Even though you may mean well, certain behaviors don't actually help when it comes to decreasing inflammation. Here are 5 things you shouldn't do—and 5 things you should—to help beat inflammation.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
April 08, 2021
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"Anti-inflammatory diets" and "top anti-inflammatory foods" are hot topics, and the interest and popularity have led to a surge of online recommendations, recipes and meal plans for how to reduce inflammation. All of this can make a pretty simple eating approach—increase foods that fight inflammation and decrease foods that cause inflammation—appear a lot more complicated than it really is.

If you're not sure where to start or what recommendations to prioritize, I've pulled together 10 tips for decreasing inflammation. Check out these 5 things you should do and 5 things you shouldn't do when adopting an anti-inflammatory eating approach.

5 Things You Shouldn't Do When Trying to Reduce Inflammation

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Credit: Getty Images / martin-dm

1. Don't assume you have to completely give up alcohol.

Good news! An anti-inflammatory lifestyle can still include an occasional cocktail or glass of wine, and some experts suggest it may even elicit a slight anti-inflammatory effect. However, there's one catch: alcoholic drinks need to be kept to around one drink a day because exceeding two drinks negates any slight anti-inflammatory effect and begins to contribute to inflammation. Make sure to also choose an alcoholic beverage that adds minimal extra calories to your day and has little to no added sugars. Wine, liquor or beer are all OK as no one form appears to have significantly greater benefits that another.

2. Don't let cutting out "bad" foods be your primary focus.

When people ask how to start an anti-inflammatory eating approach, my advice is always this: Don't focus on what you can't have or need to eliminate; focus first on incorporating key anti-inflammatory foods. This is because certain food families like leafy greens, berries and cruciferous vegetables, along with nutrients like omega-3s and vitamin D, have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and increasing these is essential to reduce inflammation. Yet, this often gets overlooked while getting rid of less-healthy foods is prioritized. Get the hang of incorporating more of these foods into your daily eating routine and meals, then work on minimizing dietary components that cause inflammation.

3. Don't feel pressure to become vegetarian or vegan.

Plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber, both diet characteristics associated with reducing inflammation. Plant foods also contain various phytochemicals or bioactive compounds that may act as antioxidants or elicit anti-inflammatory effects, so the argument for plants is overwhelmingly strong. However, reaping anti-inflammatory benefits doesn't necessarily require giving up all animal proteins if this doesn't appeal to you. Instead, focus on taking a plant-forward approach to meals, where three-fourths of your plate consists of various plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. Then, fill the other one-fourth with fish, poultry or lean meat a few times a week.

4. Don't feel like you have to cook every meal from scratch!

Anti-inflammatory diets are built around whole and minimally processed foods, something that sounds really appealing—until you're tired, hungry and without a dinner plan. This is when I ditch recipes to see what I can quickly create using minimally processed convenience foods I have on hand. Things like fresh zucchini noodles, cooked and ready-to-heat whole grains, canned beans, jarred pasta sauce and good-quality bottled salad dressings make it easy to toss together a quick grain bowl, entree salad or pasta-like zoodle dish, so stock your fridge, pantry and freezer. Then, use key staples like these to keep meal prep easy.

5. Don't assume fresh is always best.

Don't assume that fresh produce is always the best source for anti-inflammatory nutrients. While it's hard to beat the texture and flavor of fresh fruits and vegetables, some frozen and canned varieties like frozen berries and canned tomato products are better. This is often due to produce being flash-frozen shortly after being harvested, which halts nutrient loss. In the case of tomatoes, the heat used in processing actually increases nutrient bioavailability. In fact, canned tomato products are rich in lycopene, a phytochemical that appears to have anti-inflammatory effects, offering up to five times more lycopene per cup than raw tomatoes.

5 Things You Should Do When Trying to Reduce Inflammation

Salmon & Avocado Salad

Get the Recipe: Salmon & Avocado Salad

1. Do choose seafood carefully.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a nutrient that exerts some of the strongest anti-inflammatory effects in the body, as well as one that most everyone isn't getting enough. While omega-3s are found in a few plant sources, seafood is the best source to get DHA and EPA, the two most important ones for health and inflammation. Not all fish are great sources though, and it's also important to choose a good source with low mercury levels. For maximum benefit, choose seafood from the FDA's "Best Choices list" that are good sources of omega-3s, such as anchovies, Atlantic mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout and oysters.

2. Do nurture the good bacteria in your gut.

A healthy gut creates a protective barrier in the intestines, allowing nutrients to pass into the bloodstream but preventing many inflammatory compounds in food from doing so. When these good bacteria are disrupted or become unbalanced, this barrier isn't as effective, leaking inflammatory compounds into the body. Strengthening gut health is key for reducing inflammation, so incorporate probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso or kimchi on a regular basis to repopulate strains your gut may need. Also, don't forget to take care of existing good bacteria by incorporating fiber-rich prebiotic foods.

3. Do check ingredients lists when shopping.

Similar products can be made with very different things, so compare and shop using the ingredient list on products. Additives, dyes, preservatives and other ingredients regularly added to foods all have the potential to trigger or aggravate inflammation, particularly if you have a weaker gut barrier. My favorite trick for quickly determining if I should buy a food is to consider what the ingredients would be if I was making the food from scratch. If they're similar to what you'd see in a recipe, then this is likely a good choice. If not, opt for another brand or substitute when shopping next time.

4. Do occasionally enjoy dessert!

Ongoing consistency in food choices—building meals around whole, minimally processed foods, incorporating more plant foods and reducing inflammatory components like excess alcohol, added sugars and saturated fat—is the most important diet aspect for anti-inflammatory eating. However, occasionally indulging in a sweet or a serving of your favorite less-healthy food is OK, especially if you minimize daily added sugars. A realistic approach is often the best way to turn new behaviors into lifelong habits.

5. Do stay focused on the big picture.

Reducing inflammation looks very different for each person, which means there's no exact blueprint, diet plan or right-or-wrong way to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, and this is important to remember. If search results and recommendations become overwhelming, then focus on making small changes and consider the big picture. Habits like incorporating more produce, eating in and choosing less-processed ingredients can have a big impact when it comes to reducing inflammation.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., RD, is author of the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award, and her work is regularly featured in or on respective websites for Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, Allrecipes, My Fitness Pal, eMeals, Rally Health and the American Heart Association. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.