Chronic inflammation is linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and various other health problems. But a few dietary swaps can help reduce inflammation so you are  not only healthier but also possibly healing existing conditions.

By Brierley Horton, MS, RD
June 18, 2019
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There are two types of inflammation, and their consequences are quite different. Acute inflammation is the kind that’s both safe and necessary (think: healing a cut from a wound). Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is harmful and plays a role in the onset of serious diseases. “Its symptoms often seem vague and nonspecific. But chronic inflammation is like a small fire burning inside the body that, over time, gets stoked and encouraged by other irritants. It takes a gradual toll on the body by damaging cells, overworking the immune system, and creating imbalances that can lead to long-term health issues like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases,” says Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., author of Meals That Heal ($15.17, Amazon). “Chronic inflammation is difficult to recognize because it has no overt symptoms, but one thing research confirms is that you can prevent future diseases—as well as reduce inflammation—through food choices.”

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So what food choices can help you ward off inflammation and the chronic diseases it may lead to? Here are eight foods you should consider adding to your diet now.

1. Berries

Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and even the Thanksgiving favorite, cranberries have been shown to help decrease risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD)—of which inflammation is a leader—and other key risk factors of CVD such as high blood pressure. Berries also contain hard-to-pronounce, but really good for you, anti-inflammatory compounds like anthocyanins and ellagitannins. Plus, many of their other nutrients—potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and folate—also have anti-oxidant properties that help reduce harmful inflammation.

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2. Whole Grains

Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread, popcorn, and oatmeal are chock-full of antioxidants, phytic acid, vitamin E, and selenium—all of which may help lower inflammation. Whole grains also usually contain fiber, and some research suggests that higher fiber diets could help fight inflammation. Women, aim to eat 25 grams of fiber each day; men, shoot for 38 grams. If you've been falling short of those fiber goals, start adding whole grain recipes to your meal plan.

3. Matcha

Matcha is the stronger-flavored, brighter-colored, and earthier relative of green tea. (Chances are you’ve seen it whisked into lattes.) It is more potent than green tea because it contains more of the compound epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG ), which has strong anti-inflammatory powers. Look for matcha in specialty stores, or online try Jade Leaf Matcha Green Tea Powder ($19.95 for 3.5 ounces, Amazon).

4. Walnuts

Walnuts are brimming with unsaturated fat and more specifically polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). According to a study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people who replace saturated fats from foods like butter, full-fat dairy, and animal fat with polyunsaturated fats in foods such as walnuts, oily fish, and olive oil may have a lower risk of heart disease. Remember, chronic inflammation may play a role in the onset of cardiovascular disease. “More specifically, the study found that substituting 5 percent of the calories from saturated fat with the same amount of energy from PUFAs was associated with a 25 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease,” says Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., an ambassador for California Walnuts. “Practically speaking, subbing in a daily handful of walnuts for chips, swapping butter with olive oil, and oily fish for another animal protein may be just what the dietitian ordered," Mohr says.

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5. Pomegranate

Both pomegranate fruit and pomegranate juice offer multiple health benefits, helping to reduce your chances of developing various cancers, heart disease, arthritis, and other chronic diseases. According to research, some of the health benefits are because of its anti-inflammatory properties thanks to compounds like ellagitannins. Research also suggests that pomegranate’s antioxidant activity is more potent than red wine or green tea.

6. Cruciferous vegetables

Regularly eating vegetables has been shown to help reduce inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine. Research shows cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, pack an extra anti-inflammatory punch. In one study, participants who ate a double dose of cruciferous veggies each day saw the most improvement (compared to when they ate a fruit- and veggie-free diet, but also when they ate a single daily serving of cruciferous veggies) in some inflammatory markers. Experts think the benefits of this family of veggies is thanks to fiber and key phytochemicals like glucosinolates.

7. Seafood

“Research suggests that not getting protein from a large variety of sources—particularly plants and fish—and overconsuming meat and poultry are key contributors to chronic inflammation,” Williams says. According to Williams, you should aim to eat fish and seafood at least twice a week and make sure to include fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and sardines, for their potent (and anti-inflammatory) omega-3 fats. Most of us eat well below the recommended seafood intake. But if two meals a week feels like too much, start with one and maybe swap your regular eggs and milk for omega-3-enriched versions.

8. Olive Oil

Olive oil, especially the extra-virgin variety that's typically less processed than "light" and regular olive oils, is associated with a lowered risk of various conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and joint and neurological diseases. Its benefit primarily comes from a phenolic compound called oleocanthal, which has similar anti-inflammatory characteristics as ibuprofen. Olive oil is pervasive in the Mediterranean diet and there’s ample research to show that following that dietary pattern can reduce inflammation and lower your risk of conditions associated with it. In fact, a recent study found that people who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet significantly improved their body’s inflammatory markers (compared to counterparts who didn’t follow that way of eating).

With these simple diet additions or swaps, you can fight chronic inflammation and the diseases associated with it. Thankfully, each of these foods is delicious and easily added to healthy recipes so there's no need for trips to specialty stores or investing in new kitchen appliances. Although they may not completely prevent or cure some chronic diseases, their anti-inflammatory benefits are proven, plus including these foods in your diet makes it more nutritious. It's a win-win.

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