Recently, there's been a ton of buzz surrounding “anti-inflammatory diets,” or foods that work to lower inflammation in the body. A prominent example is the super-strict diet that Tom Brady apparently follows, which prohibits, among other things, mushroom and nightshades, which some people consider inflammatory. But is inflammation in the body really something to be worried about — and can the foods we eat affect it?
Well, yes and no. It's important to note that inflammation in the body isn't always a bad thing. Essentially, there are two different types of inflammation: there's acute inflammation, which is your body’s normal, healthy response to a specific injury or illness; and there’s chronic inflammation, which is when your body’s inflammatory response lasts for weeks, months, or years. “Even though you might not be able to see or feel [this type of] inflammation, it’s a sign that there’s trouble brewing health-wise,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer.
What type of trouble, you ask? Inflammation has been linked to diseases like arthritis, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. It’s also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, erectile dysfunction, and cancer. Plus, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that people with chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, have an increased risk of getting colon cancer.
So, we know that chronic inflammation is linked to some nasty conditions (though we don’t yet know how strong that link is). Can you avoid developing chronic inflammation in the first place? And if so, does what you eat make that big a difference?
The truth is that despite what Tom Brady might tell you, experts aren't totally sure what role, if any, your diet can play in reducing inflammation. But Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, says that it may plays an important role in the microbiome in our gut, which is linked to the immune system. “Studies have shown that eating a healthy diet can improve healthy bacteria in the microbiome in the gut, and reduce the number of unhealthy bacteria. That can modulate the [body’s] inflammatory response,” he explains.
Hu says that avoiding sugary beverages, refined carbohydrates, and processed meats may help you steer clear of chronic inflammation. (His recommendations are in line with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats and eating plenty of whole grains and whole fruits.)
While the exact role your diet plays in chronic inflammation isn’t totally clear, many foods suspected to have some anti-inflammatory properties are also nutritious in other ways. If you'd like to try an anti-inflammatory diet, here are some foods to consider:
“A high fiber diet has been shown to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that your doctor can test for,” Ansel says. “The trouble is, most of us don’t get half the fiber we need, so working it in at every meal is key. With five grams of fiber per cooked cup, tossing quinoa into chili or serving it instead of lower fiber grains like brown rice can help keep inflammation at bay.” Plus, just half a cup of cooked quinoa contains 4g of protein and 3g of fiber, so it's a nutritional win-win.
Research shows that berries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which may reduce inflammation. Hu recommends blueberries because they also contain potassium, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and manganese. Snack on whole blueberries or throw some frozen ones into your morning smoothie.
3. Almonds and other tree nuts
Some studies suggest that tree nuts — a group that includes almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios, and Brazil nuts — can fight inflammation. Plus, "research reveals that pecans may protect against inflammation in your arteries potentially due to potent antioxidants known as polyphenols,” Ansel says. Add nuts to your salad, sprinkle some over Greek yogurt, or eat them whole.
“Fatty fish are loaded with omega-3 fats,” Ansel says. According to the Mayo Clinic, regularly eating omega-3s can reduce your risk of developing heart disease and high blood pressure.
“Sardines are a tasty alternative and ounce-per-ounce they contain more omega-3s than some varieties of salmon,” Ansel says. You can eat sardines straight from the can, or dress them up a bit by adding them to a pasta dish or serving them on toast, Danish-style.
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin that has anti-inflammatory properties. Ansel recommends turmeric for anyone who has achy or sore joints. Sprinkle turmeric over roasted veggies, add a curry powder containing turmeric to soups, or try it over scrambled eggs. Plus, turmeric might help protect your memory and mood—a win all around.
Salmon is another great food high in omega-3 fats. Easily grill it in a pan with olive oil and vegetables for a healthy, inflammation-fighting meal.
Research indicates that a high-fiber diet may lower inflammation. A single serving of oatmeal contains about four grams of fiber.
There's evidence that a Mediterranean diet may help lower inflammation, according to a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition. Legumes such as lentils are a staple in the Mediterranean diet and are rich in protein and fiber, too.
9. Olive Oil
Michelle Arnold / EyeEm
Olive oil is a major part of the Mediterranean diet and has antioxidant properties, according to the authors of the 2017 study previously mentioned. They suggest eating olive oil because it has anti-inflammatory effects similar to those found in fish oils.
Leafy greens like kale are rich in antioxidants and should be included in any anti-inflammatory diet, according to Harvard Health Publications.