anti-inflammatory foods versus inflammatory foods

Giovanna Pineda/KCM

It’s less scary than it sounds, and it might even help you live longer.

Are you tired all the time? Do you get sick often or suffer from constant stomach aches? It could be because of the foods and drinks you’re consuming. Most of the American diet is filled with junk that causes inflammation in our bodies. Think red meat, dairy, sugary drinks (like alcohol or soda), and processed snacks and carbs like donuts and pizza.

Consistently eating highly inflammatory foods causes your immune system to go haywire — your body starts to overwork, questioning whether each ingredient or chemical you’re intaking is safe or harmful. And that can lead to serious and chronic health conditions including cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, and more, according to a report by Harvard. Not finding time for self-care and constantly living in a state of frenzy can also flare up our bodies’ inflammatory response.

Luckily, there are a few simple and wholesome swaps you can make to calm down your body’s internal workings and start feeling better. And once you do start incorporating more healthy (and less inflammatory) foods into your diet, it only takes a couple of weeks to start feeling better, according to Molly Lee, a board-certified holistic nutritionist and author of Energizing Nutrition: A New Food Paradigm.

“When we’re out of balance or feel low-energy, those are helpful signals that we need to try something different,” says Lee. “Seemingly simple shifts, like drinking more water or getting out for a walk even if it’s once or twice a week, can create a balancing effect in a short amount of time.”

And while it might be easier to munch on a bag of pretzels instead of cutting up a bowl of fresh fruit, it’s harder for your body to digest those more processed temptations. “Highly inflammatory foods like sugar, dairy (especially cow’s milk), meat (especially red meat), and processed and chemicalized foods are all very acidic,” says Lee. “Too much acidity can cause an inflammatory condition in the body. When you have too many acidic foods and not enough alkaline foods like fruits and vegetables, that can lead to digestive issues, arthritis, and more serious diseases.”

We chatted with Lee to get more nutritionist-approved tips on how to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods into your diet, and the benefits of eating more wholesome, natural, and organic foods.

Supplement your main dish with some anti-inflammatory foods

For starters, learn which foods are anti-inflammatory. Green leafy vegetables (like spinach, arugula, and kale), fruits (like berries, cherries, oranges, and tomatoes), olive oil, nuts and seeds (like almonds, walnuts, and chia), and organic wild-caught fish (like tuna and salmon) are all a great place to start.

At your next meal, whether you’re cooking or ordering in, try adding one of these immune-boosting foods to your plate. If you’re not ready to give up a delicious steak just yet, that’s OK, too. Just opt for a side of fresh veggies or salad instead of truffle fries or mashed potatoes. “The key is balance,” says Lee. “Having some broccoli with a steak is better than eating just the steak itself, and broccoli is naturally detoxifying”

Another simple way to get your greens is to add them to a smoothie. “Most people know about green, leafy vegetables — they’re definitely superfoods and they’re some of the top anti-inflammatory foods. Throw them in your smoothie with blueberries, which are high in antioxidants and another one of the top anti-inflammatory foods.”

Try out other sources of protein besides red meat

“People often ask, ‘If I don’t eat as much meat, especially red meat or animal protein, what can I substitute that with in terms of adding proteins that are less inflammatory?’” says Lee. Seeds, nuts, and legumes are a great place to start. “Chia seeds help with digestion, but they’re also anti-inflammatory.” You can sprinkle a scoop over a salad or drop some into your water bottle, Lee says.

And if you love eating animal proteins, try to make sure you’re sourcing free-range or grass-fed options. “The benefit of that is instead of grains, ideally the animals are eating grass, which is higher in the good fats and less inflammatory. And they’re also less saturated in fat because, hopefully, the animals are able to exercise more.”

Increase your water intake when you’re drinking alcohol

If you enjoy a glass of red wine while you binge-watch TV, remember to supplement each glass with one or two glasses of water, says Lee. “Too much alcohol is inflammatory. I tell my clients to drink a glass of water before, during, and after, or have a glass of water after each glass of alcohol. It makes a difference,” says Lee. “If you’re going to drink, balance it out, just like you do with vegetables at your meal.”

Opt for plant-based milk instead of regular milk

“Cow’s milk products are not easily digestible and can be a trigger for inflammatory responses such as IBS, stomach distress, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and even acne,” says Lee. There are plenty of alternative plant-based milks (these lack the enzymes in cow’s milk products that cause inflammation) widely available in grocery stores across the country (and even in Starbucks!), like oat and almond milk. “For some of my clients, once they reduce dairy, it clears up their skin and they’re not bloated anymore,” says Lee. But if you’re not ready to give up dairy products like yogurt, try finding an organic locally-produced yogurt you love (they’re usually less processed and higher quality), or fermented Kefir as an alternative, Lee suggests.

Don’t forget to find time to relax

Stressful situations like working in a toxic environment, mourning the loss of a loved one, or worrying about your endless to-do list can also cause the body to become inflamed. “Nutrition is only half the equation,” says Lee. “In today’s society, a lot of people are anxious because of the pandemic, feel angry reading the news about the war, or are overworking and not sleeping well. Too much stress, anxiety, and depression can be inflammatory.” Meditating, gentle yoga, walking in nature, or any type of exercise that truly brings you joy are great ways to cool the body down.

“Whatever helps the body relax and release tension and stress is anti-inflammatory,” says Lee. “You’re giving your body an opportunity to heal, recover, and balance.”

The information provided on this site isn’t intended as medical advice, and shouldn’t replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor with any serious health concerns.

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