When it comes to diet, health, and nutrition, sometimes it can feel like there’s no end to the contradictions. Are fats good or bad? Will a daily glass of red wine extend your life or shorten it?
The constantly changing advice about what to eat and what not to eat can seem overwhelming. But one thing doctors and nutritionists agree on is that anti-inflammatory foods are good for us.
So why exactly are anti-inflammatory foods beneficial? And which foods are best for fighting inflammation and helping us to stay healthy? We’ll cover this and much more below.
What are anti-inflammatory foods?
Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. Inflammation is the body’s way of fighting illness, injury, and infection, and is a necessary part of the healing process. But, chronic inflammation is very different.
However, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that eating certain foods can lower inflammation levels and, with it, reduce the risk of chronic disease. Another perk is that anti-inflammatory foods are generally very healthy, can give your immune system a boost, and reduce your chances of suffering from other health problems.
14 anti-inflammatory foods
Now we know why anti-inflammatory foods are good for our health, let’s take a look at some of the top examples…
Berries might be small but they pack a serious punch when it comes to health.
Aside from being high in fibre, vitamins, and minerals, berries (like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries) also contain anthocyanins – a group of plant compounds with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Antioxidants help prevent inflammation, which can reduce your risk of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.
Our bodies produce natural killer cells (NK cells), which help to keep our immune system functioning properly. One study found that men who ate blueberries every day produced more NK cells than those who didn’t. Another study revealed that overweight adults who ate strawberries had lower levels of some of the inflammatory markers that are linked to heart disease.
An easy way to eat berries every day is to sprinkle them onto your breakfast cereal, porridge, or yoghurt, or make a smoothie. Or, you can just eat them by themselves as a delicious and healthy snack.
Avocados might be everywhere right now, but this trendy green fruit really is a nutritional powerhouse.
Packed with many key nutrients including potassium, magnesium, fibre, folate, vitamin C, and vitamin E, avocados are a great source of healthy unsaturated fat. Plus, they also contain carotenoids and tocopherols, which are linked to a reduced risk of cancer.
This study shows that there’s a compound in avocados that may reduce inflammation in skin cells. Another study found that when people ate avocado in a hamburger, they had lower levels of inflammatory markers compared to people who ate only the hamburger.
Avocados make a tasty addition to sandwiches and salads, and they’re delicious on toast or in dips like guacamole.
Just like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale, broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable that’s packed full of nutrients.
Studies show that eating lots of cruciferous vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. This may be due to the antioxidants they contain, which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Broccoli is especially high in sulforaphane: an antioxidant that fights inflammation by reducing your levels of cytokines and NF-kB (which can cause inflammation).
Broccoli is incredibly versatile and goes well with pretty much any style of cuisine or dish – from soup and salads to pasta. For inspiration, take a look at some of these broccoli recipes on BBC Good Food.
4. Fatty fish
Fatty fish is a great source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects.
These types of essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA) can’t be made by our bodies, which means we have to get them through our diet. Salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies contain the highest amount of these important omega-3s.
Research shows that EPA and DHA reduce inflammation that causes metabolic syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease. Another study found that people who ate salmon or took EPA and DHA supplements saw reductions in certain inflammatory markers.
That being said, a study of people with irregular heartbeats found no reduction in inflammatory markers when EPA and DHA were consumed, so more research is needed on the effect fatty acids have on reducing inflammation.
You can check out some healthy and tasty fatty fish recipes on The Guardian.
5. Whole grains
Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, and whole wheat bread are powerful weapons against inflammation. They contain high amounts of fibre, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin E, and polyphenols – all of which are believed to help control inflammation.
If you’re not currently eating many whole grains, simply swap white bread for whole wheat brown bread, white pasta for brown pasta, and white rice for brown rice, quinoa, or bulgur wheat.
For recipe inspiration, you might want to take a look at this selection of whole grain recipes on Serious Eats.
Both chilli peppers and bell peppers are high in vitamin C and antioxidants that have significant anti-inflammatory effects.
Bell peppers contain the antioxidant quercetin, which is thought to lower a certain marker of oxidative damage in people with sarcoidosis (an inflammatory disease that causes small patches of swollen tissue to develop on organs in the body).
Chilli peppers are also packed with sinapic acid and ferulic acid, which studies suggest can reduce inflammation and help promote healthy ageing.
For more ideas on how to get creative with peppers in the kitchen, check out these recipes from BBC Good Food.
Note: Many people believe that the family of nightshade vegetables – which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants – can make arthritis pain and inflammation worse because they contain the alkaloid, solanine. Alkaloids are naturally produced compounds found in various plants.
However, health experts have dismissed this as a myth, as there is no scientific evidence to prove it. The British Nutrition Foundation says, “There is a surprising lack of any clinical human studies and so currently there is no scientific evidence that nightshade vegetables make arthritis symptoms worse.
“It is also worth noting that solanine is also found in blueberries, apples, cherries, okra and artichokes, none of which is in the nightshade family and not included in anecdotal reports of adverse effects.
