ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIETS have long been touted by celebrities like Tom Brady, popularizing the idea that there's a host of health benefits to be gained by eating certain foods—and staying an entire football field away from others.
More recently, the conversation around anti-inflammatory diets has shifted, aligning more closely with what scientific research actually shows: that inflammation is actually a very complicated process, and going "anti" against it isn't always a good thing.
Yet the question still stands: Is inflammation in the body really something to worry about, and can the foods you eat affect it?
Well, yes and no. Again, 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 then 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, M.S., R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer.
What kind of trouble, you ask? Chronic 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. But can you avoid developing chronic inflammation in the first place? And if so, does your diet make that big a difference?
The truth is that despite what Tom Brady might have told you, experts aren't definitively sure how large of a role diet plays in reducing inflammation. That said, Frank Hu, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, says that what you eat may play an important role in gut health, 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 current 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 relationship between diet and chronic inflammation isn’t yet known, the items on this list of (possibly) anti-inflammatory foods offer other nutritional benefits as well—and they taste great.
“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.
“Blueberries provide polyphenols called anthocyanins, which have antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects,” says Paulina Lee, MSHS, R.D., L.D., a functional gut health dietician. For a cost-effective choice, opt for frozen blueberries and fold them into yogurt, oatmeal, or chia pudding (just let them defrost beforehand, obviously).
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 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, and fish oil is associated with anti-inflammatory effects.
“Ounce-per-ounce, sardines contain more omega-3s than some varieties of salmon,” Ansel says. If you don't want to eat them straight from the can, add them to a pasta dish or serving them on toast, Danish-style.
What makes pineapple such an anti-inflammatory star? Bromelain. “Bromelain is a proteolytic enzyme, or protease—meaning it digests protein foods,” says Robert Iafelice, M.S., R.D.N., nutrition expert at SetForSet. (For example, pineapple juice in a marinade can tenderize meat). “When pineapple is eaten without protein foods, the bromelain gets into the bloodstream and exerts an anti-inflammatory effect throughout the body."
Fresh papaya contains another proteolytic enzyme known as papain, says Iafelice. “Papain is another common meat tenderizer. But, when eating papaya alone, the papain—like bromelain—enters the circulation and lowers systemic inflammation,” he explains. Try papaya over oatmeal, or atop your favorite chia seed pudding recipe.
Kim Kulp, R.D.N., is a fan of this visually-pleasing plant. “This fun-to-eat vegetable is packed with polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from damage,” says Kulp, adding that they're also a great source of inulin, a prebiotic, which feeds good microbes so they can create compounds that decrease inflammation.
“Flaxseeds are an excellent source of dietary fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids—helping to lower inflammation, LDL or 'bad’ cholesterol, and blood sugar,” Kelsey Costa, M.S., R.D.N., says.
“Studies have found that daily flaxseed supplementation can reduce C-reactive protein and balance pro- and anti-inflammatory molecules, contributing to healthy aging and providing an overall anti-inflammatory effect,” she says, noting that they're best absorbed when ground.
Another nutrient-dense berry worth incorporating into your daily routine. “A randomized control trial tested raspberry consumption after meals to reduce inflammation and glucose levels in adults with type II diabetes,” says Jenna Stedman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., creator of MasterNutritionLab.com, noting that scientists found that raspberries did help.
Like other cruciferous vegetables, broccoli sprouts contain sulforaphane, a compound that has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, says Lee. “One study showed that eating broccoli sprouts reduced several inflammatory markers in overweight individuals,” she says, adding that they're easy to grow at home and perfect for adding to salads and sandwiches.
Virgin coconut oil
As Iafelice explains, coconut oil is a rich source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that's burned quickly and isn't stored in the body. “The MCTs in the coconut oil are metabolized in the liver into ketones,” he says, explaining that ketones are powerful anti-inflammatory molecules. “The major ketone—beta-hydroxybutyrate, or BHB—has been shown to block a major hub of inflammation in the body known as the NLRP3 inflammasome.” You can go the bulletproof coffee route and add coconut oil to your coffee, or add it to your favorite protein shake recipe.
One of the great joys of summer, "tomatoes are packed with plant nutrients including carotenoids, and flavonoids,” says Kulp. “These work as cell-protecting antioxidants, and have been shown to decrease a marker of inflammation called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a)."
Nina is a health and culture reporter who has written for SELF, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, the New York Times, and more. She loves vegetable gardening, crossword puzzles, and her beloved mystery mutt.
Perri is a New York City-born and -based writer; she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Columbia University and is also a culinary school graduate of the plant-based Natural Gourmet Institute, which is now the Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, Oprah Daily, Insider.com, Architectural Digest, Southern Living, and more. She's probably seen Dave Matthews Band in your hometown, and she'll never turn down a bloody mary. Learn more at VeganWhenSober.com.
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