If you want to eat for long-term health, lowering inflammation is crucial.
Inflammation in the body causes or contributes to many debilitating, chronic illnesses — including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even cancer.
That's why, as a doctor and founder of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine, I recommend my patients eat a diet focused on anti-inflammatory principles.
Plus, although the goal is to optimize health, many people find they also lose weight by following an anti-inflammatory eating pattern.
Here, I'm sharing the 11 principles I recommend everyone incorporate into their diet for optimal health:
1. Consume at least 25 grams of fiber every day.
A fiber-rich diet helps reduce inflammation by supplying naturally occurring anti-inflammatory phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods.
To get your fill of fiber, seek out whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The best sources include whole grains such as barley and oatmeal; vegetables like okra, eggplant, and onions; and a variety of fruits like bananas (3 grams of fiber per banana) and blueberries (3.5 grams of fiber per cup).
2. Eat a minimum of nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
One “serving” is half a cup of a cooked fruit or vegetable, or one cup of a raw leafy vegetable.
3. Eat four servings of both alliums and crucifers every week.
Alliums include garlic, scallions, onions, and leek, while crucifers refer to vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts.
Because of their powerful antioxidant properties, consuming a weekly average of four servings of each can help lower your risk of cancer.
If you like the taste, I recommend eating a clove of garlic a day!
4. Limit saturated fat to 10 percent of your daily calories.
By keeping saturated fat low (that's about 20 grams per 2,000 calories), you'll help reduce the risk of heart disease.
You should also limit red meat to once per week and marinate it with herbs, spices, and tart, unsweetened fruit juices to reduce the toxic compounds formed during cooking.
5. Consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis — conditions that often have a high inflammatory process at their root.
Aim to eat lots of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like flax meal, walnuts, and beans such as navy, kidney and soy. I also recommend taking a good-quality omega-3 supplement.
And of course, consume cold-water fish such as salmon, oysters, herring, mackerel, trout, sardines, and anchovies. Speaking of which:
6. Eat fish at least three times a week.
Choose both low-fat fish such as sole and flounder, and cold-water fish that contain healthy fats, like the ones mentioned above.
7. Use oils that contain healthy fats.
The body requires fat, but choose the fats that provide you with benefits.
Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil (organic if possible like this one) and expeller-pressed canola are the best bets for anti-inflammatory benefits. Other options include high-oleic, expeller-pressed versions of sunflower and safflower oil.
8. Eat healthy snacks twice a day.
If you're a snacker, aim for fruit, plain or unsweetened Greek-style yogurt (it contains more protein per serving), celery sticks, carrots, or nuts like pistachios, almonds, and walnuts.
9. Avoid processed foods and refined sugars.
Avoid refined sugars whenever possible and artificial sweeteners altogether. The dangers of excess fructose have been widely cited and include increased insulin resistance (which can lead to type-2 diabetes), raised uric acid levels, raised blood pressure, increased risk of fatty liver disease, and more.
10. Cut out trans fats.
In 2006, the FDA required food manufacturers to identify trans fats on nutrition labels, and for good reason — studies show that people who eat foods high in trans fats have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker for inflammation in the body.
A good rule of thumb is to always read labels and steer clear of products that contain the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oils.” Vegetable shortenings, select margarines, crackers, and cookies are just a few examples of foods that might contain trans fats.
11. Sweeten meals with phytonutrient-rich fruits, and flavor foods with spices.
Most fruits and vegetables are loaded with important phytonutrients. In order to naturally sweeten your meals, try adding apples, apricots, berries, and even carrots.
And for flavoring savory meals, go for spices that are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, including cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, rosemary, ginger, sage, and thyme.
The immune system
One of the most incredible and complex parts of the human body is the immune system. The immune system is able to recognize foreign substances like viruses and bacteria that might do our body harm.
It’s important to know that there are two main parts of the immune system. The first is innate immunity and you are born with it totally intact; its job is to protect you against outside threats through its protective barriers like mucus and stomach acid. Fevers and the cough reflex are some other example of antigens that the innate immunity handles.
The second type of immunity makes up the adaptive immune system and it’s constantly developing as you develop in life. Each time you are exposed to a germ or illness, your adaptive immune system keeps a record of it and helps your body build up a pre-programmed defense. And then, ideally, it won’t make you sick the next time you come into contact with it. This adaptive immune process involves a complex system of chemicals, cells, and biological pathways that make up one of the great wonders of the human body.
The immune system and inflammation go hand in hand, and causing an inflammatory response is one major way the immune system responds to a threat and starts to fight off bacteria or tissue damage.
What is inflammation?