“The fruit and vegetables that contain solanine are rich in nutrients and antioxidants. However, if you think you may have an adverse reaction to vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and peppers then talk to your GP or a health professional involved in your care, such as your specialist nurse.”
But mushrooms also contain phenols and other antioxidants that act as anti-inflammatories. One variety of mushroom in particular, called ‘lion’s mane’, is believed to help lower inflammation related to obesity.
Some of the most popular types of mushrooms include button mushrooms, portobello mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, and even truffles. Though, it’s important to be aware that some studies suggest that cooking mushrooms reduces their anti-inflammatory compounds. Eating them raw or only lightly cooked may be the best way to take advantage of their anti-inflammatory benefits.
For ideas on how you can include more mushrooms in your diet, check out this list of mushroom recipes from BBC Good Food.
8. Extra virgin olive oil
The main fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which makes up 73% of the total oil content.
Many studies suggest that oleic acid lowers inflammation and may also reduce the risk of heart disease, brain cancer, and other serious health conditions. The antioxidant in oleic acid (oleocanthal) has even been compared to powerful anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.
In one study, several inflammatory markers were found to lower significantly when participants consumed more than 50ml a day. However, when it comes to olive oil, not all products are equally beneficial. For example, extra virgin olive oil provides better anti-inflammatory benefits than more refined olive oils.
For some great olive oil recipes, check out this article from The Guardian.
Tomatoes aren’t only high in vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant and can help give our immune system a boost – but they also contain a powerful antioxidant called lycopene. Studies suggest that lycopene may be especially helpful for reducing pro-inflammatory compounds that are linked to several types of cancer.
One study found that drinking tomato juice decreased inflammatory markers in overweight and obese women.
Because tomatoes release more lycopene when they’re cooked, it’s better to cook tomatoes rather than eat them raw if you want to take full advantage of their anti-inflammatory properties.
Cooking them in olive oil is best, as this helps you absorb even more lycopene (lycopene is a carotenoid, a nutrient that’s absorbed more easily alongside a source of fat).
You can check out some healthy tomato recipes from Delicious Magazine.
10. Dark chocolate
If you consider yourself a bit of a chocoholic, there’s good news: dark chocolate contains cacao, which is packed with flavonoids and antioxidants.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate are behind chocolate’s anti-inflammatory power, and research shows that they help to maintain the health of endothelial cells, which line our arteries.
One study of smokers found that participants experienced significant improvements in endothelial function within only a couple of hours of eating dark chocolate.
However, only certain types of chocolate offer these anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s best to choose dark chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao, and to avoid milk or white chocolate.
It’s also important to be mindful that while dark chocolate is an anti-inflammatory food, it’s also high in calories, so should be eaten in moderation. Around 30–60g a day is the recommended advice (this usually amounts to a few squares!).
11. Green tea
If you only ever drink one hot beverage again, there’s a good argument to be made that it should be green tea. Green tea is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties – in particular, a substance called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG).
Studies show that EGCG prevents inflammation by reducing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokine cells and protecting your cells from damage to their fatty acids. For this reason, it’s been found to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, obesity, and various other chronic health conditions.
Why not try swapping your morning coffee or black tea for green tea? It also contains caffeine, so it can give you a little boost.
Turmeric is known to have many health benefits, including helping to prevent heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
It’s high in curcumin (an anti-inflammatory compound), and has been shown to reduce inflammation linked to arthritis, diabetes, and other diseases.
Studies suggest that consuming just one gram of curcumin every day helps decrease inflammatory markers in people with metabolic syndrome (when combined with piperine, an alkaloid present in black pepper, as this helps your body absorb curcumin better).
From fragrant curries to warming noodle soups, check out these tasty turmeric recipes from Olive Magazine.
Grapes are another fruit that are extremely good at fighting inflammation. They contain anthocyanins, which help to reduce inflammation and may reduce the risk of various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
Grapes are also an excellent source of resveratrol, which is another compound that has many health benefits – including reducing inflammation.
One study found that among people with heart disease, those who ate grapes every day saw a decrease in inflammatory gene markers.
More good news is that red wine contains resveratrol – and pinot noir in particular has greater amounts of resveratrol compared to other varieties (although, it’s recommended to drink no more than 10 small glasses of wine a week).
Last on our list is cherries. While more research has been done on the health-boosting benefits of tart cherries as opposed to sweet cherries – both kinds are rich in antioxidants that reduce inflammation and can therefore lower your risk of disease.
Cherries contain phytochemicals (such as anthocyanins and catechins) that fight inflammation. One study found that when people ate 280 grams of cherries every day for a month, their levels of inflammatory markers decreased, and remained low for another month after that.
While eating anti-inflammatory foods can boost overall health and help prevent inflammation, it’s equally important to cut back on foods that can promote inflammation.
Processed meats, fried foods, sugar-sweetened drinks, refined carbs, and oils containing trans fats are linked to increased levels of inflammation.
The best way to keep inflammation in check is to eat a balanced diet, containing a wide variety of healthy, fresh, antioxidant-rich foods.
For more healthy diet tips, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website.
Do you think you’re eating enough anti-inflammatory foods? Do you have any additional ideas to help prevent inflammation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.