Inflammation is an overreaction of the immune system. We depend on our immune system to fight foreign invaders, like bacteria, viruses, and to be on alert for abnormal cells that can develop into cancer. But sometimes it is turned on even when there is nothing harmful to fight. This is referred to as low-grade inflammation. We now know this type of inflammation is a harbinger of a variety of health problems including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. In fact, there’s an inflammatory component to most diseases.
What can you do about this type of chronic, low-grade inflammation? Certain medications, including ones that have potentially serious side effects, help reduce inflammation, but your safest bet is to rein in inflammation through lifestyle and the type of diet you eat. Research shows certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties. Let’s look at some.
Salmon is not only a good source of protein, but it’s a top source of omega-3’s, a type of fatty acid that helps suppress inflammation. Plus, the omega-3’s in salmon are in the long-chain form, the type your body can most readily use. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that markers of inflammation, including c-reactive protein (CRP), were lower in people who ate fatty fish for 6 months. CRP is an inflammatory marker you measure via a blood test. An elevated level indicates a higher level of inflammation in the body. So, eating more fatty fish may help reduce your body’s inflammatory burden. Look for wild-caught salmon, not farm-raised, for the most health benefits. Wild-caught typically has lower levels of toxins as well.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but it’s also a surprisingly good source of antioxidants, including phenolic compounds, carotenoids, and vitamin E. These components demonstrate antioxidant activity in laboratory settings and in the body of humans and animals.
Research shows that olive oil lowers markers of inflammation and improves blood vessel function. The improvements in blood vessel function may explain why Mediterranean diets, high in extra-virgin olive oil, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, olive oil contains hydroxytyrosol, a compound that blocks the clumping of platelets. When platelets clump together, it can lead to a blood clot that reduces blood flow to the heart or brain. This is the underlying cause of a heart attack and stroke respectively. Preparing foods in olive oil also makes them more satiating.
Do your research before buying olive oil. Olive oil fraud is rampant. To cut costs, some manufacturers dilute legitimate olive oil with cheaper oils. One way to avoid fraud is to buy olive oil with independent verification of authenticity. The California Olive Oil Council is one group that offers certification. Seeing the words “C00C Certified Extra Virgin” on the label offers some reassurance that it’s authentic extra-virgin olive oil.
Nuts are crunchy and yummy, but can they reduce inflammation too? According to a meta-analysis of 120,000 female nurses they can. After questioning the subjects about their dietary habits, the researchers measured levels of three inflammatory markers in the nurses. They found those who consumed five or more servings of nut weekly had lower levels of CRP, one of the inflammatory markers they measured. Study participants who ate at least three servings weekly of nuts in place of refined grains, processed meat, and red meat had lower levels of two inflammatory markers. More reason to grab a handful of nuts! They’re also a good source of fiber and protein for satiety.
Berries are a rich source of polyphenol compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Studies in animal models show these compounds fight oxidative stress and reduce inflammation. Studies in humans are more limited but suggest that a diet rich in berries improves markers of health.
Darkly colored berries are particularly rich in compounds with anti-inflammatory activity. For example, blueberries contain anthocyanins, anti-inflammatory compounds that give these luscious berries their rich, purple pigment. Even plump, red cherries have pronounced anti-inflammatory activity. Studies show they contain chemicals that block a group of enzymes that fuel inflammation (cyclooxygenases). These are the same enzymes that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen, block. Plus, berries are a tasty treat that can substitute for dessert.
Spices often play second fiddle to food, but on a gram to gram basis, they are higher in antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Many of the common spices that give food flavor have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. Some of the best known are turmeric, rosemary, cumin, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger. Plus, they make food taste better!
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, Not Just Anti-Inflammatory Foods
These are good examples of foods to include in your diet, but there really are no “magical” foods that vanquish inflammation. It’s about the totality of your diet. If you eat a serving or two of berries each day but still eat fast food, refined grains, lots of sugar, and processed meat, you aren’t creating an internal environment that fights inflammation.
Plant-based foods, in general, have anti-inflammatory activity since they contain compounds that fight off predators and that also activate your body’s natural antioxidant defenses. So, you can’t go wrong by adding more colorful fruits and non-starchy vegetables to your diet. Eating a variety is better than eating a few so-called anti-inflammatory foods since the healthful compounds in these foods work together to support health.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know five types of foods that research links with a reduction in inflammation. Enjoy adding them to your diet, but don’t focus too much on eating single foods. The totality of your diet is what counts.
· Skip refined grains
· Limit the amount of sugar you consume
· Avoid ultra-processed food & fast food
· Switch inexpensive seed oils, like soybean oil, for olive oil
· Add more plants to your diet
· Include some of the foods listed above your diet
· J Nutr. 2010 Feb;140(2):371-6. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.113472. Epub 2009 Dec 23.
· Nutrients. 2015 Sep; 7(9): 7651–7675.
· International Olive Council. “The antioxidant properties of the Olive oil”
· Science Daily. “Frequent nut consumption associated with less inflammation”
· Pharmacognosy Res. 2016 Mar; 8(Suppl 1): S42–S49. doi: 10.4103/0974-8490.178642.
· Food Funct. 2015 Sep;6(9):2890-917. doi: 10.1039/c5fo00657k.
· Journal of Food Science 70(1):C93 – C97 · January 2005.
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