Inflammation occurs when your body’s defense mechanism is activated and is fighting against injuries, toxins, viruses, or pathogens. It is usually a sign of the body trying to heal itself! But, did you know there are anti-inflammatory foods that can help reduce inflammation just by eating them? In this article, you'll learn the facts about inflammation, what foods to avoid, and discover a list of anti-inflammatory foods with tips on incorporating them into your diet.
What is an Inflammatory Illness?
An inflammatory illness or disease is a state of chronic inflammation where there could be no present infection or trauma to the area. However, there is still continuous blood flow, and cells are deposited at the site of the inflammation, which causes swelling, heat, pain, and loss of function in the area. This causes the immune system’s response to remain active and mistakenly attack the person’s body. It’s often referred to as autoimmunity.
If the chronic inflammation remains untreated, over time, it can damage tissues and organs.
Causes of Inflammatory Illnesses
Several factors can lead to inflammatory illnesses. These can be:
- Environment or air pollution
- Autoimmune diseases (immune system attacks itself)
- Poor/unbalanced/unhealthy Diet
- Infections or injuries that remain untreated
- Exposure to industrial chemicals or irritants
- Autoinflammatory diseases
- Older age
- Reduced sex hormones
Common Types of Inflammatory Illnesses
There are a few inflammatory illnesses that occur quite commonly.
- Autoimmune diseases
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Hepatic steatosis (fatty liver disease)
- Coeliac disease
- Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Who Should Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods?
People with common types of inflammatory illnesses (as mentioned above) can benefit from consuming anti-inflammatory foods and incorporating them into their diets. Anti-inflammatory foods are also good for people who live with autoimmune diseases such as HIV/AIDS, chronic illnesses, obesity, pregnant mothers, and older adults.
What Are Anti-Inflammatory Foods?
There are a diverse array of foods that have anti-inflammatory properties. They are usually high in antioxidants and polyphenols that help reduce inflammation. Antioxidants help to protect against damage in your body caused by compounds called free radicals. When these free radicals are higher than antioxidant levels in the body, it results in oxidative stress, which results in inflammation and leads to chronic inflammation and several inflammatory illnesses. Hence, maintaining and keeping high antioxidant levels helps prevent the occurrence of inflammation.
Polyphenols are natural compounds found in plants that help to reduce the occurrence of inflammation. It counteracts the excessive production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which is essentially what oxidative stress is.
List of Anti-Inflammatory Foods
There are specific types of food that have anti-inflammatory properties. The following list includes six different types of anti-inflammatory foods:
1. Leafy Green Vegetables (e.g., Chinese Cabbage, Broccoli, Spinach, Kale)
These are high in Vitamin E, which is a natural antioxidant that is an active anti-inflammatory agent. Darker leafy greens contain even more nutrients.
Tip: You can add kale or spinach to your smoothie or your omelet in the morning. Add a serving of broccoli or other greens to your lunch or dinner. Grab a bottle of Kombucha — if made with green tea, it may have increased antioxidants.
2. Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is high in both antioxidants and numerous phenolic compounds that act as potent anti-inflammatory agents in the body.
Tip: The easiest way to incorporate it into your meals is simply cooking with olive oil or adding it to your salad. You can even add a teaspoon to your morning coffee (if you like the taste).
3. Omega-3 Rich Fish (e.g., Salmon, Mackerel, Herring, Sardines) and Cod Liver Oil
These types of fish and fish oil contain two omega-3 fatty acids that are effective in reducing inflammation. These are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Cooking tip: Mackerel can be grilled or smoked. Where I am from, we make a great dish with mackerel. Simply spice it up with some salt, pepper, and chili, wrap it up in some tinfoil, and cook it in the oven (we use banana leaves instead of foil).
4. Fruits (e.g., Strawberries, Oranges, Cherries, and Blueberries)
Cherries have polyphenolic and anthocyanin compounds that help reduce inflammation. Blueberries are also high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory polyphenolic compounds.
Oranges and strawberries have high amounts of vitamin C, which is essential to improving and maintaining good immune function. You can easily add these fruits to your breakfast, in yogurt or smoothies, or simply served as desserts.
One of the richest sources of lycopene, tomatoes contain powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Lycopene is the plant nutrient that gives tomatoes its bold, red color and has antioxidant properties.
- Cut a tomato in half and take out the seeds.
- Sprinkle some salt, pepper, and oregano.
- Drizzle some olive oil and stick it in the oven for 5-10 minutes on low heat.
- Serve with your meal or a nice spinach omelet.
6. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are often praised as the best sources of healthy fats and protein. Some nuts and seeds are also high in a type of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These nuts are walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, and almonds and the seeds are flaxseeds and chia seeds. Nuts and seeds can be added to any dessert or smoothie.
The Mediterranean diet
A Mediterranean diet has often been praised as a great diet to follow to reduce inflammation and other health-related concerns. A study done in 2018 showed that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced markers of inflammation in both men and women. A Mediterranean diet consists mainly of all of what is listed above, along with legumes, whole grain bread, spices and herbs, potatoes, and other types of seafood.
Foods to Avoid
Certain foods can increase inflammation in some people, especially those with anti-inflammatory illnesses. Therefore, people with these illnesses or who suffer from chronic inflammation should avoid these foods or try only to eat them occasionally.
- Refined carbohydrates (e.g., white pasta, pizza bread, white bread, pastries)
- Red meat
- Processed meat (e.g., some sausages, ham, bacon)
- Fried or fast foods (e.g., burgers, French fries)
When to See a Doctor
You should see a doctor if you notice symptoms such as:
- Mouth sores
- Abdominal pain
- Chronic inflammation
- Chest pains
These can last for days to several months and range from mild to severe.