Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Jan

My Top 6 Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Before I begin, let me preface this post with the identification of a simple confounder for everyone to consider as they read: context. Any discussion of a concept as nebulous, multifaceted, and confusing as inflammation must integrate the question of context. Inflammation itself is highly contextual – as I’ve discussed in previous installments, there are times when inflammation is a good thing and times when inflammation is a negative thing. There are also times when anti-inflammatory actions, drugs, or foods are negatives, even though “anti-inflammatory” has a positive connotation. If you blunt the post-exercise inflammatory response with an anti-inflammatory drug, for example, you also run the risk of blunting the positive effects of that workout.

We must also pay attention to acute and systemic inflammation when discussing the desirability of an “anti-inflammatory” food. Eating a big meal tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. If you’re overeating every single meal, this is problematic; the acute will become the norm – the chronic. If you’re eating big after a massive workout session, or because you’re celebrating at an amazing restaurant with your dearest friends, or because you’re coming off a twenty-four hour IF, it’s fine. Context.

Eating high glycemic foods, namely refined carbohydrates that digest quickly and represent a big, instantly-available caloric load, tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. Again, if you’re pounding bags of chips or white bread while sitting on the couch and the only walking you’ve done all day is to the pantry, those high glycemic foods will be inflammatory (to say nothing of the antinutrients in the bread or the rancid vegetable oil in the chips). And if you do the same thing on a regular basis, they will induce systemic inflammation – or at least continuous acute spikes that mimic systemic inflammation. If you’re eating a fast-digesting, high-glycemic white potato after your glycogen-depleting sprint workout, you will refill your insulin-sensitive muscles and the subsequent inflammatory spike will be either nonexistent or nothing to worry about. Competitive athletes probably thrive on high glycemic foods, couch potatoes develop metabolic syndrome eating the same things. Context.

Many people find dairy to be inflammatory. I’m (sort of) one of them. I’ll readily eat butter, put cream in coffee, slice quality cheeses, and have a cup of Greek yogurt, but a tall glass of store-bought milk doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t have to run to the toilet or anything; I just don’t feel as good as I did before the glass of milk. Is milk, then, “inflammatory”? It could be, for me (though perhaps a glass of raw A2 cow, goat or sheep milk would have a different effect). It may not be for you. Dairy certainly wasn’t inflammatory for this group of adult men with metabolic syndrome, nor for this group of pregnant women. For both groups, the inclusion of dairy had an anti-inflammatory effect. That doesn’t mean dairy is inherently anti-inflammatory; it might just mean that dairy was better than whatever it replaced. Context.

So when I begin to rattle off my list of anti-inflammatory foods, keep these confounders in mind. Realize that what’s good for the chronically-inflamed, vegetable oil-guzzling goose may not be as crucial for the sprightly, sardine-slurping gander. If you’ve got a casein allergy, even the Maasai-iest dairy will be inflammatory. But what follows is a list (plus scientific references where applicable) of foods I’ve personally found to be anti-inflammatory. Since I don’t carry around a CRP-ometer, I’ve tried to include references if available.

Wild Fish Fat

Whether you get it through molecularly-distilled oil, deep-red wild sockeye, raw oysters, or by exclusively eating pastured animal products, omega-3s are required for a healthy inflammatory response. I feel off when I haven’t eaten any fish for a week or so, but eating salmon more than three days in a row doesn’t really work, either, because too much omega-3 is similarly problematic (shoot for between a 3:1 and 1:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3). I can tell I’ve gone too long without fish fat when my arthritis starts to sneak up on me. The advice for reducing omega-6 across the board holds steady, of course, but everyone needs some form of fish fat. Another bonus is that it usually comes with healthy fish flesh, skin, bones, and sea minerals.

Omega-3 status is inversely associated with CRP in men. The higher the omega-3, the lower the systemic inflammation.

Daily fish oil for six months reduced inflammation in patients with metabolic syndrome and especially those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Delivering a “fish-fat” emulsion intravenously to patients with systemic inflammatory response syndrome had anti-inflammatory and liver-protective effects.

Pastured Animal Fat

I was going to list grass-fed dairy, grass-fed beef/lamb, and pastured egg yolks as separate categories, but reconsidered. As I mentioned in my post on human interference factor, the unperturbed animals raised in relative harmony with their ancestry make the best, healthiest, least inflammatory food, while stressed-out animals raised in evolutionarily-novel conditions and on evolutionarily-novel feed make unhealthier and more inflammatory food. The important factor is that your animal fat comes from pastured animals who ate grass, that the chickens who laid your eggs ate grass and bugs and grains/seeds lower in omega-6. Pastured ruminant and dairy fat contains more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (PDF), an anti-inflammatory trans fatty acid, and pastured eggs contain more micronutrients and more omega-3 fats.