Let’s clear the air: Inflammation is a totally normal bodily function. It is generally triggered by the immune system when it recognizes an invader or damage to tissue that must be kept under control. The immune system stimulates different cells and proteins—like white blood cells—to help eliminate the threat of an outside invader and repair any damaged tissue. Inflammation is instigated by chemical mediators called cytokines that act as signals to recruit more parts of the immune system to help with healing.
Inflammation is an important part of the healing process; it is crucial part of wound healing and useful mechanism for destroying invading microorganisms. It allows for helpful antibodies to enter the space and stimulates other important parts of the immune response to aid in healing. We would be in trouble if we did not have an inflammatory response.
Inflammation is definitely not a new concept and has been well-described and diagnosed throughout history. The telltale signs of inflammation were even noted in the Roman encyclopedia of medicine and other historical texts written thousands of years ago:
- Heat (calor)
- Redness (rubor)
- Swelling (tumor)
- Pain (dolor)
Inflammation is also often associated with a loss of function in the inflamed area.
To put it simply, the inflammatory response is a series of defense mechanisms and signals that recruit anti-inflammatory cells to the area of damage, and then those trigger other cells that trigger other protective mechanisms and so on. Before you know it you have pain and swelling, which are really just an over-amplified reaction to harm or threat. Amplification is an important concept to understand when talking about inflammation, because if the inflammatory response is not tightly regulated it can start to become a real problem for our bodies.
When is inflammation problematic?
The short answer: when the immune system gets out of control and causes excessive inflammation, or when it triggers the inflammatory response when it’s not necessary.
The long answer: one of the most important abilities of the immune system is its ability to differentiate between “self” and “nonself.” It does this by reading and interpreting substances on the surface of different cells. Basically, one of our body’s own cells will display a signal (a protein called an antigen) that the immune system can read, interpret, and then know not to attack it. If the cell is a potentially harmful bacteria or virus, the immune system will read the signal, know that it is an outside invader, and respond accordingly.
Immune system dysfunction occurs when the immune system loses some of its ability to distinguish between itself and the outside world. When the immune system is overactive and starts attacking the body’s own tissues, it leads to autoimmune disease.
And so, while inflammation is normally the way protects itself, when the immune system is faulty or overactive it can cause a lot of damage. In the case of autoimmune disease, components of the inflammatory response that are meant to attack and destroy invaders turn on the body’s own tissues and cells.
Acute vs. chronic inflammation
When studying the “good” and “bad” aspects of inflammation, understanding the difference between acute and chronic inflammation is key. Acute inflammation occurs within a few minutes to a few hours and symptoms will be obvious like swelling and pain. Some simple examples are when when you sprain your ankle or when you have a sore throat from singing. In this case, the redness, swelling, and pain you experience is usually a contained response and will go away as the tissue heals. In this instance, inflammation is a signal that the body is repairing itself well.
But chronic inflammation is very different; the onset takes days and the signs are much less obvious. This type of inflammation will stick around for a long time and is more likely to lead to severe and progressive tissue damage and inflammatory diseases. Conditions that are related to chronic inflammation include asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of chronic inflammation
We know now that chronic inflammation plays an important role in a lot of common ailments, so how do you know if you have chronic inflammation? There are some telltale signs of that chronic under-the-radar inflammation might be affecting you:
- Frequent headaches and brain fog
- Bloating and other digestive problems
- Joint pain
- Weight gain
- Gum disease
- Mood issues
Allergies and inflammation
Allergies are another common sign of chronic inflammation. If you suffer from seasonal or year-round allergies you have probably wondered why they seem to affect you, but not some of your friends or members of your family. It’s because people with allergies have an immune system that is launching an immune response to harmless substances (like pollen), as if they are a threat to the body. This activates an immune response and causes that annoying persistent sneezing, mucus, and inflammation. The immune systems of your fortunate allergy-free friends is simply not perceiving those substances as harmful.
The body will provide a ton of subtle signs when someone starts to develop chronic inflammation, and this is where conventional medicine can sometimes fall short. Your doctor will be well aware of inflammation caused by infection or injury and fully recognize autoimmunity and autoimmune disease, but they don’t seem to pay much mind to the subtle signs of chronic inflammation. And if they do, they will prescribe a medication that will treat the symptoms and not the root cause.
This is disappointing, because many studies have demonstrated the connection between inflammation and common ailments like obesity and heart disease, but we still don’t pay inflammation much mind until it’s contributing to a more obvious (and usually serious) problem. Not very logical if you ask us. Wouldn't it be better to treat the signs of chronic underlying inflammation before it turns into something more complicated?
Inflammation and Autoimmune Disease
Inflammation and autoimmune disease go hand in hand; the number one sign of autoimmune disease is some sort of inflammation. Autoimmune diseases are rampant in developed countries like the United States and can affect any area of the body. You can probably name a few off the top of your head, but just for your reference, here is a list of some common autoimmune diseases:
- Alopecia areata is a disease that causes hair loss on the scalp and face.
