What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a complex response to a stressor, such as an injury. Most people divide inflammation into two types:
- Acute Inflammation
- Acute inflammation is short-term inflammation that is typically localized to one area of the body. It occurs in response to injuries like sprains, cuts, and bug bites or stings. Acute inflammation is characterized by swelling, redness, and heat and/or pain in the affected area. This type of inflammation is necessary for healing from acute injury or illness; it is part of how the immune system responds and delivers white blood cells, lymph fluid, and other biological healing agents.
- Systemic Inflammation
- Chronic, systemic inflammation is the more dangerous type, as it can go unnoticed for years and is a major contributing factor to diseases like autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even mental health disorders.
One of the best things people can do to address inflammation is focus on reducing inflammatory foods, and eating more anti-inflammatory foods.
How do I eat an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet requires a two-pronged approach:
- Reduce inflammatory foods
- Eat plenty of anti-inflammatory foods
Reducing Inflammatory Foods
The worst drivers of inflammation are bad fats, sugar, processed foods, and foods to which people are allergic or sensitive.
Bad fats include refined seed and vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and corn oil. Not only are these fats full of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, they are also extracted with lots of chemicals. The absolute worst type of fat to look out for is trans fat. Trans fats are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils— liquid oils that have had hydrogen atoms added until they become solid saturated fats. Lots of processed food products use tricky labelling— they will say “trans fat free” on the front, but contain “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” in the ingredients. They can make these claims because they alter the suggested serving size. For example, half of a cinnamon roll may only have 0.45 grams of trans fat, so the company does not have to claim the trans fats in the serving (they are only legally required to put it on the label if it has 0.5 grams or more of trans fat). But if you eat a whole cinnamon roll, you get almost a gram of trans fat. All health professionals agree that trans fats are terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs, so read the ingredients in your food and avoid hydrogenated oils.
Researchers are increasingly linking sugar with inflammation. Most Americans have no idea how much sugar they’re consuming. It’s easy to lose track when sugar is hidden in virtually every processed food product! I have even seen sugar in plain canned beans. By far the worst culprit is high fructose corn syrup, but food manufacturers hide sugar under many tricky names. This article gives a rundown on hidden sugars, and on the right hand side of the page there is a list of 61 names for sugar.
Processed foods are typically so tasty because they have some combination of bad fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. These are the exact prerequisites for inflammation. The more you can do to avoid packaged food and eat real, whole foods, the better off you are in terms of inflammation.
The above advice is pretty simple, but dealing with food allergies and sensitivities is trickier. On our blog, we have a quick post about 5 keys to managing food allergies. Most true food allergies occur in response to one of the top 8 most allergenic foods: dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and wheat/gluten. However, many people are allergic or sensitive to other foods, such as corn, coconut, or nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and other plants in the nightshade family). By unknowingly continuing to eat foods they’re allergic or sensitive to, people constantly provoke an immune response, which increases inflammation. The first step in reducing inflammation from food allergies is to remove the offending foods from your diet. People either do an elimination diet or food allergy testing to figure out which foods they should remove. The autoimmune protocol and Wahls protocol are good places to look for elimination diets designed to address chronic illness.
Eating Anti-Inflammatory Foods
The most anti-inflammatory foods are whole and natural. An anti-inflammatory diet should emphasize:
- Leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, mustard greens, watercress, collard greens, swiss chard, cabbage, arugula, lettuce, bok choy, sea vegetables, etc.)
- Colorful vegetables
- Brightly colored fruits
- Herbs and spices (turmeric, garlic, ginger, basil, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, sage, clove, cardamom, curry blends, etc.)
- Cooked mushrooms (especially speciality and wild types, like shiitake, oyster, lion’s mane, maitake, chanterelles, morels, etc.)
- Legumes (lentils, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, etc.)
- Wild-caught fatty fish and seafood (check our seafood guide for suggestions)
- High quality protein sources (pastured, grass-fed, or wild are preferable)
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, flax, chia, pumpkin seeds, etc.)
- Good fats (avocado, olives, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, tallow from 100% grass-fed cows, ghee)
- Whole grains (the less processed, the better. Oats (groats or steel-cut), wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa, farro, barley, etc.)
- Fermented foods (lacto-fermented veggies, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, yogurt, kefir, etc.)
- [For a very thorough list of healthy foods, go to our main blog page, and scroll down until you get a pop-up offer for our free healthy food shopping list]
Aim for 7-14 servings of vegetables and mushrooms per day (you can never have too many veggies!), 2-4 servings of fruit per day, a serving of protein at every meal (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, beans, tempeh, tofu), a serving of healthy fat at every meal, lots of spices and herbs in your food, sip clean water all day, and herbal, green, white, or oolong tea as often as you like. Treats, such as dark chocolate, dried fruit, and red wine, can be part of a healthy diet, but should be consumed in moderation.
A great way to ensure you get the nutrients and antioxidants you need is to rotate what you eat. It’s easy to vary your diet if you eat seasonally!
Here’s an example of a great anti-inflammatory food day:
- Breakfast: Quick breakfast scramble: Sauté fresh or frozen veggies in a skillet with your preferred cooking fat. Once they’re cooked, serve the veggies on plates, and return the skillet to the stove. Add more fat if needed, and fry or scramble pastured eggs. Serve on top of the veggies. Season and garnish as desired.
- Alliums like onions, garlic, and leeks combine well with leafy green vegetables like spinach, chard, kale, or mustard greens. Other possible additions: mushrooms, bell peppers, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, squash, and fresh herbs. Also enjoy a cup of green tea and bowl of defrosted frozen mixed berries.
- Lunch: Mash half of or a whole avocado with a can of wild-caught salmon. Mix in diced radishes, carrots, celery and green onions. Season with sea salt, cracked pepper, and fresh herbs, like chopped cilantro, parsley, or dill. If you like, you can also add diced olives or fermented pickles (like Bubbie’s brand). Eat it on top of mixed greens, or wrapped in a steamed collard leaf to make a wrap.
- Dinner: Green soup full of leafy green veggies alongside a protein of your choice, such as grass-fed steak, roast pastured chicken, grilled shrimp, or tempeh.
- If you want snacks or dessert, pick things like:
- Drink plenty of filtered water throughout the day, either plain, with lemon squeezed in, or in herbal or green tea.
Do I need to eat organic?
It is likely that pesticides and herbicides used on conventional produce could contribute to inflammation. So if it is within your means, go ahead and eat organic whenever possible! However, for many of us, eating organic produce all the time simply isn’t feasible.
If the question is between eating organic and eating whole, real, fresh produce, choose the latter every time. Organic cookies will never be healthier than conventionally-grown spinach. If you can’t afford organic, don’t stress! Just get your veggies and fruits however you can.
If you want to avoid the most contaminated foods, check our the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s guides to the most and least contaminated produce, also known as the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, respectively. The image on the right is from 2016, but the 2017 list is similar. The main things that have changed are spinach moved farther up on the list and pears are not also in the top 12. If you are only going to buy some of your produce organic, it’s best to get the ones from the Dirty Dozen organic, and buy others conventional.
One way buy organic food for cheaper is to stock up at local markets when foods are in season, then preserve them. You can also buy frozen organic produce, which is often cheaper than fresh, and can give you access to foods that are not currently in season.