In one study, people with the highest levels of dairy-derived CLA in their tissues had the fewest heart attacks.

Eggs from chickens on a high-omega-6 diet were higher in omega-6, and they increased oxidized LDL in people who ate them.

Read this post to learn why getting CLA from dairy and animal fat is better than getting it from supplements.

Red Palm Oil

After treating red palm oil as more of an intellectual curiosity than a culinary tool for years, it has really grown on me. Lately, I’ve been tossing cubed, steamed butternut squash with red palm oil, sea salt, black pepper, cayenne, and turmeric. It’s an interesting taste, but it definitely works (and it’s a good dish for vegetarians, too). Roasting veggies in it is good as well, as is a spoonful on top of those white Japanese sweet potatoes (the starchier, not-so-sweet ones). Enough about taste, though – red palm oil is incredibly dense with antioxidants. Full spectrum vitamin E, CoQ10, vitamin A, and vitamin K, all incredibly important in maintaining antioxidant status, all make appearances.

When compared to the treasured monounsaturated fat, palm oil (high in saturated fat) greatly reduced oxidized LDL in humans. And that was refined palm oil. I suspect unrefined red palm oil, with all nutrients intact, would perform even better.

Cruciferous Vegetables

Pretty much every list of “Top 10 Anti-Inflammatory Foods” contains broccoli or cauliflower or kale or cabbage, but I thought I’d one-up those writers and include them all. I probably eat cruciferous vegetables five, sometimes seven times a week, mostly because they taste good but also because they contain helpful compounds like sulforaphane.

Broccoli lowered colonic inflammation in mice.

Red cabbage reduced oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation.

Sulforaphane reduced inflammation in arteries.


Although blueberries top most anti-inflammatory food lists (I’ve even seen Kaiser Permanente ads on the sides of buses that feature massive photos of glistening blueberries), and for good reason, I think the other berries get left out. Let’s face it, though – there isn’t really a bad berry out there. I don’t put a lot of faith in the superfruit phenomenon (though I’m sure goji berries are perfectly healthy), but berries are just solid guys to have in your diet. They’re delicious. They’re low in sugar. They’re high in surface area, which means lots of skin and all the antioxidants and phenolics that come with it (but go organic for that same reason). They’re colorful, which means lots of bioactive pigments.

In men and women with metabolic syndrome, blueberries improved the related biomarkers, including markers of inflammation like oxidized LDL and serum malondialdehyde.

Preliminary evidence suggests that blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries can ameliorate metabolic syndrome through modulation of inflammation.


If you haven’t developed a taste for turmeric, I suggest you get on it. It is a potent anti-inflammatory spice, which protects against oxidation of dietary fats during cooking and against oxidative stress in the body after being eaten. You could go straight for the powerful stuff and simply take curcumin, the most active component of turmeric, but I’d suggest using the whole spice itself. That’s how it’s been used for thousands of years, and you’d miss out on the incredible flavor and color it provides otherwise. Somehow I doubt crumbling up curcumin pills would have the same culinary effect.

Turmeric beat both ginger and an anti-inflammatory drug for treating arthritis (I’ve had similar results).

Turmeric also upregulates LDL receptor activity. If you remember from past posts on inflammation, poor LDL receptor activity can leave LDL particles open and vulnerable to oxidation from inflammatory processes.

If you’re interested in reading more about the distinct health benefits of turmeric, check out my older post.

That’s what I’ve got. Dozens of other foods are perfectly healthy – staples, even – but the preceding foods are the ones that I find downright therapeutic. What about you? In the comment section, let me and everyone else hear about your favorite anti-inflammatory foods.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I’ve developed a taste to Tumeric all over my omelette made of pastured eggs.

    richard wrote on January 25th, 2012
  2. Penzey’s has a Bicentennial Rub that is fabulous on poultry and contains tumeric. This might work great for beginners on tumeric! I think it is the black pepper that really combines well.

    Rachel Ernst wrote on January 25th, 2012
  3. Dear Mark,
    What no Robbie Burns day article?! No Primal Haggis recipe? No recap on single malt whiskey? I was certain I would see this as the post today, well maybe next year! Well, regardless, Slainte!

    Lippy wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • @Lippy, do dheagh shlàinte. I had haggis in BC, Canada a few years ago. Have to say, it wasn’t bad. Might make for an interesting post one day. OTOH, the malt whiskey is out of my wheelhouse.

