By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
We are all familiar with inflammation in some form. Who hasn’t experienced a sprained ankle or twisted back at some point in our lives? Age, and wear and tear on the joints also can spur common inflammation many of us deal with on a regular basis. But, while inflammation is a natural part of the immune system response that helps the body heal, when it’s out of control it can cause long-term damage and may encourage unhealthy behaviors such as a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep habits and over-use of over the counter pain relievers. It is also thought to play a role in obesity, heart disease and cancer. Nobody wants to start or finish the day downing pills or sitting on the sidelines while the rest of the world goes by. But for some of us, every day includes the daunting task of battling the pain of chronic inflammation.
New research suggests there are potential links between dietary habits and chronic inflammation in the body. For example, foods high in sugar and saturated fat can increase inflammation by causing over-activity in the immune system, which can lead to joint pain, fatigue and damage to the blood vessels. Other foods may serve to curb or reduce inflammation. While we certainly don’t suggest that dietary changes alone can eradicate painful inflammation, avoiding foods high in sugar and saturated fat and incorporating more healthy foods that may have anti-inflammatory properties can be a part of a balanced diet and an overall game plan to help reduce inflammation and improve general health. Following are some healthy anti-inflammatory choices that are not only rich in important nutrients but can tempt your taste buds and brighten up your plate.
Oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are rich in nutrients that have been shown to help reduce inflammation, such as omega-3 fatty acids and lean protein. However, to get the full health benefits of fatty fish, you need to eat fish several times a week and it should be cooked in healthy ways such as baking and broiling. Try substituting a salmon burger for a hamburger, add quality tuna to a salad, or eat sardines on whole grain crackers for a snack.
If fish is not your thing, you might consider fish-oil supplements. Warning: If your diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids found in processed foods and vegetable oil, the addition of fish-oil supplements can actually increase inflammation.
Dark Leafy greens
According to some studies, vitamin E plays an important role in protecting the body from pro-inflammatory agents. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and collard greens are a great source of vitamin E. For a balanced diet that also can contribute to the reduction of inflammation, eat a variety of vegetables daily, especially dark leafy greens. Frozen produce is a good option when fresh varieties are not available. Every meal should contain at least one nutrient packed vegetable or fruit.
Refined starches like white breads, pastas, rice, cereals, and processed snack foods contain limited fiber and are typically high in sugar, affecting the body’s ability to cope with inflammation. Choosing fiber-rich whole grains, as opposed to refined products, can help keep harmful inflammation at bay. Be cautious in the grocery aisle and look for foods with a whole grain as the first ingredient, and no added sugars.
Health benefits of fat don’t stop at fatty fish. Plant-based fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados also are good for fighting inflammation. Almonds, which are rich in vitamin E, and walnuts, which contain omega-3 fats, help your body repair the damage caused by inflammation. Top shelf olive oils are brimming with the compound oleocanthal, which has been shown to have a similar effect as NSAID painkillers in the body. Snack on a handful of nuts daily, and chose a quality olive oil for cooking and dressings to help stem the tide of inflammation.
Low Fat Dairy
For people who have allergies or intolerances to casein, the protein found in milk products, dairy can sometimes act as a trigger food for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. However, for people who can tolerate low-fat and nonfat milk, these products are excellent sources of nutrients including vitamin D for strong bones. Yogurt with active cultures, which contain probiotics, may help reduce gut inflammation.
Another potential anti-inflammatory food is soy. Some studies suggest that isoflavones, estrogen-like compounds in soy products may help lower CRP and inflammation levels in women. But avoid heavily- processed soy. Soymilk, tofu and edamame are better choices if you want to incorporate soy into your diet.
Garlic and Onions
In animal studies garlic has been found to shut off the pathways that lead to inflammation, much as anti-inflammatory elements found in NSAID pain medications like ibuprofen do. Onions contain similar anti-inflammatory chemicals, including the phytonutrient quercetin and the compound allicin, which breaks down to produce free radical-fighting sulfenic acid.
Ginger and Curry
For acute inflammation derived from manual labor or training for a marathon, daily ginger consumption may ease exercise-induced muscle pain by 25 percent, one study suggests. Try re-hydrating after intense exercise with grated ginger in water or tea. Enjoy shredded ginger root in salads, rice, pasta dishes, or sushi. In supplement form, ginger has been shown to reduce inflammation in the intestines. Turmeric, which gives curry its yellow color, acts to help reduce inflammation by turning off a protein (NF-kappa B) that regulates the immune system and triggers inflammation.
