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Can Diet Help with Inflammation?

Contributors: Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD

Published: July 25, 2019

Reviewed: April 27, 2023

What is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Aamulya/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Did you know that there may be a link between inflammation and increased risk for chronic diseases? Some studies have found an association between chronic inflammation and conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Inflammation is a Normal Body Response to Promote Healing

Typically, we think of signs of inflammation as redness, swelling and pain. However, inflammation can be both a sign that the body is fighting infection or trying to heal from injury.
Signs of inflammation may not always be obvious, like with a respiratory condition. Other signs might be easy to see, like a wound on the skin. Whatever the cause, long term chronic inflammation may damage the body’s DNA, increasing the risk for other chronic conditions.

Foods and Inflammation

While various anti-inflammatory diets are promoted online, researchers are still figuring out how what we eat may affect inflammation. However, eating a variety of nutritious foods may help manage inflammation in the body by providing nutrients that help keep your immune system working well:

  • Fruits and vegetables contain natural components called phytonutrients that may help protect against inflammation.
  • Healthy fats that help boost brain and heart health, such as monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce inflammation.

Foods high in saturated fats may increase inflammation. Plus, highly processed foods and other foods with trans fat also may be inflammatory.

Are there "Anti-inflammatory Foods”?

Dark chocolate (more than 70% cocoa), red wine, green tea, turmeric and ginger are thought to help reduce inflammation. But, many of the findings of the anti-inflammatory effects of these foods comes from studies done with lab animals. We cannot form conclusions about how these foods impact inflammation in people at this time. And, it is not yet known how much and how often “anti-inflammatory” foods must be eaten to combat inflammation. For now, the best advice is to adopt a healthy eating style.

Five Dietary Approaches That May Help Reduce Inflammation

Step 1: Make Fruits and Vegetables Half Your Plate

  • Aim to include vegetables and fruits with every meal.
  • Eat a variety of brightly colored vegetables and fruits:
    • All forms count — including fresh, frozen, canned and dried. Just be sure to look for products with no added sugars and lower amounts of sodium.
    • Focus on vegetables from each subgroup weekly, including dark green, red and orange vegetables, as well as beans and peas.

Step 2: Be Smart about Protein

  • Five to six ounce-equivalents per day is appropriate for most people that are moderately active.
  • An ounce-equivalent is equal to about 1 ounce of cooked animal-based protein like beef, poultry or fish; 1 egg; ¼ cup of cooked beans; 1 tablespoon of nut butter; or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds.
  • When it comes to seafood, select fatty fish containing omega-3s two to three times each week.
  • Enjoy meatless meals with tofu, tempeh, and legumes such as beans, peas and lentils.
  • Choose leaner protein foods, such as skinless chicken or turkey or lean cuts of beef and pork.
  • Include low-fat or fat-free dairy products, like skim milk and yogurt, which are lower in saturated fat.
  • Minimize highly processed foods such as deli meat, bacon, and sausage.

Step3: Choose Healthy Fats

  • Use monounsaturated fats, including olive, safflower, sunflower, canola, peanut and avocado oils.
  • Eat omega-3 rich foods:
    • Enjoy salmon or another fatty fish two to three times per week.
    • Snack on nuts, such as walnuts.
    • Toss ground flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds into salads and other dishes.
  • Minimize highly processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils and high amounts of saturated fat.

Step 4: Select Whole Grains

  • Choose whole-grain flours and cereals more often, rather than those made with refined flour.
  • Include a variety of whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, millet and wheat berries.

Step 5: Experiment with Fresh Herbs and Spices

  • Infuse flavor into your dishes by adding fresh herbs.
  • Spice up your recipes by experimenting with spices.

Other Lifestyle Factors

Though what you eat is important, it's not the only factor that impacts chronic inflammation. To help stay healthy:

  • Get adequate sleep — both quality and duration of sleep impact inflammation.
  • Be active — regular physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day on most days of the week.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight — excess body fat may contribute to increased inflammation.

Need Help Designing an Anti-inflammatory Diet?

A registered dietitian nutritionist can help develop an eating plan that fits your unique lifestyle, taste preferences and medical needs.

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