Smart fuel for your body: What to eat and what to avoid to keep inflammation at bay

Inflammation is a natural process in the body. Acute inflammation is what happens when we’re injured: swelling or redness triggered by your body’s efforts to heal itself and ward off potential infection. But when inflammation becomes chronic, such as in arthritis or COPD, it can become damaging to our health.

One way to help your body keep inflammation in check is to take a closer look at the food you’re eating. Many of our favorite foods can actually contribute to inflammation, and can lead to more serious health issues down the road like heart disease and diabetes.

Luckily, there are plenty of delicious foods ready to step up to the literal and figurative plate.

Let’s start with foods to avoid:

  • Refined Carbs. These aren’t fancy carbs, but rather carbs that are stripped of fiber. Carbohydrates rich in fiber are actually quite good for you. Refined carbs include white bread, white rice, and many pastries, pizza doughs, and breakfast cereals. Some easy swaps for these include nutrient-rich wheat breads, brown rice, cauliflower pizza crusts, and fiber-rich cereals. 
  • Fried food. Fried food might be delicious, but for the most part, that’s where the benefits stop. Try to avoid this food category, and save it for special occasions like the fair or a baseball game.
  • Sweetened beverages. You already know that soda isn’t good for you, but juice is also a sneaky culprit in this category. It’s actually the sugar in these beverages that lands it on the inflammatory list. Instead of orange juice or soda, try drinking a seltzer beverage for the same thirst-quenching and bubbly effect.
  • Red meat and processed meat. Sorry bacon lovers, but this includes you, too. Burgers, hot dogs, pepperoni, lunch meat, jerky, the list goes on. As WebMD put it, “if you smoke it, salt it, cure it, or add preservatives to it, it’s probably processed.” In addition to causing inflammation, processed meats are also linked to higher incidences of coronary heart disease and diabetes. So what kind of meat can you eat, you might be asking? Chicken, turkey, and fish, so long as they haven’t been altered from their natural state, are all considered “white meats” and are OK when it comes to inflammation. But be sure to check the label. 
  • Margarine, shortening, and lard. Best to avoid. Stick with olive oil. 

If these are some of your favorite foods, you’re not alone. They can elicit strong craving responses. Cutting foods completely out of your diet is often a quick way to slide back into a craving cycle, so start by limiting how often you have these foods. If you’re having a soda every day, try to start by cutting back to only three sodas a week, reducing from there.

Avoiding these foods can be tough if you live far from a grocery or have kids with picky palates. The good news? There are plenty of great foods to eat that are actually anti-inflammatories.

Some of the best options to add to your grocery cart:

  • Fruit. Strawberries, oranges, blueberries, cherries — fruits are your friend. These are full of the fiber that helps keep inflammation in check. And throwing some frozen strawberries or blueberries into a cold glass of seltzer water can make for a nice summer treat. 
  • Olive oil. While it might seem like a surprise, there are indeed anti-inflammatory benefits from virgin olive oil. It’s also a great replacement for margarine and the like. Plus, replacing trans and saturated fats in your diet (like butter) with olive oil may lower your risk of heart disease
  • Leafy green vegetables. Don’t skip this one! Give leafy greens a chance! While spinach, kale, and other leafy greens get a bad rap as “rabbit food,” they can also be delicious. There are plenty of recipes dedicated to making these foods scrumptious, and some are as easy as throwing them in a pan with a little olive oil, lemon, and salt. Give it a shot for your health. You might like it!
  • Nuts. Eating nuts regularly has been “associated with lower concentrations of some peripheral inflammation markers.” Walnuts, almonds, cashews… as the saying goes, go nuts.
  • Tomatoes. Tomatoes, all on their own, are a great anti-inflammatory. And grape tomatoes make for a convenient and easy snack. For something a little more savory, you can slice tomatoes and drizzle them with olive oil, and season with a dusting of salt and pepper.

Changing your diet can be challenging, but the health benefits are robust and include everything from more energy to a longer life. A little bit of indulgence is not a failure. Just keep making small adjustments on your way to making larger ones, and you’ll be taking very important steps to a healthier you.