Anti-inflammatory diets are a hot topic these days — from books to blogs to my nutrition counseling practice, where I get asked about what foods are anti-inflammatory more often than I can keep track of.
Inflammation is a normal response in the body, and it’s actually a good thing. When you get a scrape or bruise your knee, the redness and swelling that surround the area are a result of acute inflammation. Your body is sending out a response of white blood cells to protect and heal the damage. You want that kind of inflammation to happen.
Certain conditions like various types of arthritis, however, can cause your body to respond to abnormal substances or circumstances in your body with chronic inflammation and your immune system attacking your own joints and tissues. It’s this long-term inflammation that can have a negative impact on your pain and overall health.
While I wish treating arthritis were as straightforward as “eat this, don’t eat that,” it’s not that simple. You should talk to your doctor to determine the best combination of treatments and lifestyle changes for your specific condition. For inflammatory arthritis like rheumatoid and psoriatic, disease-modifying medication is necessary to help control inflammation at its source and prevent long-term damage to your joints as well as your heart, lungs, kidneys, and more.
How you eat, however, can play an important role in your arthritis treatment. And there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what foods can help and which can hurt.
What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
An anti-inflammatory arthritis diet focuses on whole, plant-based foods that are rich in healthy fats and phytonutrients, according to research published in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice. Anti-inflammatory foods also keep your blood sugar stable, say researchers. The foods that can decrease inflammation may sound familiar — they are pretty widely considered part of a healthy diet that can also help you lose weight and decrease the amount of pressure on your joints.
Eating more anti-inflammatory foods is “a win-win decision,” says Vinicius Domingues, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine and CreakyJoints medical advisor. “Even if changing your diet doesn’t help with your inflammatory condition, it can help lower your chances of having other health problems.”
Bottom line: You’ve got nothing to lose by focusing your diet on research-backed, inflammation-lowering foods. Here are 8 anti-inflammatory foods to add to your diet as part of your overall arthritis treatment plan.
1. Go fish
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish can help block the formation of compounds that cause inflammation in the body. A recent study found that people with rheumatoid arthritis who ate fish two or more times per week had significantly fewer symptoms than people who never ate fish. Try eating a three- to six-ounce serving of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines two to four times a week. Fresh or canned fish both make healthy choices.
2. Pile up the produce
Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables ensures you get plenty of inflammation-fighting phytonutrients, the natural chemicals found in plants. While all fruits and veggies are likely beneficial, some have more anti-inflammatory powers than others. Chinese women who ate around 1 ½ cups of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and bok choi had the lowest levels of inflammatory chemicals in their blood compared with women who hardly ate any, according to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
3. Build in some beans
While some so-called anti-inflammatory diets say that beans are not beneficial, research does not support this claim. Beans like black beans, kidney beans, lentils, and more are rich in phytonutrients, as well as fiber. Research shows they help rein in blood sugar. Try dipping veggies in a bean-based dip like hummus, or throwing rinsed canned beans into a salad or soup for an instant fiber and phytonutrient boost.
4. Crack into nuts
From omega-3 fatty acids to fiber to L-arginine and magnesium, nuts are inflammation-fighting powerhouses. Research links eating plenty of nuts with decreased concentration of markers of inflammation in the blood. It doesn’t matter which nut is your favorite — walnuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, and more all have anti-inflammatory benefits. Try sprinkling crushed nuts on top of chicken or fish to add some texture and flavor, spreading nut butter on an apple for an easy snack, or simply munching on a handful between meals.
5. Drizzle on olive oil
You know how ibuprofen can make a headache or a cranky back feel better? Olive oil is rich in phenolic compounds; one in particular called oleocanthal has similar anti-inflammatory properties to ibuprofen. This may be one of the reasons behind the Mediterranean diet’s positive impact on heart health. Look for virgin or extra-virgin olive oil to ensure your oil has the maximum amount of these compounds.
6. Choose whole grains
Grains can be great for tempering inflammation, depending on which ones you choose. Whole grains — products made from grains that have all three parts (germ, bran, endosperm) in tact — are considered anti-inflammatory. People who ate more whole grains had lower levels of inflammatory compounds, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition. On the other hand, refined grains, which have had the outer bran and germ removed, was linked with higher levels inflammatory compounds.
7. Spice up your meals
Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods you can eat are already in your spice cabinet. Polyphenol compounds found in herbs and spices can disrupt the body’s inflammatory pathways, putting up a road block against inflammation. Curcumin, found in turmeric, is a particularly potent one. Add it to scrambled eggs or tofu, blend it into a smoothie, or toss it with roasted vegetables.
8. Avoid a high-sugar, processed-food diet
As for what to stay away from? “Several studies have shown that saturated fat triggers fat tissue inflammation, which is not only an indicator for heart disease but also worsens arthritis inflammation,” says Dr. Domingues. High-sugar and high trans-fat foods are also problematic for inflammation, he says. The biggest culprits? Sugary drinks like soda, desserts, fried foods, and anything slathered with cheese or creamy sauces.
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