Inflammation is your body’s defense system—but it can get out of control. It’s a good thing when it plays a protective role in healing injuries, such as a cut or scrape, or illnesses, such as a cold. But chronic inflammation, which builds up over years, can damage tissue and organs, leading to health issues such as type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.
Inflammation also may be the reason you feel brain fog or experience digestive issues, muscle aches, or skin rashes, say health coach Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., L.D.N. and chef Jessica Swift, R.D.N., in their new book 28-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The authors explain that high levels of body-wide inflammation are at the core of many serious health problems.
Kiros and Swift say many factors contribute to chronic inflammation, including prolonged stress, poor sleep, sitting too much, and excess body fat. But the biggest offender is a diet high in refined carbohydrates and processed foods. While there are no “good” and “bad” foods—for most people, everything in moderation is fine!—eating more whole, minimally processed foods (instead of less nutritious, processed ones) has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation in the blood by 20 percent, say Kiros and Swift.
If you’re trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, changing everything at once may seem daunting. Instead, try small steps to gain momentum. For example, by adding a few of these “best” foods and reducing the number of these “worst” foods in your diet, you can positively impact your health, say the authors.
Fiber-rich foods prevent blood sugar spikes that cause the body to overproduce free radicals that release inflammatory messengers. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough; women under age 50 should aim for 25g per day, 38g for men. Over age 50, shoot for 21g for women and 30g for men. Fiber-rich beans such as cannellini, black or garbanzos are a great swap for fattier foods, such as beef.
Avocadoes are rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants such as carotenoids, as well as heart-healthy monosaturated fats and vitamins A and E, which combat free radicals. They also contain soluble fiber, which can lower your risk for heart disease.
Best: Sweet Potato
Instead of a regular potato, swap in a sweet potato. Its bright orange color indicates that it’s packed with polyphenols, which are antioxidants that may prevent or reverse inflammatory damage caused by free radicals. They also contain about 4 grams of fiber to work toward your daily goal.
Best: Citrus Fruit
Citrus fruits contain polyphenols which may help “turn off” the body’s inflammation switch. They also contain flavanones, which can strengthen your immune system and stave off inflammation. Add them to salads for a flavorful antioxidant kick.
Best: Leafy Greens
Bring on the leafy greens such as kale, spinach, mustard, and mesclun! These veggies are rich in carotenoids and vitamins A, C, E, and K, and studies have shown that eating several servings per week may lower the risk of stomach, breast, and skin cancers and decrease the risk of heart disease.
Nuts contain protein which helps keep blood sugar levels stable, preventing the release of excess insulin and the formation of free radicals. Nuts also contain insoluble fiber to keep things moving in your gut. A small handful of nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pecans or 2 tablespoons of nut butter make a heart-healthy snack.
Best: Fatty Fish
Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and herring are full of omega 3-fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit the secretion of compounds that trigger inflammation. Aim for 1.1 g per day omega-3s for women, 1.6 g for men, and try to eat a couple of servings of fish per week.
Berries contain high concentrations of anthocyanins, which research says may reduce inflammation and keep your brain sharp. Toss with Greek yogurt for a breakfast full of protein and antioxidants, or freeze some to snack on when you have a sweet tooth.
Tomatoes contain antioxidants such as vitamin C and carotenoids such as lycopene. Lycopene is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Top toast with Greek yogurt, sliced tomatoes and a sprinkle of lemon zest and mint for a fresh-tasting snack.
Best: Coffee or Tea
Teas, including green, black, white and oolong, are full of polyphenols. Coffee is also rich in antioxidants that protect against cellular damage. Just be mindful of adding extras like high-fat cream or sugar.
Apples contain polyphenols such as flavanols and anthocyanins. Make sure to eat the skin, which also contains fiber for gut health.
Best: Whole Grains
Whole-wheat bread or pasta, brown rice, barley, and oatmeal are better choices than refined grains. They contain fiber so your blood sugar won’t spike, and they haven’t been stripped of nutrients like most refined carbs. Swap brown for white when eating rice, pasta, or bread.
Best: Dark Chocolate
Get your most bang for your buck when indulging by opting for dark chocolate! It contains polyphenols such as anthocyanins and catechins.
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Worst: Refined Carbohydrates
Foods high in refined carbs get burned up by the body quickly, which causes blood sugar levels to spike, then crash. You’ll find them in foods such as white flour, white bread, and white rice.
Worst: Processed Meats
Foods such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts are high in saturated fats. They also may contain preservatives such as nitrates, which can raise levels of inflammation.
Worst: Full-Fat Dairy
Low-fat or non-fat dairy can provide calcium and protein, which helps keep blood sugar levels stable. But full fat dairy adds unnecessary fat.
Worst: Baked Goods
Baked goods are refined carbs, which are broken down quickly, tiggering a blood sugar spike that increases inflammation. It’s fine to indulge occasionally, but follow the 80/20 rule: Eat non-inflammatory foods 80 percent of the time, and enjoy your favorite treats 20 percent of the time.
Worst: Sweetened Beverages
Soft drink, juices, hot cocoa and sweetened coffee drinks are high in added sugar, which can increase inflammation levels. Research has found these beverages are also related to increased obesity and LDL cholesterol levels.
Worst: Trans Fat
No foods are truly off-limits, but trans fats (also called partially hydrogenated oils) are fats that are chemically altered to remain solid at room temperature. They raise inflammation and increase risk for heart disease, so steer clear of them as much as possible. This includes margarine and shortening, processed snacks, fried foods, and store-bought baked goods.
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