“Food is all those substances that when submitted to the action of the stomach can be changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses that the human body suffers through the act of living.”
– The Physiology of Taste by Jean Brillat-Savarin
Inflammation is a hot topic, but few people know how to successfully fight it. Fact is, one of the most effective ways to reduce inflammation is through food.
Certain whole foods provide bioactive compounds that travel around the body, neutralizing free radicals and protecting you against inflammation.
Still, a lot of people have trouble conceptualizing inflammation because unlike the swelling and pain that comes from an acute injury such as a sprained ankle, chronic inflammation is often invisible to the naked eye. You only realize you’ve got it once you develop diabetes or obesity becomes a problem.
The good news is that eating an anti-inflammatory diet is profoundly effective at reducing inflammation. Additional benefits of a low inflammatory status are less soreness and pain, less belly fat, and better brain function.
Before we look at the ten most powerful anti-inflammatory foods, it’s important to be familiar with foods that are pro-inflammatory. For example, the pancreas suffers when free radicals damage cells that are involved in insulin release due to a diet high in refined carbs. Over time, this leads to the development of Type 2 diabetes and is often accompanied by large increases in fat tissue.
What follows are the top five most harmful foods that cause inflammation—don’t eat them!
A) Excessive Alcohol. When you drink, the liver metabolizes the alcohol for elimination from the body. Over time, this process that causes significant damage to the liver, which often leads to fat gain in the abdominal area.
B) Trans Fats. The FDA finally banned trans fats once and for all, but food manufacturers still have three years to remove them from processed foods. There’s a mountain of evidence showing trans fats are dangerous for humans because they damage cells, cause inflammation, and are implicated in the development of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
C) Added Sugar. Sugar consumption leads to the release of free radicals as a byproduct of energy metabolism in the body. The more sugar you eat, the more free radicals are produced, which can easily build up and lead to a persistent low-grade inflammation.
D) Oils High In Omega-6 fat. Soybean and corn oil are two of the most prevalent fats in Western diets, both of which have a very high concentration of omega-6 fat. In large quantities, this type of fat is a key player in promoting inflammation because it is turned into compounds in the body called eicosanoids that mediate inflammatory responses.
E) Refined Foods. Inflammation is triggered in response to high calorie meals and by high blood sugar levels. Compared to whole foods such as vegetables, nuts, or meat, refined packaged foods produce a larger glycemic response and provide more calories. Additionally, they almost always contain added sugar and often are made with trans fats or fats high in omega-6s.
Here is what you’ve been waiting for—the healthiest anti-inflammatory foods around which you should plan your diet:
#1: Berries & Dark Colored Fruits
Deeply pigmented fruits such as berries, tart cherries, and pomegranates are rich sources of antioxidants that have the following protective effects:
They accelerate the elimination of waste products produced during intense physical activity, reducing post-workout muscle soreness and allowing you to recuperate strength faster.
They slow the blood sugar response of a high-carb or high-fat meal, thereby reducing the inflammatory effect.
They protect the vascular endothelium, making them beneficial for cardiovascular health and function.
Scientists have found that antioxidant activity is reduced when blueberries are consumed with milk proteins, such as whey, so separate consumption of them by at least an hour to allow for digestion.
#2: Leafy Green & Cruciferous Vegetables
The leafy green (arugula, kale, collards, chard) and cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) are jam packed with compounds that fight inflammation and help the body safely eliminate the hormone estrogen.
Optimal estrogen metabolism is important because excessive estrogen can damage DNA and alter gene function, increasing cancer risk of the breast and prostate. The cruciferous veggies contain crazy sounding antioxidants like glucophanin and indole-3-carbinol that are very effective at removing estrogen from the body, while simultaneously reducing inflammation.
Additionally, rainbow chard and collards have both been found to reduce the insulin response and these delicious greens are abundant in nutrients that can help eliminate free radicals that slow healing. This makes them a great pairing with higher carb foods such as steamed jasmine rice or a sweet potato because they will lead to a slower glucose response and less inflammation.