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 25th, 2012
  4. Anyone have any tips for getting turmeric out of fabric? I was driving the other day and spilled some curry on my favorite shirt and soap+water isn’t cutting it.

    Justin wrote on January 25th, 2012
  5. I love palm oil. Are there any brands you would recommend which are environmentally safe. I have read that rain forest is being cut for palm plantations and the concerns me.

    Hatsunohana wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • Tropical Traditions. They have information on the website about their palm oil being sustainable.

      Sabrina wrote on January 25th, 2012
      • Sabrina,

        Thanks very much! I love palm oil and will look at Tropical Traditions website.


        Hatsunohana wrote on January 26th, 2012
  6. Hey Mark (and Grokkers),

    Can you tell me why having Salmon every day is a bad thing? I buy Trader Joe’s BPA-free canned salmon and have it in a nice big salad for lunch most days per week. Please let me know when you can; I want to make sure to fix something if I’m hurting myself!


    Daniel wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • @Daniel, probably not a “bad” thing, but why not branch out a bit?

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 25th, 2012
      • Thanks Mark! I just find it so good. I try to mix it up with sardines or, less frequently, tuna. I keep the real meats for dinner time when I get home from the office. And I tend to snack on eggs and chicken/turkey. So fish is what I’m left with for lunchtime.

        Daniel wrote on January 25th, 2012
        • My mother ate canned salmon every day for a year or so and ending up developing an intolerance to it–she couldn’t eat it at all for more than a year after, without feeling quite sick. Now she can manage it say once a month.

          I guess the fact that we evolved with food that varied throughout the year is something to consider.

          Jen wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • Makes a difference what the source of the salmon is – farmed or wild caught. I don’t know which Trader Joe’s canned salmon is. Reason is – mercury and other contaminants.

      Sardines are usually relatively free of contaminants because they are low on the food chain. The higher you go on the food chain, the more concentrated the contaminants become.

      Likewise, the fattier the fish the more the potential contaminants.

      Some form of tuna are better than others in this regard. Albacore is not as good as light tuna.

      If you eat enough mercury contaminated fish on a regular basis you can do neurological damage to yourself – and end up needing chelation therapy to detox. So, its best to (1) have a comprehensive and reliable list of fish/seafood sources with regard to contaminants; and, (2) buy from producers who use reliable testing methods.

      I even follow these guidelines for my pets, who only eat biologically appropriate foods certified fit for human consumption – including lots of fresh water and salt water fish. In other words, my pets are primal, too.

      rrustad wrote on January 25th, 2012
      • Thank you for this incredibly informative post.

        Trader Joe’s canned salmon (at least the kind I buy) is wild caught; and the cans are BPA free. I’m going to do my best to limit my intake to 3 or less times per week, regardless.

        Thanks for the help.

        Daniel wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • You’re welcome, Daniel. Three servings of (safe) salmon a week is great. Two is minimal if its your only fish intake. Less than two is OK if you’re also eating other sources of seafood.

          Salmon oil is a great way to boost Omega 3 and can be used daily if its a certified safe source.

          I also agree with Mark about diversity in our food sources – for several reasons. Its good to get an assortment of food sources for a wider range of proteins and micronutrients, for one.

          rrustad wrote on January 26th, 2012
  7. My friend told me ever since his mom used turmeric, her pains went away.

    cintronbrandon wrote on January 25th, 2012
  8. I had a co-worker from India who swore by a concoction of raw tumeric(tough to find. I only found whole dried tumeric in an Indian grocery store)lemon juice and grated ginger. He said he has a “shot” of it every morning as soon as he wakes up. He swears it will help cure almost anything. I just started it. We’ll see.
    by the way, in the tumeric tea, try grating the ginger. It works really well.

    Roseann Pairo wrote on January 25th, 2012
  9. I love fatty fish and berries!!!! not together, but they are both so yummy. recently made up a asian inspired sardine recipe with broccoli. so good and easy to make!

    Sarah wrote on January 25th, 2012
  10. I really love you webpage Mark. I have a similar page in Swedish, but more focused on recipes and as well about natural food and natural exercise and am about to start another one in English. Hopefully I will be able to launch it before the end of February.

    Will be happy to receive your feedback if you have time as you are a big source of inspiration and knowledge.