- Autoimmune hepatitis causes the body to attack the liver, cauing majoy inflammation and damage. and cause inflammation and damage .
- Dermatomyositis is a rare condition characterized by rashes and muscle weakness.
- Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the pancreas does not produce any insulin.
- Graves’ disease is a disease that causes the overproduction of thyroid hormone
- Guillain-Barré syndrome is an uncommon disorder in which your immune system attacks your nerves.
- Multiple sclerosis is characterized by the immune system’s attack on the central nervous system.
- Pernicious anemia occurs when the body can’t absorb vitamin B12 and therefore, can’t make enough red blood cells.
- Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin disease that causes cells to build up on the skin’s surface
- Rheumatoid arthritis is diagnosed when the body’s immune system attacks the joints.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus is an inflammatory condition that manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in the skin, joints, and other organs.
How do you get chronic inflammation?
So maybe—like many, many people—you suffer from an autoimmune or inflammatory condition. Or maybe you are experiencing frequent headaches, joint pain, or one of the many signs of chronic underlying inflammation. Either way, you are ready to attack it head-on and the best place to start is with your diet. Unarguably, there are certain foods cause inflammation and certain foods that fight inflammation. Some common foods that contribute to inflammation are:
- Sugar: sugar can activate inflammatory chemical signals that induce inflammatory pathways in the body.
- Saturated fats: several studies have shown that saturated fats create fat tissue inflammation that can contribute to heart disease and exacerbate overall inflammation.
- Trans fats: research has shown that consumption of trans fats can cause systemic inflammation.
- Refined carbohydrates: consuming refined carbohydrates like cake, pasta, and cookies can contribute to inflammatory disease.
- Gluten: people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease interpret gluten proteins as a threat to the body. This launches an immune response that attacks the intestines, causes the malabsorption of nutrients, and can lead to autoimmune disorders if left untreated.
- Dairy and casein: consuming diary if you are sensitive or allergic to lactose can contribute to inflammation in your body. Casein is also on the list of inflammatory foods, the casein proteins found in dairy have a similar structure to gluten, and integrative and functional medicine doctors suspect it might be causing problems for many people. Thinking dairy might be causing you distress? Read our article about The Dangers Of Dairy And How To Eliminate It From Your Diet.
- Artificial ingredients: aspartame and MSG
- Alcohol: alcohol is known to contribute to many diseases and disorders, some of which are inflammation related.
If you think certain foods might be causing your inflammation, but are totally overwhelmed by this, we totally get it. A great place to start is an elimination diet. Here’s some motivation to try it out and what you need to know before you get started.
Advanced glycation end (AGEs) products and inflammation
Another less obvious concern is the presence of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are compounds that are present in most animal products that increase in number and strength through grilling, frying, and especially BBQing. AGEs are known to contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress and are tied to diseases like diabetes.
To reduce your exposure to inflammation-causing AGEs, try cooking food slowly and at low heat. This can be a great excuse to expand your culinary range and experiment with stewing, poaching, and braising.
Stress and inflammation
We all know that stress is bad for our health, but stress can be particularly harmful when it comes to inflammation. One study found that exposure to chronic stress actually changes the activity of the genes of immune cells—making them more likely to attack the body’s own tissue and trigger an autoimmune response. Like in many other chronic illnesses, stress seems to play a large role when it comes to inflammation and autoimmune disease.
So exercise, meditate, get plenty of sleep or try experimenting with 10 Natural Ways To Beat Chronic Stress.
Can meditation reduce inflammation?
In need of some positive inspiration? A recent study showed that mindfulness meditation reduced inflammatory biomarkers in high-stress adults. Brain scans revealed that this type of meditation can actually alter connective pathways in your brain related to executive function and stress resilience. Improving the way you and your brain cope with stress can help the inflammation in your body calm down as well. If you already have a regular meditation practice, great! If you are someone who is worried that you won’t find time or have the willpower to start a regular meditation practice, try starting a mindfulness meditation group with some of your like-minded friends. Doing it as a group can be a fun, and a useful tool to make the new habit stick.
Smoking and inflammation
It’s pretty common knowledge that smoking is bad for your health and contributes to the development and exacerbation of a slew of diseases. But researchers have recently developed a good theory as to why smoking is so closely related to so many inflammatory conditions. Apparently, nicotine is able to activate a specific kind of white blood cell called a neutrophil, and while normally neutrophils work to protect the body, they are also responsible for tissue damage due to excessive inflammation.