#3: Salmon & Other Oily Fish
The omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, may be the most widely known protective anti-inflammatory compounds due to their ability to improve genetic messages in the body.
Take note that the greatest anti-inflammatory effect is achieved by the mutual interaction between antioxidant polyphenols (from nuts, seeds, plants, and so on) and the omega-3 fats. For instance, one concern with the consumption of the omega-3 fats is that they are polyunsaturated and can easily become oxidized (a harmful state that causes inflammation). The addition of antioxidant-rich foods during the digestion of fatty fish may limit oxidation of fish oil in the small intestine. The result is that more beneficial omega-3 fats are absorbed for use by the body.
The take away is that food pairing is key to fight inflammation: Pairing salmon, halibut, or other oily fish with steamed broccoli, sautéed kale, other food on this list will only increase the protective effect.
#4: Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is extremely high in the antioxidant oleuropein, which has been found to reduce pro-inflammatory enzymes so that the body is better able to metabolize harmful compounds. The result is healthier heart function, less cancer risk due to better cellular function, and greater insulin sensitivity for steady blood sugar.
Nuts consistently perform well in observational studies that look for associations between what people eat and how healthy they are. In particular, almonds have an anti-inflammatory effect for athletes. A recent study had trained cyclists eat almonds daily for 4 weeks and found that they improved time trial performance by raising antioxidant capacity for better energy use.
In the short term, this means eating healthy fats make you faster, but in the long run it means you’ll have a quicker recovery because of less inflammation during training.
The avocado is a great source of healthy fats that can lower appetite and keep you full. It also has antioxidants that are protective when you eat pro-inflammatory foods. A 2013 study found that when subjects ate a slice of avocado on a hamburger, which forms harmful inflammatory lipid peroxides during cooking, the antioxidants in the avocado completely inhibited the inflammatory response.
Many people still think of coffee as a guilty pleasure that is better avoided. In fact, coffee is one of the most exciting anti-inflammatory foods, having pretty incredible protective effects against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, and cancer.
The antioxidants in coffee go a long way in fighting chronic inflammation and coffee has special relevance for anyone who trains hard because the caffeine it contains can reduce post-workout muscle soreness and help restore strength reductions after intense workouts.
Derived from cocoa, chocolate is another “bad for you food” that has earned attention for being cardioprotective due to its powerful health benefits. A review of the protective effects of chocolate show that it can modify pro-inflammatory cytokines and reduce the development of eicosanoids for better blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and vascular health.
Choose chocolate that has over 72 percent cocoa solids and is dairy free because milk proteins block the antioxidant activity. To avoid the inflammatory effect of added sugar, opt for super dark chocolate or try something like our Raw Cacao Whey Protein, which is sweetened with the natural calorie-free sweetener xylitol.
#9: Fermented Yogurt & Probiotic Foods
Probiotic foods allow for a well functioning gut will reduce inflammatory levels for the following benefits: Less belly fat, better insulin sensitivity, improved vascular function, and a better working brain. Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, Korean kim chi, kefir, and fermented dairy, such as cultured milk and cheese or high-quality yogurt.
#10: Herbs & Spices (Turmeric, Ginger, Cinnamon)
Herbs and spices don’t just help re-train your taste buds to love whole food cooking, they also contain some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory compounds available.
Cinnamon can minimize the blood sugar response of higher carb foods, whereas turmeric, which contains the wonder compound curcumin, is one of the most potent natural anti-cancer nutrients available. Both ginger and turmeric, which are related rhizome plant species, have been found to reduce post-workout muscle soreness following muscle-damaging workouts.
Other anti-inflammatory herbs and spices that are being tested for their ability alleviate metabolic diseases include cloves, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, parsley, chilies, and basil. Don’t be shy about adding these flavor bombs to your cooking or adding them to protein shakes. Brewing hot or cold tea is another way to make your diet just a little more protective against the losses that your body suffers as it allows you to enjoy this one most wonderful life.