More and more research each day is pointing to the benefit of eating anti-inflammatory foods for a healthier life. Sadly, the Standard American Diet, (S.A.D.) which consists of processed foods, fried foods, red meats, and foods high in sugar, trans fats, and salt, is very pro-inflammation. Add to that the fact that our bodies are bombarded daily by toxins that can contribute to inflammation as well, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, and even on the fresh foods we eat in the form of pesticides and glyphosate. So we need to do all we can to help detox and protect our bodies.
And since inflammation has been linked to a host of diseases from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and dementia/Alzheimers, we could all stand to eat healthier. If you read my last post, you saw how diet has been directly linked to mental health. When you’re fueling your body with low-grade fuel (ie: S.A.D diet) there’s no way it’s going to be able to function properly over the long haul. So it’s really important to eat as many anti-inflammatory foods as possible, at every meal, every day.
Most of the top anti-inflammatory foods are plant-based foods, and the recommended daily intake of fruits and veggies is nine half-cup servings a day. That’s 4.5 cups of veggies and fruits a day, every day. And if you can eat more than that, and eat organic, all the better. Guess what? When you’re loading up on 4.5 cups or more of high-fiber, delicious veggies, and fruits a day, along with some healthy fats and oils, you will feel satiated and full. You won’t have much room left in your belly to snack on processed, fried, chemical-laden junk foods. Wahoo!
So what are the top anti-inflammatory foods, and what can they do for you? Lately, many doctors and universities have been putting together top anti-inflammatory foods lists. And I took a look at many of these lists, all of which differ somewhat. However, 12 foods were among the top on all lists. So in Part 1 of this two-part article, we’ll find out the health benefits of the top six anti-inflammatory foods.
I love that blueberries top the list of anti-inflammatory foods because they are seriously one of my fav foods! Blueberries contain about 85% water. And one cup of berries has just 84 calories. So calorie-for-calorie, blueberries are an excellent source of several important nutrients. Berries of all types, but blueberries, in particular, are full of antioxidants(1) which help to boost the immune system. In fact, blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit or veggie. They are high in the flavonoid antioxidants anthocyanin as well as ellagic acid, polyphenols, and vitamin C.(2)
Anthocyanin is an antioxidant that crosses the blood-brain barrier. And it has been shown to benefit memory and learning. Anthocyanins might also offer anti-inflammatory and anti-viral benefits, and research shows that they may protect against heart disease, obesity, and breast cancer too.(3)
Ellagic acid, another important antioxidant, has also been shown to inhibit cancer growth.(4)
Free Radicals, DNA Damage, and Antioxidants
You’ve likely heard about how free radicals damage our DNA and contribute to aging. And free radicals and damaged DNA can also promote the development of inflammatory diseases like cancer.(5) Luckily, blueberries, which are super-high in antioxidants, can neutralize some of the free radicals that damage DNA. And eating blueberries has also been linked to lowering heart attacks(6) and shown to help lower blood pressure, especially in postmenopausal women.(7)
Brightly colored blue and purple foods like blueberries, blackberries, and currents, contribute to heart health, regulating blood pressure, and maintaining a healthy weight. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, blue and purple foods also support the nervous system, gut, brain, eyes, and skin. All good reasons to load up on blueberries!
Beware: Berries also top the Dirty Dozen list, so always opt for organic berries. Eating organic frozen berries (easily found at Costco or your local natural foods market), is going to be much healthier for you than eating conventionally grown fresh berries. Of course, if you can find local gardeners or farmers growing berries that are pesticide-free that’s a great option too. Berry skins are thin and like sponges, so any pesticides they come in contact with just get absorbed right into the fruit itself. No bueno!
Mother Nature is so smart…She put the medicine in the food!
While I certainly didn’t love broccoli as a kid (I think it was usually overcooked!), today I can’t get enough of it. Broccoli, when it’s steamed to a vibrant, bright green color, and still a bit crunchy is one of the healthiest things you can eat. And delicious too! Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi, broccolini, and even rutabaga, and turnips) are among the top cancer-fighting vegetables on the planet.
So what makes cruciferous veggies like broccoli in the top list of anti-inflammatory foods? They all contain sulforaphane, a sulfur-containing phytonutrient. There is lots of research being done on the anti-cancer properties of sulforaphane, and it’s very promising.(8)
Sulforaphane is a powerful antioxidant(9), and just like we talked about with blueberries, it helps fight free radicals and prevents damage to our DNA, helping to prevent cancer and other inflammatory diseases.