Conventional treatments for inflammation
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
As you probably know, the most common over-the-counter treatment for inflammation is a drug called ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID). These can be amazing drugs for the occasional ache or pain, but they are not designed to be taken regularly and do not treat the underlying cause of inflammation. Symptoms of NSAIDS include stomach ulcers, hypertension, and rashes. Taken long-term or too often, they can be dangerous in their own right, linked to heart attacks, strokes, and stomach bleeds.
Another common type of anti-inflammatory medication are corticosteroids, these drugs work by suppressing inflammation-causing genes. They often come in the form of cortisone injections, and can be very effective at decreasing inflammation. But they also come with a lot of side-effects, and the body can also start to build up a tolerance.
Immunosuppressive drugs are another common treatment for autoimmune diseases. These drugs suppress the immune system so that it won’t trigger the inflammatory response, but they leave you with a weakened immune system and at risk for other illnesses.
And so, while these medications can be life-saving and are amazing tools, I think we can all agree that it would be better to avoid them, if possible, mainly because of the side effects.. The good news is that there are planty of all-natural substances that have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
How can you treat inflammation holistically?
Clearly, there is a strong connection between certain foods, your immune system, and inflammation. Here are some general rules and guidelines to start treating chronic inflammation by adjusting the foods you eat:
While it’s helpful to know what foods to avoid, it can quickly lead to negative feelings of restriction or resentment. Luckily, there are some natural products known for their inflammation-busting abilities that can help you focus on the positive. If you are trying to reduce inflammation in your body, incorporating these ingredients into your day can be powerful:
Turmeric and Curcumin
Turmeric is an indian spice with a long history as a remedy for inflammation—especially in ayurvedic medicine. One of the major active constituents in this golden spice is curcumin, and it is responsible for many of the health benefits attributed to turmeric. Curcumin was first isolated centuries ago and more recent research shows that curcumin is capable of interacting with many of the mechanisms that cause inflammation in the body.
Some studies have shown that supplementing with curcumin can help significantly improve inflammatory conditions like ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. One study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, suggested that curcumin has “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic illnesses.”
There is no arguing that turmeric packs a lot of punch and can be a powerful tool to fight inflammation. And as an added bonus, turmeric has been shown to support memory and healthy ligaments. You can get curcumin in supplement form, but it can also be easily incorporated into your diet. Try adding it to your soups, salad dressing, or smoothies; you can even make an anti-inflammatory golden latte in the mornings.
Omega 3s and Inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids are also a great natural remedy for inflammation. Experiments in animals and humans have shown that omega-3s demonstrate potent anti-inflammatory properties and might be useful when it comes to chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease. Some placebo-controlled experiments revealed that taking fish oil leads to lowered disease activity and less need for anti-inflammatory medicines which, as we learned earlier, can have some undesirable side effects. If you are a vegan and worried about getting your daily dose of Omega-3s, you can try supplementing with flaxseed oil.
Vitamin D and inflammation
While vitamin D is normally associated with the winter blues or your bone health, some studies have found that low levels of vitamin D are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers and can play a part in cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Some experts also suggest that having low Vitamin D can aggravate inflammatory conditions, so vitamin D therapy is now being considered an important part of treating these diseases. In general, it’s a good idea to have your vitamin D levels tested; according to a recent study, more than two thirds of teens and adults in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient.
Green tea and inflammation
We know you’ve heard it before—green tea is great for you. And it’s true that green tea has many significant health benefits, but one of the most notable is its ability to fight inflammation. One study that examined the risks of frequent NSAIDs proposed green tea as a possible alternative remedy to conventional anti-inflammatory drugs. Researchers explained that green tea contains a high concentration of polyphenolic compounds that can interfere with inflammatory pathways, whcih reduces inflammation, and can also help protect cartilage. Matcha break, anyone?
Chili pepper is another natural ingredient worth of mentioning for its anti-inflammatory properties. The most important active chemical in chili pepper is capsaicin. Capsaicin makes up about 12 percent of the pepper and is capable of intercepting inflammatory pathways and producing a numbing effect. To get a healthy dose of capsaicin, try adding hot peppers to your meals. They can add a lot of flavor and spice, and also have tons of other health benefits
Empower yourself against inflammation
Inflammation can be tricky, it plays a part in so many diseases and symptoms, and because of its close ties to the immune system, it can be difficult to understand exactly how it works. Let alone understand how to get back on track once it gets out of control. Sometimes it seems like everything we do or eat contributes to chronic inflammation and that can be frustrating. But just remember: the more you know, the more empowered you are to limit the amount of inflammation in your body.
The anti-inflammatory diet isn't just for people with an autoimmune disorders, inflammatory condition, or chronic inflammation. It can be a great dietary guideline to promote overall well-being and a healthy, thriving immune system that works only when it’s really needed.
In case you want to learn more, here is a list of our favorite mindbodygreen articles about inflammation. Happy reading!