If you’ve ever sprained your ankle only to find it swell up like a balloon, you’ve witnessed inflammation firsthand. It’s a natural immune response whereby the tissue in your body reacts to a harmful stimuli such as an infection or an injury. It’s a protective response meant to eliminate the initial cause of harm. In the case of an ankle sprain, it’s a temporary, targeted form of inflammation.
While most of us think about food in terms of how it can affect our weight and physical performance, it goes well beyond that.
How exactly does food affect inflammation?
When you consistently eat a poor diet rich in sugary, starchy foods, though, your body is systematically being affected by inflammation. This increases the risk of degenerative disease, chronic pain, joint pain, fatigue, and damage to blood vessels.
The good news is there’s plenty that can be done to control inflammation. The key is to be strategic about the foods you eat, focusing on a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods and drinking water (or tea) throughout the day. Here’s a look at the inflammation-fighting foods you should always have around.
1. High-quality protein
Fish, especially cold water fish like wild Alaskan salmon, tuna, scallops, halibut, herring, sardines, and anchovies, is high in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids, according to Healthline. Shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster), poultry (free-range chicken, turkey, Cornish hens, nitrate-free bacon on occasion), seitan, tempeh, and tofu are all great dietary staples that will work to naturally fight inflammation, too.
2. Dark leafy greens
Rich in antioxidants, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach have been proven to fight inflammation, says The World’s Healthiest Foods. They’re also high in vitamin E, which is particularly beneficial for those fighting chronic skin conditions. The amount of tasty dishes you can make with kale and spinach might surprise you.
According to Authority Nutrition, healthy fats are some of the best defenders against inflammation. Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts are all great options as they’re high in inflammation-fighting monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, fiber, and antioxidants. Opt for raw, unsalted nuts.
You need more fruit in your life — but not just for the healthy sugars. Research suggests berries, especially blueberries, can work to fight inflammation with their high antioxidant content. They also have that sweet taste we all love, so consider nibbling on some of these fruits as an after-dinner treat.
Flax, chia, pumpkin, sunflower, and sesame are all high in inflammation-fighting omega-3s. They’re seriously easy to add to your meals, too. Try tossing them in smoothies or sprinkling a small handful over a salad.
6. Beans and lentils
Lentils (red, green, black), lima beans, kidney beans, white beans, pinto beans, and black beans are all rich in fiber and phytonutrients, which, according to the Arthritis Foundation, help lower CRP, an indicator of inflammation found in the blood. They’re also rich in protein and fiber, which will keep you full. Most stews and soups can benefit from these inflammation-fighting ingredients.
According to Harvard Health, oats, barley, quinoa, and buckwheat are all low-glycemic carbohydrates — meaning they won’t cause a sugar spike — making them a great pantry staple. These whole grains will also work to lower CRP. Choose whole-grain pastas, rice, and breads instead of their refined-grain counterparts, which could actually make your already existent inflammation worse.
8. Healthy fats
Experts agree more fat in your diet is widely beneficial — as long as you’re mixing up the types of fat you’re eating. Extra-virgin olive oil, flax oil, macadamia nut oil, avocados, coconuts, and olives are all fantastic sources of healthy fats. Studies suggest avocados in particular are rich in carotenoids, which have been proven to help fight inflammation. Help your heart and reduce inflammation by incorporating more healthy fats into your meals and snacks.
When necessary, sweeten foods with honey or another less processed type of sugar. Natural sweeteners tend to fall lower on the glycemic index, which means they won’t spike your blood sugar as much. This may help combat inflammation. You can substitute sugar with honey in a variety of recipes, even when choosing a topping for your pancakes.
Consider adding more cherry tomatoes to your salads this summer. Tomatoes — particularly the skins — contain lycopene. Food Chemistry suggests this, in combination with several other chemicals also found in tomatoes, could help fight inflammation. As long as you’re eating tomatoes with skin intact, you’re in good shape.
There is some evidence that probiotics can help protect your digestive system from harmful bacteria that can cause chronic inflammation. However, it is important to note only certain strains of probiotic bacteria have anti-inflammatory and other benefits. Make sure the yogurt you’re buying contains bacterial strains that have this benefit specifically.
Beets are brightly colored vegetables with more benefits than their root vegetable cousins. According to The World’s Healthiest Foods, beets are a source of betalains, nutrients that provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Add these veggies to a soup or roast them, add some feta on top, and enjoy.
13. Red peppers
Red peppers do more than add flavor and crunch to your favorite pizza. They’re also packed with nutrients like vitamin C to help keep your immune system intact. According to Livestrong.com, vitamin C and other antioxidants play a role in protecting your body against the oxidative stress that comes with aging. Because this process can cause painful inflammation, it’s helpful to eat foods like peppers to slow down these negative effects.
It may be just an herb, but it has healing powers hidden in its leaves. Organic Facts notes certain compounds found in rosemary, along with pain relief and immune system-boosting potential, might also be able to reduce inflammation in your muscles, joints, and blood vessels. Rosemary is an effective ingredient for adding flavor to a variety of dishes — even desserts — without using sugar or salt.
Meg Dowell also contributed to this story