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Eating an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

If you get a splinter in your finger, the area around it may become red, swollen, and sore. That’s inflammation at work. It’s your body’s normal response to an injury or infection.

Inflammation can also occur in cells and tissues within your body. You can’t see the effects there, but they can still impact your health.

Short-term inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process. But when inflammation lasts too long or occurs in healthy tissue, it can be harmful. A diet that’s based on inflammation-fighting foods may help combat the problem.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

This diet involves choosing a healthy variety of foods. It focuses on foods that may help reduce long-lasting (chronic) inflammation, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It also limits foods that may make chronic inflammation worse, such as unhealthy fats and processed foods.

How can this diet help you?

Chronic inflammation has been linked to many long-term health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. An overall healthy eating style might help prevent or control chronic inflammation. That’s the approach this diet recommends.

Does this diet have any limitations?

The healthy eating style described in this sheet is good for general health and well-being. But more research is needed on how certain foods may affect inflammation and what impact this may have on specific health conditions.

Which foods should you eat?

Certain foods or drinks show promise as inflammation-fighters. They include dark chocolate, red wine, and green tea. But much of research done has been in animals. More still needs to be learned about how a certain food might affect your health.

What’s clear is that an overall healthy pattern of eating can be good for you. One way this may promote health is by helping keep inflammation from lasting too long or spreading too widely in the body. Focus on the following types of foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables have substances that may help fight inflammation. They should make up about half of every meal. Sample the whole rainbow of colorful fruits and veggies. Good choices include blueberries, cherries, strawberries, broccoli, kale, spinach, carrots, and onions.

  • Whole grains are linked to lower levels of inflammation than refined or processed grain foods. Choose a variety of whole grains. Examples are brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, whole-wheat bread, and whole grain cereal and pasta.

  • Fish are rich in inflammation-fighting fats called omega-3 fatty acids. That’s especially true of certain fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, anchovies, herring, mackerel, and sardines. Aim to eat about two 4-ounce servings of fish per week.

  • Lean protein foods don’t contain much saturated fat—a type of fat that may promote inflammation. Fish are a great choice. Other good options include beans, tofu, skinless chicken and turkey, and leaner cuts of beef and pork.

  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products are also lower in saturated fat than the full-fat versions. Examples are low-fat milk and nonfat yogurt.

  • Healthy fats have a different effect than saturated fat. In fact, they may help lower inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and walnuts. Monounsaturated fat is found in avocados, peanut butter, many nuts, and some plant oils (such as olive, avocado, canola, peanut, and safflower oils).

  • Fresh herbs and spices give these healthy foods a flavor boost. Some, such as ginger and turmeric, might help reduce inflammation, too.

Which foods should you pass up?

Some substances in foods increase the risk for long-term health problems. One way they may do this is by promoting chronic inflammation. Limit the substances below.

  • Saturated fat is found in foods such as fatty cuts of beef and pork, whole milk, cheese, cream, butter, and lard. Many fried foods and baked goods are also high in this type of fat.

  • Trans fats were previously found in a wide range of processed foods before the FDA banned partially hydrogenated oils as of Jan. 1, 2020. For example, they were used in many brands of cookies, crackers, donuts, shortening, and stick margarine. They may still be found in foods manufactured or purchased before the ban or in some fried foods. Small amounts of trans fats are also naturally present in some dairy or meat products. But there are not enough studies to know if they have the same effect as man-made trans fats or not.

  • Refined grains are found in white breads, tortillas, and pasta, white rice, baked goods made with refined (white) flours, and many breakfast cereals.

  • Added sugars are found in non-diet soft drinks, fruit drinks, desserts, ice cream, sweetened yogurt, fruit spreads, and sugary cereals.

  • Excessive alcohol may also increase inflammation. That’s defined as more than 2 drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women.

Tips for following this diet

Added sugars can go by many names in a food’s ingredients list. Look for terms ending in “ose,” such as sucrose, fructose, and maltose. Other terms to watch for include syrup, molasses, honey, and fruit juice concentrate.

Watching what you eat matters. But it’s not the only thing that affects chronic inflammation. Other helpful steps include staying physically active, getting enough sleep, and staying at or reaching a healthy weight.

Suggestions for planning meals

  • For breakfast, choose oatmeal, whole grain cereal, or plain nonfat yogurt. Stir in a little ground flaxseed for an omega-3 boost. Serve with a bowl of berries or piece of fresh fruit.

  • For lunch, have a salad topped with a lean protein, such as beans or a handful of chopped nuts. Rather than dousing it with creamy dressing, choose vinaigrette made with olive oil.

  • For dinner, instead of having fried fish or chicken, choose to have it broiled, baked, or grilled. Serve with a side of steamed vegetables.

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