You can get great health benefits from eating broccoli both cooked and raw — each provides different nutrients. Different cooking methods, including boiling, microwaving, stir-frying and steaming, all alter broccoli’s nutritional composition, and reduce the amount of vitamin C, as well as soluble protein and sugar. Steaming has the fewest negative impacts on nutrients.(10) However, eaten raw or cooked, broccoli is an excellent source of vitamin C. A half cup of cooked broccoli has 84% of the RDI for vitamin C, or more than half an orange!(11)
If you’re looking for ways to include more broccoli into your diet, try this delicious Italian Broccoli recipe from PCC Markets, it’s one of my favs.
Beware: Although there are very few downsides to eating broccoli if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS, or have other issues with your digestive system, consult your healthcare practitioner before adding broccoli to your diet. Because broccoli is very high in fiber it can cause gas and bloating in some people. You can try taking digestive enzymes like these from Divine Nature which I take with each meal and find very beneficial. (Use promo code HAPPY on checkout to save $5 per bottle.)
3. Salmon and Cold Water Fish
Packed with heart-healthy fats, salmon and other cold-water fish like mackerel, and sardines are some of the healthiest foods you can eat. In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans(12), recommends eating a minimum of 8 ounces of cold-water fish per week.
Packed with healthy protein, cold-water fish is also high in healthy omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acids. And cold-water fish contains much higher levels of omega-3s than any other fish.
While we now know that the low-fat diet craze of the ’80s-’90s was bad for our brains and our bodies, not all fats are all created equally. We need healthy fats to survive and thrive. Our brains are 60% fat and need healthy fats like omega 3’s to function properly.
Besides our brains needing healthy fats, omega 3’s can help our inflamed bodies too. They are highly anti-inflammatory and have been successfully used to treat arthritis. So much so that some studies have shown them to be as effective or more so than NSAIDs like Iubroprophen.(13) That’s pretty impressive, considering how NSAIDs are now getting a bad rap for side effects ranging from stomach damage to liver and kidney damage.(14)
Just Say NO to Farmed Fish
Beware: Eating fish can be controversial due to unsustainable overfishing practices and environmental toxins like plastics and PCBs in the water. And eating farmed fish is never a good idea, it’s bad for the planet as well as unhealthy for you. Farmed fish are full of antibiotics and artificial coloring, and the “farming” practices of cultivated fish can harm the ecosystems where the fish are penned. A recent study showed that it takes up to 5 pounds of wild fish to feed 1 pound of farmed salmon.(15) That just doesn’t make good, sustainable sense.
Cold-water fish have higher body fat content, and that’s also where toxins like PCBs can bioaccumulate. So everything in moderation. The dark meat along the spine contains the most toxins, so we always avoid eating that part.
This recipe for Applewood Smoked Salmon and Greens is one of our favorite meals. Serve it with the Italian Broccoli as a side dish, and some fresh blueberries for dessert, and you’ll be well on your way to a super-anti-inflammatory meal!
4. Olive Oil
Olive Oil is another one of my fav foods and one we eat a lot of. My husband Kirk does most of our cooking, and he makes a mean salad dressing for our nightly salads, with olive oil as the base.
Olive oil is another of the top anti-inflammatory foods due to its high content of the monounsaturated fat called oleic acid.(16) Studies show that oleic acid not only reduces inflammation but may also be a great cancer fighter too.(17)
And olive oil is beneficial for the heart as well. Olive oil has been studied extensively with regard to stroke risk. And in a review of studies of 841,000 people, olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat that was associated with reduced risk of stroke and heart disease.(18) Besides protecting against heart disease and stroke, olive oil has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s, Type 2 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions.(19)
Olive oil is a major component in the Mediterranean diet and is one of the reasons that style of eating is so healthy for you. And if you’re a fan of olive oil, you might like this Lemon Olive Oil recipe I picked up in Italy.
