Anti-inflammatory Foods - what they are & why to eat them

Many of my patients have heard about eating an anti-inflammatory diet a thousand times over, but few actually understand which foods to eat, which to avoid, the benefits of eating anti-inflammatory foods, and which conditions it works best for.

In reality, an anti-inflammatory diet is not that complicated, it mostly consists of eating minimally processed whole foods and keeping your intake of refined carbohydrates and processed fats to a minimum. Let's break it down.


What is inflammation?


Inflammation is a natural and necessary process that happens in the body. If you twist your ankle and it swells up, that's inflammation. It's the body's way of saying, "hey, we've got an issue over here, treat this area with extra care while we heal, please."

Certain foods and activities, however, can kick up extra inflammation, which can cause chronic symptoms to pop up all over the body. For example, stress, lack of sleep, smoking, or a high intake of coffee, alcohol, and/or processed foods, can all cause inflammation to occur on a cellular level.

Once inflammation hits a certain threshold it can be destructive to the body, causing damage to our tissues and DNA. Anti-inflammatory foods can help to turn back the progression of inflammation for anyone already noticing inflammatory symptoms.

There are several conditions with very different etiologies that all involve inflammation. For example, diabetes, lupus, arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, fibromyalgia, most thyroid conditions, eczema, gout, endometriosis, and some forms of infertility all involve inflammation. Also, some medications or procedures may be completely medically necessary, but also incredibly inflammatory, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and certain other "heavy duty" medications.

In these cases, while incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet is not capable of curing the condition itself or completely reversing the effects of something like chemotherapy, it can balance out some of the effects of inflammation and may be able to reduce symptoms.


Symptoms of Inflammation


Inflammation can look very different in different bodies, but these are the hallmark signs and symptoms:

  • Pain of any kind, including muscle tension or soreness, joint pain or stiffness, headaches/migraines

  • Skin rashes or redness

  • Digestive upset and/or changes to bowel movements

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite

  • Swelling or water retention

  • High blood pressure and/or high cholesterol


Which foods are Anti-inflammatory?

You'll notice all of these are minimally processed whole foods. That's a big part of why eating anti-inflammatory foods really isn't that complicated. If you are eating lots of real foods with ingredients you can understand, then you're probably eating mostly an anti-inflammatory diet already.

But if you need a significant boost to get your inflammation under control, then make sure you really focus on this list. Print it out and tape it to your fridge, screen cap it and reference it when you are at the grocery store, try out new recipes and get in the habit of getting a variety of these foods:

  • Most vegetables, especially:

    • Dark leafy greens

    • Orange vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potato, squash, pumpkin

    • Onions and garlic

    • Peppers, especially spicy ones

    • Tomatoes

  • Omega-3 fatty acids

    • Fatty fish and seafood

    • Raw or minimally processed grassfed dairy products

  • Olive oil

  • Coconut oil

  • Most nuts and seeds

    • Almonds

    • Walnuts

    • Cashews

    • Flax

    • Chia

  • Herbs/Spices

    • Turmeric

    • Most baking spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger (my Adaptogenic Chai blend contains several anti-inflammatory herbs)

    • Fresh green herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley, cilantro, etc.

  • Colorful fruits

    • Berries

    • Acerola and other tart cherries

    • Grapefruit

    • Lemons and limes

    • Pineapple

    • Pomegranate

    • Blood oranges

  • Black and Green tea

  • Fermented foods

    • Raw apple cider vinegar

    • Sour Pickles

    • Sauerkraut

    • Kefir

    • Kimchi

  • Mushrooms, including medicinal mushrooms such as reishi, chaga, cordyceps

  • Dark chocolate, 70% or above

  • Red wine, in small amounts

Keep in mind that everyone reacts to food differently.  If you have an allergy or sensitivity to a certain food then it will cause inflammation, regardless of if it has anti-inflammatory effects for other people.  Listen to your body and learn what works best for you.  If you are really perplexed by which foods may be causing inflammatory symptoms then an allergy test or elimination diet may be in order, consult a licensed nutritionist or allergist.


What about Pro-inflammatory foods?

Not only are there several anti-inflammatory foods that battle inflammation in the body, there are also a slew of pro-inflammatory foods which can do more damage then a cup of ginger tea can ever fix.

Especially since high stress levels and lack of sleep can flare up inflammation levels, keeping the scales balanced can be particularly tough with a fast paced modern lifestyle. If that's the case for you, make sure to avoid eating too many of these pro-inflammatory foods:

  • Refined carbohydrates, the higher the carbohydrate count the more inflammatory

    • Sweets, pastries, candy

    • Breads, especially make with refined flours

    • Pasta

    • High fructose corn syrup

  • Trans fats, found in many junk foods

    • Fried foods

    • Hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils

  • Omega-6 fatty acids, also found in many junk foods, most margarines contain these oils

    • Grapeseed oil

    • Cottonseed oil

    • Safflower oil

    • Corn oil

    • Sunflower seeds and oil

    • Peanuts and peanut oil

  • Coffee

  • Fruits and fruit products high in sugar

    • Dried fruit

    • Fruit juice

  • Starchy Vegetables

    • Corn

    • Potatoes

  • Alcohol, small amount may improve inflammation, but excess has the opposite effect


Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine 

If your inflammation is long-standing or particularly flared up, you may need more help than diet alone can offer. In that case, acupuncture and herbal medicine are excellent options to break the cycle of inflammation and reduce your symptoms quickly.

I treat patients for inflammatory conditions all the time, and pain is one of the symptoms that responds the quickest to Chinese medicine. If you wouldd like to work together send me a message or schedule an appointment.