Berries and Cherries
All fruits can help fight inflammation because they are low in fat and calories and rich in antioxidants. Berries, in particular, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, likely because of the anthocyanins, the powerful chemicals that give them their rich color. A 2012 study suggests that tart cherries have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food. Tart cherry juice has been shown to help athletes improve their performance and reduce their use of anti-inflammatory pain medications.
Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, beets, squash and leafy vegetables have high quantities of antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation. Juicy red tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which is believed to reduce inflammation in the lungs and throughout the body. Bell peppers come in a wide variety of colors, each bringing it’s own benefits to the balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Hot peppers like chili and cayenne, are rich in capsaicin, a chemical that is sometimes used in topical creams that reduce pain and inflammation.
The Take Away As a nutritionist, I discourage anyone from making specific foods the center of their dietary focus, and encourage close attention to healthy and balanced dietary choices. Reducing inflammation is not just about what you eat. The practice of eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and being supervised by a doctor is the best defense against chronic disease and inflammation. However, being aware of and incorporating healthy nutrient-rich foods that may help to reduce inflammation into an overall balanced diet certainly can’t hurt. Eating foods to fight inflammation is not be considered a “quick fix” diet, but a no-nonsense plan to improve your nutritional intake and boost your overall health.
Note: What helps reduce inflammation in one person may exacerbate inflammation in someone else. Talk with your doctor and pay attention to your body’s reaction to a particular food, so you can eliminate those items that seem to aggravate your pain and keep the ones that reduce it as a part of a nutrient-rich, balanced diet.
Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, is a local nutrition expert and runner. Health is a choice. #ChooseHealthy Download her FREE App. Search Rebecca Turner Nutrition in your App Store.
Dig Deeper Check out Holly Clegg’s trim&TERRIFIC Eating Well to Fight Arthritis that features 200 easy recipes and practical tips to help reduce inflammation and ease symptoms.
Eating Well to Fight Arthritis Holly Clegg’s trim&TERRIFIC™ Eating Well To Fight Arthritis is a practical cookbook designed to focus on foods to help alleviate arthritic symptoms such as joint inflammation, fatigue and nausea with easy-to-follow super-satisfying recipes. Each chapter offers guidance, basic tools, tips and everyday recipes to create a healthier kitchen that will help you fight arthritis pain and discomfort. Chapters are organized by the symptoms: Anti-Inflammatory Foods, Bone Building, No Fuss Foods, Fight Fatigue, Toss the Fork, and more.
Honey Mustard Salmon Honey mustard with a bit of spice glaze over salmon with a delicious flavor for the gourmet-on-the-go. Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
6 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
1 tablespoon olive oil
Instructions 1. In microwave-safe dish, microwave brown sugar, honey, mustard, and soy sauce until melted together, 30 seconds. Add ginger. 2. Coat salmon with oil, place skin side down in heated nonstick skillet coated with nonstick cooking spray. Cover salmon with glaze, cook 5 minutes or until golden brown and crispy. 3. Turn salmon over, cover opposite side with glaze. Continue cooking 3–5 minutes longer or until salmon is cooked to desired doneness. Add remaining glaze to pan, heat well 1 minute, and serve with salmon.
Food Facts Calories 295, Calories from Fat 33%, Fat 11g, Saturated Fat 2g, Cholesterol 80mg, Sodium 467mg, Carbohydrates 12g, Dietary Fiber 0g, Total Sugars 11g, Protein 37g, Dietary Exchanges: 1 other carbohydrate, 5 lean meat
Nutrition Nugget: Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, providing a host of nutritional benefits including reduced risk of heart disease and inflammation, which helps with joint pain.
Kale Salad with Fruity Vinaigrette You must give kale a try, this intriguing salad with an extraordinary tasty flavor combination. You will love the Fruity Vinaigrette for it’s perfect blend of sweet and savory flavors. Makes 8 servings
8 cups chopped kale, center ribs and stems removed
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 apple, nectarine or fruit of choice, chopped
1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted, and Fruity Vinaigrette (recipe follows) Instructions 1. In large salad bowl, toss together kale, cabbage, fruit and pecans. Toss with Fruity Vinaigrette (see recipe).
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup apricot preserves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1. In bowl, whisk together all ingredients.
Food Facts Calories 145 kcal, Calories from Fat 52%, Fat 9 g, Saturated Fat 1 g, Cholesterol 0 mg, Sodium 44 mg, Carbohydrates 16 g, Dietary Fiber 2 g, Total Sugars 7 g, Protein 3 g, Dietary Exchanges: 1/2 fruit, 2 vegetable, 2 fat
Nutrition Nugget: Keep kale a part of your regular menu as only 1 cup provides a good source of fiber, 15% of your daily calcium recommended intake, 180% of vitamin A, and 200% of vitamin C!