    Best Regards

    Max Gustaf Segerström wrote on January 25th, 2012
  11. Mark — you mention that you can get too much Omega 3. What are the symptoms of that? I eat a lot of grass fed meats, chicken and eggs, but my Dr. (who is also on Paleo diet) suggested that I should supplement with 3000mg of fish oil/day to address some arthritis like symptoms. She felt that even though I eat a lot of grass fed meats, the likelihood of getting enough Omega 3 was still slim.

    My arthritis has reduced some, but I also started taking Zyflamend (a blend of turmeric, cinnamon and some other anti-inflamatory herbs) also on Dr’s advice.

    So if one does get too much Omega 3, what would the symptoms or problems be?

    Jeff wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • @Jeff, the first priority is to get O-6 down. Once you’ve handled that, you can increase O-3s a bit. 3,000 mgs a day of fish oil is probably not going to be too much for most people, even if you get some from other sources. Especially if you are looking for added anti-inflammation support. The possible “danger” of too much intake of all PUFA’s combined is the inherent instability of them, making them more prone to oxidation. So if they are floating around in excess in the bloodstream or in cell membranes, beyond what you require for optimum health, that could pose a problem. There is probably an optimum dose range, and it’s probably a wide range, and it’s unlikely you would exceed that with only 3,000 mgs fish oil a day (of which maybe half is actually the EPA and DHA you seek).

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 25th, 2012
    • Jeff –

      Lucky you having a doctor like that! I wonder if there is a referral list for doctors who understand the paleo/primal/ancestral lifestyle? If there isn’t, there should be! How did you find your doctor?

      rrustad wrote on January 25th, 2012
      • I found her off of Robb Wolf’s Dr. Network site (forget the official name at the moment). I live just north of NYC and she is a bit further north than I am. Unfortunately our health insurance just got switched and wouldn’t you know it my Dr is not on the new plan.

        Jeff wrote on January 27th, 2012
  12. Great post Mark. Funny I was just posting about how I’ve overcome acid reflux and an over sensitive stomach by giving up milk and the little amount of gluten I did eat. For the SUPERHUMAN30 we had to give up milk, but I’m not sure I will go back for the rest of 2012 and beyond! Will try to gain that taste for turmeric 😉

    Tony Frezza wrote on January 25th, 2012
  13. Has anyone ever tried tumeric tea?? very good with a sport of honey, or infused with a few slices of fresh ginger

    Sarah wrote on January 25th, 2012
  14. Red palm oil on Jap sweet pots sounds GREAT!! Now I have a use for it… have a whole thing of it in the pantry but it has a strong flavor and doesn’t really go with much..

    Meagan wrote on January 25th, 2012
  15. I’m going to try out red palm oil very soon. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Daniel Wallen wrote on January 25th, 2012
  16. As someone who suffers from leaky gut syndrome, I’ll put half a teaspoon of turmeric in a 4 ounce glass of water and just drink it. That or cayenne. It may not be the taste-treat of the century but it makes me feel so much better.

    Great article!


    Jaime A. Heidel wrote on January 25th, 2012
  17. Recently I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia checking out a job offer from International Medical University. On the way from the airport to the city, my taxi driver, after learning of my health care background, spent most of the drive telling me about how he moonlighted as a healer, using plants to cure many ailments. He pointed to the dense growth of palm trees along the freeway and said the oil from the trees was one of best sources of medicine. One look and it was obvious that the sides of the freeway were thick with Red Palm trees, which I knew to be rich in anti-inflammatory oil. My taxi driver was on to something.

    Ringo Gato wrote on January 25th, 2012
  18. I find wheat/gluten followed by cows milk dairy products are the most inflammatory for me. (Sheep/goat dairy is OK every once and a while.)

    Curcumin/tumeric is the best anti-inflammatory for me but if there’s any wheat in my diet, no anti-inflammatory will help.

    Jen wrote on January 25th, 2012
  19. Off Topic Note –

    A new study suggests that cold temperature is especially effective for fat burning (big surprise ?). Anyway, Woo Hoo! for exercising outside right now in the Northern Hemisphere!

    ABC World News had a story tonight on the effects of 39 degree (Fahrenheit) prolonged (3 hour) exposure on the human body. Evidently, the brown fat was activated for extra heat resulting in a sedentary burn of 350 calories – or the equivalent of 30 minutes jogging.

    Gonna see if I can find the actual study. I feel motivated to get outside more now.

    rrustad wrote on January 25th, 2012
  20. While all the food entries in this post are enticing, the one that tops my “must try” list right now is the Red Palm oil. (And, yeah I bet there will be a run on Tropical Traditions LOL). What particularly caught my eye was the “full spectrum vitamin E” source.

