antioxidants, which mop up harmful free radicals that promote inflammation (and other disease processes). Get in at least 2 cups per week, advises Williams. Frozen berries count and are a great option when fresh isn't in season.
What Not to Eat to Lower Inflammation
Now that you know what you should be eating, what shouldn't you be eating? According to Williams, some of the top food (and nutrient) "inflamers" include refined carbs that are low in fiber, added sugars and artificial sweeteners, fried foods, high-fat and processed meats, and trans and saturated fat.
Eating and drinking (alcohol and caffeine, in particular) in excess can also stoke inflammation. So, overall, aim to eat only as much as you need, minimize the items that fan the inflammation flames, and be sure to consistently include omega-3s, leafy greens, berries, and cruciferous veggies in your diet.