Beware: Not all olive oils are created equally. In fact, olive oil is big business for the Mob these days in Italy. And many “olive oils” may actually contain other oils such as canola and soy oil, potentially with added artificial colorings and flavorings to make them look, taste, and smell like ‘real’ olive oil. Check out my post Is Your Olive Oil Fake?, and look for olive oil from California, or Trader Joe’s or Costco brands which all tested as being 100% pure olive oil.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Nuts are another of my favorite foods to snack on. And here again, they contain lots of proteins and high-quality fat to fuel your brain and keep you feeling full and satiated. In fact, Deepak Chopra tells the story that in some parts of India, mothers will send their kids to school with seven almonds in their pockets. When they feel hungry, they eat ONE. They chew it thoroughly and mindfully and savor the flavors and textures. Later on, if they feel hungry again, they will eat another ONE. And seven almonds will get them through the day. Think about that next time you shovel a handful of nuts into your mouth… can you eat just ONE at a time and really appreciate all it has to offer? Try it, you might be surprised.
Nuts contain mostly healthy monounsaturated fat, along with some omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat, and a small amount of saturated fat. The amount varies by type of nut, but in all nuts, their healthy fats far outweigh the less healthy fat. And there are many studies that back up the anti-inflammation benefits of nuts.(20)
So which are the healthiest nuts to eat?
They each have their benefits, and all nuts are anti-inflammatory foods, helping to lower cholesterol and ward off heart disease and other inflammation-based diseases.
Almonds and pistachios help to lower cholesterol and promote weight loss. Walnuts are high in omega-3s, so if you’re vegetarian, vegan or don’t eat fish, walnuts are a great place to get your omega-3s.
Many nuts contain trace minerals that are hard to find in other foods. For example, Brazil nuts are the tops when it comes to selenium, a great mineral for your brain. A 1oz. serving of Brazil nuts has a whopping 988% RDI of selenium! And cashews have been shown to help improve metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Pecans are very high in antioxidants that go after those pesky free radicals and help prevent cancer. Hazelnuts have been shown to improve blood vessel function. And the soluble fiber found in macadamia nuts acts as a prebiotic, fueling the healthy bacteria in your gut, and reducing inflammation. Even peanuts, not a true tree nut, but a “groundnut”, member of the legume (bean) family, have many similar anti-inflammatory benefits as tree nuts.
Any way you look at it, you really can’t go wrong adding nuts to your meals. Try topping salads, or oatmeal, putting them in smoothies, or eating nut butter with celery or apples.
Beware: Nuts, along with legumes and grains are all “seeds” whose job in life is really to sprout and grow a new plant, not be digested. Because of this, they all contain phytic acid, a natural protectant to the nut or seed that helps prevent it from being digested. Eaten in large quantities, phytic acid can impair the absorption of some minerals including iron, zinc, and calcium and can promote mineral deficiencies.(21) Because of this, it’s best to eat dry roasted nuts. Or if you prefer raw nuts soak them in water overnight. Both the dry roasting process and soaking in water break down the phytic acid, making their nutrients more bio-available.
Ok, so I’ve already mentioned that a few of these top anti-inflammatory foods are my favorites, but really, who doesn’t love a good avocado?! I’m grateful to be living in Mexico where they are readily available and still relatively inexpensive. And I typically eat a whole avocado every day.
Avocados are one of the healthiest fats you can eat. And interestingly, they also contain the most protein of any fruit, and over 20 vitamins and minerals. Plus an avocado contains more potassium than a banana! And their fat content helps to absorb other fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K too.
They are high in antioxidants, and also help promote heart health, weight loss, prevent cancer, and boost brain health. And if that weren’t enough, avocados have also been shown to help lower the risk of depression, prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, plus, one recent study showed that avocados contain antibacterial properties that can actually help prevent foodborne illnesses.(22) Now that’s impressive! Who’s ready to make some guac?!
Beware: If you’re allergic to latex, talk to your health care provider before adding avocado to your diet. Allergic cross-reactivity can occur when the proteins in one substance are similar to the proteins found in another substance. Some people with a serious allergy to latex can experience allergic reactions after eating avocado.
So now that you know the top six anti-inflammatory foods (and a few things to look out for), check out some of my recipes I linked to and eat up. Buen provecho. In Part 2 we’ll take a look at the next six foods in the top 12 list of anti-inflammatory foods.
Please share with your friends and family so they can eat an anti-inflammatory diet too. And leave a comment to share your favorite recipe using one of these anti-inflammatory foods.
Photo credit: Joanna Kosinska, Unsplash.com