    So important to balance all forms of E. Many (even high grade) supplements only provide d-alpha tocopherol. Evidently, research is now indicating that unbalanced E poses potential health risks.

    rrustad wrote on January 25th, 2012
  21. Would this anti-inflammatory foods be a good idea to eat while recovering from surgery? Or is the inflammation a necessity?

    Gio wrote on January 25th, 2012
  22. Kale chiffonade in stew or soup. YUM

    Mary Anne wrote on January 26th, 2012
  23. I would add ginger and cayenne here.

    Nutridiondata shows a great rating of anti-inflammatory foods here:

    Maxim wrote on January 26th, 2012
  24. BTW, Mark,

    Why according to nutrition data is HIGHLY INFLAMMATORY?
    And also, according to them, there is almost no vitamins, anti-oxidants.

    Maxim wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Maxim, red palm oil, palm oil (refined red palm oil) and palm kernel oil are different. The palm kernel is fat derived from the kernel of the palm. As for the nutritional data citing it as inflammatory, why also does it say that it’s bad because it is saturated. It must be biased haha.

      Bob wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  25. I know I’m going off on a bit of a tangent but one thing I struggle with is whether I’m eating the right proportions. Aiming for a 3:1 and 1:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3 just confuses me. I find myself on a regular basis going back to the pyramid, the example of Mark’s daily menu, and the post on “Are you getting enough protein” and I think it would be really useful to have some basic templates to refer to, i.e. to get your 3:1 ratio, an average person would need to eat one steak, 2 spoons of olive oil, a small handful of macadamias, 2 eggs etc, 1 chicken breast (all wild or grass fed)etc. This, along with veggies and fruit is what I would eat in a typical day but I’m now thinking based on what Mark said above, that it may be too much omega 3 and not enough 6?

    Tracy wrote on January 26th, 2012
  26. Such an informative post! Maybe I can get my husband to eat more cruciferous vegetables.

    Rachel wrote on January 26th, 2012
  27. I assume collards are cruciferous, right? I love poached eggs…make them by putting a leaf in a little boiling water and breaking 2 eggs on the leaf. They steam together and are done in a couple of minutes. Will start adding turmeric today.

    Ray Rosenheck wrote on January 26th, 2012
  28. Hi Mark – On Paleo diet (meat,chicken,some fish, eggs,berries, lg raw cruciferous salad daily, macadamia nuts and some cheese, also, cream homemade in coffee daily. Also, daily 1 or 2 pieces of XOCAI raw dark chocolate. Not overeating but NOT dropping wt yet. In fact I have gained 3 lbs. Poop once daily.
    Have balanced blood sugar, balanced energy and better mental function and have lost appetite and constant thinking of food all day. Eat when hungry. Usually eat @ 11:a.m.,and then again at dinner 6 or 7p.m. with macadamia nuts in between and lots of water. So – why no loss in lbs or inches? Should I drop nuts, cheese and cream in coffee? Need help-thanks

    Suzan wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • The raw cruciferous salad has goitrogens that might be supressing your thyroid and impeding weight loss. Cruciferous vegetable should always be cooked to reduce these compounds. For some people who have issues with dairy, weight loss will not happen until it is eliminated from the diet.

      Sabrina wrote on January 26th, 2012
  29. I wonder about that brown fat on fish.  I read someone who said it’s
    caused by a fish getting lazy in a farm environment, but I see it even on wild
    caught salmon.  Kinda icky-looking, but it doesn’t taste bad (to me).
    Stored toxins, perhaps?

    Jeff wrote on January 26th, 2012
  30. We use turmeric regularly in Ethiopian dishes. Good stuff.

    Sterling wrote on January 26th, 2012
  31. I recently embarked upon RAW CREAM (unpasturized) I use it in my coffee. Occasionally I drizzle it over raspberries if I’m feeling like a sweet treat, no sugar needed. It was an outlandish price at $12.00 for a pint…yikes!
    I have been utterly grain free since January. 1st (no pun intended) I feel that full far dairy has helped me get throught it. There are conflicting messages regarding dairy in the paleolithic diet. I suppose getting tested for potencial allergies might be the only way to know for sure.

    dla wrote on January 26th, 2012
  32. Curry is one way to get turmeric into one’s diet because it’s an essential ingredient in curry powder. Depending on the mix you buy, some also include ginger, fenugreek and cinnamon which have varying degrees of anti-inflammatory properties. And not all curries are hot. If you want to have more control, try mixing different spices to make your own curry powder mix.

    WP Ho wrote on January 26th, 2012

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