Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response; without it, we can't heal. But when it's out of control—as in rheumatoid arthritis—it can damage the body. Plus, it's thought to play a role in obesity, heart disease, and cancer.
Foods high in sugar and saturated fat can spur inflammation. “They cause overactivity in the immune system, which can lead to joint pain, fatigue, and damage to the blood vessels,” says Scott Zashin, MD, clinical professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Other foods may curb inflammation. Add these items to your plate today.
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Oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce inflammation. Aim to eat fish several times a week, cooked in healthy ways: In a 2009 study, men who consumed the most omega-3s each day from baked or boiled fish (as opposed to fried, dried or salted) cut their risk of death from heart disease by 23 percent, compared with those who ate the least. Women had a less dramatic drop but were also protected.
Not a fan of seafood? Fish oil supplements may help lower inflammation. Also, reduce your intake of omega-6 fatty acids (found in processed foods and some vegetable oils); a healthy balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is essential.
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Consuming most of your grains as whole grains, as opposed to refined, white bread, cereal, rice, and pasta can help keep harmful inflammation at bay. That’s because whole grains have more fiber, which has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the blood.
One caveat: Not all products labeled “whole grain” are necessarily healthier than their refined counterparts. To be sure you’re getting the good stuff, look for foods in which the total number of carbohydrate grams per serving is fewer than 10 times the number of fiber grams.
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Dark leafy greens
Vitamin E may be key in protecting the body against pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines. One of the best sources of this vitamin is dark green veggies, such as spinach, Swiss chard, kale and broccoli. Dark greens and cruciferous vegetables also have higher concentrations of certain nutrients—like calcium, iron and disease-fighting flavonoids—than veggies with lighter-colored leaves.
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Another source of inflammation-fighting healthy fats is nuts. Almonds are particularly rich in fiber, calcium and vitamin E, and walnuts have high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat. All nuts are packed with antioxidants that can help your body fight off and repair the damage caused by inflammation. Nuts (along with fish, leafy greens and whole grains) are also a big part of the Mediterranean diet, shown in one study to reduce markers of inflammation in as little as six weeks.
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Studies have suggested that isoflavones—compounds in soy that the body converts into estrogenlike chemicals—may help lower CRP and inflammation levels in women. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Inflammation found that soy isoflavones also helped reduce the negative effects of inflammation on bone and heart health in mice.
Avoid heavily-processed soy whenever possible, which may not include the same benefits and is usually paired with additives and preservatives. Instead, aim to get more soy milk, tofu, and edamame (boiled soybeans) into your regular diet.
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Milk products are sometimes considered a trigger food for inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, because some people have allergies or intolerances to casein, the protein found in dairy. But for people who can tolerate it, low-fat and nonfat milk are an important source of nutrients. Yogurt can also contain probiotics, which can reduce gut inflammation.
“Foods with calcium and vitamin D, such as yogurt and skim milk, are good for everyone,” says Karen H. Costenbader, MD, associate professor of medicine and rheumatoid arthritis doctor at Harvard Medical School. In addition to their anti-inflammatory properties, she says, “it is important to get enough calcium and vitamin D for bone strength, and possibly reduction of cancer and other health risks.”
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“Colorful vegetables are part of a healthier diet in general,” says Dr. Costenbader. “As opposed to white potatoes or corn, colorful peppers, tomatoes, squash, and leafy vegetables have high quantities of antioxidant vitamins and lower levels of starch.” Bell peppers are available in a variety of colors, while hot peppers (like chili and cayenne) are rich in capsaicin, a chemical that’s used in topical creams that reduce pain and inflammation.
Peppers, however, are nightshade vegetableswhich some doctors and patients believe can exacerbate inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. “What helps one person may be harmful to another,” says Dr. Zashin. “You just need to pay attention to your diet and your symptoms, and stick with what works for you.”
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Tomatoes, another nightshade veggie, may also help reduce inflammation in some people. (Of course, Dr. Zashin’s advice about what works for you, individually, applies here, as well.)
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which helps reduce inflammation in the lungs and throughout the rest of the body. Cooked tomatoes provide even more lycopene than raw ones, so tomato sauce works, too—and a found that tomato juice consumption was also beneficial for reducing systemic inflammation.
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This vegetable’s brilliant red color is a tip-off to its equally brilliant antioxidant properties: Beets (and beetroot juice) can not only reduce inflammation but may also protect against cancer and heart disease, thanks to their generous helping of fiber, folate, and powerful plant pigments called betalains.
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Ginger and turmeric
These spices, common in Asian and Indian cooking, have been shown in various studies to hold anti-inflammatory properties. “While the evidence in terms of RA inflammation is not very strong, they are vegetables—and part of a healthy, vegetable-rich diet,” says Dr. Costenbader.
Turmeric, the pungent, golden spice used in curry, appears to work in the body by helping to turn off NF-kappa B, a compound that's integral to triggering the process of inflammation, research shows. Turmeric's cousin ginger, meanwhile, may cut inflammation in the gut when taken in supplement form.
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Garlic and onions
There’s good reason these pungent vegetables are considered anti-inflammatory superstars. Organosulfur compounds derived from garlic may lower the production of substances in the blood that boost inflammation. Quercetin, a flavonoid in onions, helps inhibit inflammation-causing agents at play in arthritis. For the greatest benefits, eat garlic raw, or let crushed or chopped cloves stand for 10 minutes before cooking. And opt for red or yellow onions or shallots instead of white or sweet varieties.
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âAnything that fits into a heart-healthy diet is probably also good for inflammationand that includes healthy, plant-based fats like olive oil,â says Dr. Zashin, author of Natural Arthritis Treatment ($13; ). In fact, a 2010 Spanish study reported that the Mediterranean diet's heart-health perks may be largely due to its use of olive oil. Oleocanthal, the source of olive oil's distinctive aftertaste, has been shown to have similar effects as ibuprofen. A 2014 study found that higher blood levels of alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E in olive oil, were linked to better lung function; more gamma-tocopherol, a kind of vitamin E in corn and soybean oils, was associated with higher rates of asthma, possibly due to vitamin E's role in inflammation.
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All fruits can help fight inflammation in the body, because they’re high in fiber and antioxidants. But berries have especially strong anti-inflammatory benefits—possibly owing to the powers of anthocyanins, the antioxidant flavonoids that give berries their rich color.
Studies have demonstrated, for example, that red raspberry extract helps prevent animals from developing arthritis; that blueberries can protect against inflammatory intestinal disorders like ulcerative colitis, as well as lower blood pressure and heart attack risk; and that women who eat more strawberries may have lower levels of CRP.
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Tart cherries contain the “highest anti-inflammatory content of any food,” according to a 2012 presentation by Oregon Health & Science University scientists. Research has found that tart cherry juice powder can reduce the inflammation in lab rats’ blood vessels by up to 50%; in humans, it helps athletes recover faster from intense workouts and decreases post-exertion muscle pain.
Experts believe that eating 1.5 cups of tart cherries or drinking 1 to 1.5 cups of tart cherry juice a day may yield similar benefits. And, yep, the cherries have got to be tart—sweet ones don’t seem to have the same effects.