As we learn more about the role that inflammation plays in overall health, the more we see that some of the best defenses against chronic inflammation are the things you do every day. Lifestyle factors like sleep , exercise, and stress management all play a role—and the food you eat is no doubt one of the most important factors when it comes to preventing or reducing chronic inflammation in the body. Luckily, there are certain foods that fight inflammation, and when you know what to eat, you’ll be well on your way to improving your overall health.
Inflammation is a natural process that helps your body fight foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria, infections, and so much more. But sometimes your immune system gets triggered for the wrong reasons, and if it stays that way, it can lead to health problems over time.
“Inflammation is problematic when it becomes chronic, as this can lead to long-term damage of tissue and the development of many serious diseases. Examples of diseases associated with chronic inflammation include obesity , diabetes , dementia , heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis ,” Christina Wakefield , a Parsley Health health coach says.
Symptoms of chronic inflammation can vary, but in general, Wakefield says they can include achy joints, puffiness, weight gain, muscle soreness, anxiety , depression, bloating and brain fog . “Our body communicates to us in the form of symptoms and it’s our job to tune into what it’s trying to tell us so that we can course correct,” Wakefield says.
“Every time you eat, you have the opportunity to lower inflammation in the body with anti-inflammatory foods (food as medicine!) or exacerbate it with pro-inflammatory foods,” says Wakefield. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is chock full of pro-inflammatory foods, like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, vegetable and seed oils, and refined carbohydrates. “When you consume these foods regularly, you put yourself at risk for chronic inflammation,” explains Wakefield. You’ll want to work on replacing pro-inflammatory ingredients and foods, with foods that fight inflammation. Keep reading to find out the six key anti-inflammatory foods you should be eating.
“The omega-3s EPA and DHA found in fatty fish that live in cold water like wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, and anchovies help reduce chronic inflammation in the body and maintain healthy blood vessels,” Wakefield says. Omega-3s do this by increasing the concentration of special molecule mediators that reprogram certain blood cells, found a 2019 study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation Research .
When purchasing salmon, it’s important to pay attention to where the salmon is sourced. Usually the package or information from your grocery store meat/fish counter will indicate whether the salmon is farmed or wild caught. Wild-caught salmon is your best bet to get the most bang for your nutrition buck. “Wild-caught salmon contains more omega 3s than farmed salmon,” Wakefield says.
Tip: “Aim to incorporate a 3- to 6-ounce serving of these fish two to four times per week,” Wakefield says. You can roast salmon with other veggies on a sheet pan for an easy, one pan meal. You can also use canned salmon for an easy lunch, like this Salmon Salad recipe.
Fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, but you can also get them from a plant-based source like flaxseed. “Two tablespoons contain more than 140% daily value of omega-3 fatty acids and more lignans, a cancer fighting plant compound , than any other food in the human diet,” Wakefield says.
Tip: “Add 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to a smoothie or stir into oatmeal or coconut yogurt,” Wakefield suggests. You can also make a grain-free “oatmeal” dish with flaxseeds and chia seeds, like this recipe from celebrity nutritionist, Kelly LeVeque.
Need another reason to eat more greens? They’re powerful anti-inflammatory foods that you can enjoy raw or cooked. “Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collards contain high levels of anti-inflammatory compounds known as carotenoids , which may protect against certain types of cancer,” Wakefield says.
Tip: “Add a couple handfuls to your smoothie—store frozen organic bunches in your freezer so that you always have them on hand,” Wakefield says. “Make a big kale salad at the beginning of the week and add a handful to meals. Add them to soups, stews, eggs, and tacos,” she suggests.
Berries are rich in so many good-for-you nutrients, like fiber , which feeds the good bacteria in your gut, gets broken down into short-chain fatty acids, and can act as a signal to calm the immune system . Berries like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, tart cherries, strawberries, and cranberries are also “rich in antioxidants known as anthocyanin that reduce inflammation,” Wakefield says.
Tip: “Add 1/4 cup to your morning smoothie, oatmeal, chia seed pudding and salads,” suggests Wakefield. You can also swap pro-inflammatory high-sugar desserts with anti-inflammatory foods like berries. “Pair with nuts or nut butter to help stabilize blood sugar,” she says.
Although not technically a food, turmeric and ginger deserve a spot on this list because of their powerful anti-inflammatory properties. They are relatively easy to incorporate into your diet, too, since you can add them to food, make drinks with them, or even take them in supplement form. “The compound in turmeric called curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” Wakefield says. Ginger also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Tip: “Opt for teas made with these spices,” Wakefield suggests. “I’m a fan of Four Sigmatic’s Golden Latte Mix packets (Parsley members score 20 percent off ) mixed with collagen and water or a nut milk of choice for a yummy snack.” You can also add turmeric and ginger to stews and use them to season roasted veggies, she says. Because the body is not easily able to absorb curcumin, when using turmeric, add a sprinkle of black pepper, which has been shown to increase bioavailability by up to 2000 percent.
Green tea is another anti-inflammatory food staple whether you love matcha lattes or regular green tea. “Green tea contains epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) which lowers pro-inflammatory cytokine production and damage to cells inhibiting inflammation,” Wakefield says.
Tip: Add matcha powder to your smoothies for a boost or bake matcha powder into muffins and bars for a unique flavor and nutrient boost. You can also sip on matcha lattes or hot and iced green tea instead of coffee for a less jolting energy boost.
While adding foods that fight inflammation into your diet is a start, you’ll also want to take a more holistic approach to managing inflammation in other areas of your life, too. One of the ways you can lower and monitor inflammation is by working with a health coach and doctor, like the team at Parsley Health. Whether you’re dealing with an autoimmune condition , thyroid condition , or just want to prevent health issues down the line, lowering inflammation is an important step in your health journey. Members at Parsley Health get a personalized and comprehensive plan to reduce inflammation. Your health coach and doctor can not only formulate a custom plan for your lifestyle and needs, but also help keep you accountable to lifestyle changes. Your doctor will also be able to test and monitor your inflammation levels with lab work over time. In the meantime, know that including anti-inflammatory foods in your diet every day is a great step on your way to preventing and reducing inflammation as part of a holistic health plan.
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She is passionate about translating expert and science-based wellness advice into accessible and engaging content. Her work is featured on Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, trying out new recipes, and going to new workout classes all over New York City.