Chronic inflammation can lead to health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Researchers developed the Dietary Inflammatory Index to track which diets cause the most inflammation.
The creator of the Index shared 6 anti-inflammatory foods to incorporate into your diet.
Dr. James Hébert, director of the University of South Carolina's Cancer Prevention and Control Program, has spent the last several decades of his career studying inflammation. In 2004, he invented the Dietary Inflammatory Index, a way of scoring diets based on how they trigger inflammation in the body.
Up until the development of the DII, "there was really no way to quantify the effect of diet on inflammation," Hébert said.
Inflammation can be good for your body in small doses. When you get sick or are injured, your immune system kicks into high gear to kill and remove a foreign invader or start healing the injury — a process that creates inflammation. Once the invader is gone or the injury is repaired, the inflammation goes away.
But chronic inflammation — inflammation that persists for months or even years— can damage healthy cells. It can also increase the likelihood of developing diseases like Type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, heart disease, and asthma.
Diet can play a key role in inflammation. Foods that are white, colorless, and lack in flavor — like sugars, white bread, and potatoes without skin — can contribute to chronic inflammation, Hébert told Business Insider.
But luckily, the right foods can also prevent and reduce chronic inflammation.
"Foods that are anti-inflammatory are flavorful, they're colorful, they're nutrient dense — they have a lot of nutrients in them — and they tend to be calorie sparse," Hébert said.
Here are 6 anti-inflammatory foods to incorporate into your diet.
Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring, are rich in omega-3s and have excellent anti-inflammatory properties.
"If I didn't eat a lot of fish, I'd probably consider taking fish oil," Hébert said.
Like fish, nuts are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants and magnesium, which can also help reduce inflammation.
Spices have excellent anti-inflammatory properties, according to Hébert.
As a general rule of thumb, the stronger-smelling and more flavorful the spice, the better anti-inflammatory properties, Hébert said.
Some great anti-inflammatory spices include garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, and cardamom.
Hébert swirls several different spices like ginger, turmeric, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and star anise into a Masala chai tea that he drinks daily for its anti-inflammatory properties.
4. Leafy, green vegetables
Vegetables are excellent anti-inflammatory foods, Hébert said. The reason that vegetables are particularly anti-inflammatory is because they typically contain less sugar than fruits.
Leafy greens like kale and spinach are rich in vitamin K, which may decrease the likelihood of developing some chronic diseases.
Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, are also a great option. Cruciferous vegetables are a staple of the cuisine in Sardinia, Italy — one of the world's Blue Zones — and are full of nutrients like vitamins A and C, as well as polyphenols, which have antioxidant benefits.
5. Pigmented fruits
While the "sweetness of fruit is somewhat pro-inflammatory," Hébert said, fruits on the whole are still necessary for health and can help reduce inflammation.
Hébert especially recommends fruits that are highly pigmented — think blackberries, blueberries, and grapes — because the phytochemicals responsible for pigment, like anthocyanins, are anti-inflammatory.
"Anything that's highly pigmented will be anti-inflammatory — you can take that to the bank," Hébert said.
Some other great options include stone fruits like peaches and plums, pomegranates, and apples, according to Harvard Health.
6. Extra virgin olive oil
Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet — and boasts good anti-inflammatory properties.
To maximize anti-inflammatory benefits, Hébert recommends looking for extra virgin olive oil. Younger olive oil tends to be richer in phytochemicals, which have antioxidant properties and may help prevent chronic diseases.
If the olive oil feels "a little raspy," and "it catches you in the back of your throat," Hébert said, "that's a sign that it's very phytochemical rich."
Don't stress about cutting out foods — think about what to add in
Don't worry too much about skipping inflammatory foods, Hébert said.
"I'll tell people don't worry about what foods to avoid," Hébert said. Instead, focus on eating a varied diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods. "They're going to displace other foods."
For example, Hébert eats regular white pasta. But to make his meal more nutritious and anti-inflammatory, he also adds a homemade pesto made with basil fresh from his garden.
"My attitude is to feel good inside your body," he said.
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