Top 10 anti-inflammatory foods
Do foods offer anti-inflammatory benefits and, if so, which should top your shopping list? Registered nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains all and reveals her favourite choices.
What is inflammation?
Whether you have a sports injury, suffer with a condition like arthritis or have an infection, your body will respond with an inflammatory reaction. This is a natural immune response and helps your body defend itself, protect you from infection and minimise tissue damage following injury. However, issues arise when this inflammation becomes low-grade and long-term – it’s then that a process designed to protect you can actually go on to cause disease and poor health.
What are anti-inflammatory foods?
While no food has sufficient, substantive evidence to carry an approved ‘anti-inflammatory’ health claim, studies suggest that certain ingredients may help, at least in part, to manage the effects of inflammation.
These foods contain components like plant chemicals that have protective properties, or beneficial oils that help inhibit some of the effects of inflammation. Eating a varied diet that incorporates these foods may prove helpful.
In addition to this, and as our knowledge evolves, an increasing amount of evidence supports a link between not just what we eat but also our gut microbiome.
Can some foods cause inflammation?
Yes, experts believe certain foods, including ultra-processed foods like fast food and refined carbs, as well as some ready meals and processed meats, do promote inflammation. Food and drinks high in sugar, including fizzy drinks and foods that have been deep-fried, are also linked with the inflammatory process.
Top 10 anti-inflammatory foods:
- Oily fish
- Dark chocolate
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Olives and olive oil
- Avocado and avocado oil
- Green tea
1. Oily fish
Loaded with health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids, these varieties of fish, like sardines, salmon, trout and herring, have been associated with reductions in a key marker of inflammation called C-reactive protein (CRP).
Famed for their heart-healthy benefits, these omega-3 fatty acids are particularly useful for those at risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as other inflammatory diseases. That’s because our bodies break these fatty acids down into compounds called resolvins and protectins that help manage inflammation. These compounds limit our inflammatory response and sweep away damaged cells.
2. Dark chocolate
High-cocoa dark chocolate is not just delicious, it's also rich in protective plant compounds known as polyphenols and catechins. (One study compared dark chocolate and cocoa powder to 'super fruits' and concluded that chocolate is richer in these protective compounds than the famed blueberry.)
Being one of the most valuable sources of flavonols (a type of polyphenol), dark chocolate makes a heart-friendly option that may help inhibit gut inflammation. This is because flavonols have a beneficial effect on the bacteria that live in our gut (known as the gut microbiota). However, to be sure, opt for chocolate with at least an 85% cocoa content.
Strawberries, blueberries and blackberries are another source of protective plant compounds. As well as being responsible for the berry’s rich colours, these compounds act as antioxidants, which means they help fight the damaging effects of an everyday process called oxidation, a natural process that can lead to inflammation. Berries are also rich in vitamins like vitamin C, which itself has a protective anti-inflammatory action.
Juicy and jewel-like, pomegranates are packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre. The juice boasts an antioxidant activity three times higher than red wine or green tea and, with these credentials, you can expect some pretty impressive anti-inflammatory properties, too.
In fact, numerous studies have assessed the fruit’s anti-inflammatory benefits, with one suggesting it may help fight inflammation in the gut. Another assessed its impact on breast cancer cells, and a small trial of patients with type-2 diabetes showed fewer inflammatory markers after 12 weeks of consuming pomegranate juice.
More recent studies are underway to examine the effects of pomegranate juice on the inflammatory markers of patients hospitalised with Covid-19.
5. Walnuts and walnut oil
Walnuts are one of the most important dietary sources of plant compounds known as polyphenols, including one particular one called ellagic acid; they also provide high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Both of these are known to benefit your brain, help it work more effectively and improve nerve messaging.
Vitamin E and folate also contribute to these protective and memory-enhancing properties.
Of all the tree nuts, walnuts are the richest in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. No surprise then that eating walnuts helps manage cholesterol levels and reduces the inflammatory markers connected with heart disease.
6. Olives and olive oil
A staple of the Mediterranean diet and rich in beneficial mono-unsaturated fats like oleic acid, olives and their oil have been associated with reducing inflammation and lowering the inflammatory marker CRP.
Famed for its heart-friendly benefits, extra virgin olive oil is believed to be especially beneficial. Rich in a plant compound called oleocanthal, studies suggest extra virgin olive oil shares a similar pharmacological activity to the pain reliever ibuprofen.
With a warm, earthy flavour, this brilliant-coloured spice is a popular curry ingredient and is thought to be one of the reasons why the population of India has a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s. Containing the active compound curcumin, turmeric appears to alleviate the inflammation associated with a number of chronic conditions, as well as day-to-day injuries like exercise-induced muscle soreness.
8. Avocado and avocado oil
Adding avocado to your diet has been seen to be associated with better diet quality, lower BMI and a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome – an inflammatory condition that increases your risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and stroke.
9. Pistachio nuts
Pistachios are rich in fibre, healthy fats and protective antioxidants, so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be a useful addition to an anti-inflammatory diet. That’s partly thanks to the plant compounds that give pistachios their attractive green and purple colour. Of all the tree nuts, pistachios are particularly high in these compounds (lutein and anthocyanin).
10. Green tea
Rich in polyphenols that are known to protect the body against disease, it’s no surprise that green tea has numerous health benefits, many of which are attributed to these plant compounds. The main bioactive constituents in green tea are called flavonoids, with the most potent being catechins and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
Overall, are anti-inflammatory foods worth adding to your diet?
Even low levels of inflammation on a consistent basis may have the potential to lead to disease. Adding a variety of whole foods that are brightly coloured, rich in beneficial oils or other helpful nutrients may help to keep inflammation in check. In addition to this, minimise your intake of ultra-processed foods, keep stress levels low and maintain your activity levels.
This article was reviewed by Kerry Torrens on 15 September 2023.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Follow Kerry on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_