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

sardinesBefore 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.

Berries

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.

Turmeric

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. Mark, a Q on a matter of detail. Amongst the ‘good-for-health’ ingredients mentioned in yr article was ‘sea salt’. Now why is this better than rock salt. I live in India and most of our salt is sea-salt, whereas rock salt is considered the superior variety for health. Culture contradiction, or some confusion about the facts?

    K.G. Rao wrote on January 28th, 2012
    • Sea salt contains trace amounts of minerals that help your body function well with a sodium spike.

      Animanarchy wrote on January 28th, 2012
  2. Adding spinach in fruit smoothies made with frozen berries makes the drink full of protein, instead of all the natural sugars. Also, try to add some whey protein powder! Thanks!

    Suzanne wrote on January 28th, 2012
  3. “Associated with” is not the same as deterministically corresponding to. Any cultivated agricultural crop involves replacing a native ecosystem to some degree or other. Do take care to make sure your palm oil comes from a source which practices sustainable palm oil tree raising. See, e.g., the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, at http://www.rspo.org/.

    Geoff wrote on January 29th, 2012
  4. All you need is yolks. (pastured)

    dls wrote on January 30th, 2012
  5. All you need is yolks. (pastured)

    And love.

    (and a little reefer)

    hp wrote on January 30th, 2012
  6. Hi Mark,
    I was recently reading about the anti-inflammatory properties of MicroLaction. I’d appreciate your thoughts on using it as a supplement.

    VishKari wrote on January 30th, 2012
  7. For 2 years I dealt with De Quervain tendonitis that worsened to the point that I couldn’t even throw a ball to my kids, tie my shoelace using my affected right hand or brush my teeth with that hand.

    This was despite following GP recommendations to strap it, rest it and take anti-inflammatory medication every day.

    The medication did nothing but give me stomach ulcers.

    Then I read up on and tried a tablespoon of raw honey with a teaspoon of cinnamon every morning on an empty stomach.

    1 month later and I’m throwing that ball, lifting heavy weight again and while I’m still a tad tender, every day it improves.

    foxmayan wrote on January 31st, 2012
  8. Have found that mixing coconut oil with red palm oil makes for a very tasty whatever it is I am cooking.

    Dirk wrote on March 8th, 2012
  9. Yeah, cruciferous vegetables are incredible. I was shocked to learn about all nutrients that you can find in just 100 grams of broccoli. In addition to inflammatory benefits, broccoli (as well as cauliflower) is also a great source of antioxidants. As for me, vegetables are a must when we’re talking about cancer prevention and fighting with inflammation. Keep up good work Mark, I love your site!

    Janet wrote on April 3rd, 2012
  10. Hi!

    Can you recommend or explain in greater detail how pro-inflammatory foods won’t help 1) process of healing wounds and 2) what is in sugar and flour and other food that is pro-inflammatory.

    I currently have an injury that even with Polysporin…not even a scab is developed..a thin sheet of skin is there but that can easily come off.

    vgrandja wrote on April 10th, 2012
  11. Palm oil now comes from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, where miles and miles of tropical rain forests are clear-felled or burnt. It’s one of the regions on the planet contributing the highest rates of greenhouse gases – apart from destroying unique biodiversity. It’s the only home of the endangered orang-utans, who are killed by plantation owners – if they are not burnt first.

    Leena wrote on August 17th, 2012
  12. Just got disgnosed w lower lumbar disc degeneration disc inflamed suggestions? Tumeric help me ?

    Donna wrote on August 17th, 2012
  13. Check out Moringa. Not only does it contain a whopping 36 Anti-Inflammatories, but 46 Antioxidants, ALL Vitamins A-K (with many more times the vitamin content than fruits and vegetables), ALL Omega’s 3,6,9, 18 Amino-Acids (including ALL essential ones), and many minerals. With over 90+ nutrients, it is factually the most nutritional superfood ever discovered by science.

    Z-man wrote on September 15th, 2012
  14. You didn’t say if you did or didn’t like fish oil and if you do, which supplements do you recommend? I’ve wanted to try the fermented cod liver oil and I think it will be worth it. However, i do eat fish about 2-3 times a week anyway so i don’t know that i need to supplement much. I also try to limit my polyunsaturated fats and use coconut and olive oil when cooking.

    jerry wrote on October 31st, 2012
  15. after reading suzanne somers health books, i totally use turmeric every day.

    dana pallessen wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  16. I like to keep on hand a good amount of skilletted ground chicken (organic, of course). When I’m ready to eat, I just take some out of the fridge and drizzle it with some olive oil whisked with turmeric and sea salt Yum, and so easy (and anti-inflammatory). :-)

    Susan Alexander wrote on January 20th, 2013
  17. A caution on Cruciferous Vegetables

    I was a hugh consumer of broccoli (my daily breakfast of choice) and kale and other cruciferous veggies as it did a great job of keeping pain under control in my arthritic knee, the result of an old injury and operation. Glucosamine helped too.

    However, over time (10 years or so) I experienced a breathing problem. A CT scanned showed my trachea to be choked off to an opening of 4mm, the result of a goiter growth due to hypo-thyroid issues.

    It turns out all those cruciferous veggies, great in so many ways to keep one healthy, are all members of a family of foods refered to as goitrogens that served to block the dietary idodine uptake of the tyroid, which then grows larger in an effort to obtain needed iodine. Now my doctor wanted to remove the thyroid but I chose to go the nutrition route first. I cut our all cruciferous veggies and fruits identified as goitrogenic, choosing others fruits and veggies instead. It is two years later, the goiter has all but disappeared much to my doctors surprise and my breathing if back to pre 1990 levels.

    I saved my thyroid and as recent reseach demonstrates the thyroid is too important to toss to the medical waste bin.

    Have a good one
    al.

    Al Lin wrote on April 3rd, 2013
    • Iodine supplimentation is manditory for EVERYONE. Dr David Brownstien.

      Kenny wrote on April 4th, 2013
  18. I use Turmeric when ever I’m cooking with oil and take capsules daily to fight off inflammation of the neck. It works well and recommend it to anybody.

    Mike C Smith wrote on June 6th, 2013
  19. Waaay back in this thread (2012) gastrointestional issues were discussed. What was considered normal body functions for a healthy body was debated. This brings me to a question regarding the relationship of foods to gas. If I experience immediate gas…perhaps 10-20 minutes after eating…EVERYTIME I eat, what could that possibily be??? The food hasn’t even had time to reach my intestines yet! The whole thing makes no sense to me. Fruit with skin, such as apples, and cruciferous vegetables are worse than rice, oatmeal, and pasta, for example. I am so so tired of this on-going issue. I am embarrased easily over such things, and the stress this is causing is having a negative impact on my life. Does anyone have any ideas?

    Lisa wrote on June 19th, 2013
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  21. I have a query/concern about ginger as I found conflicting information. I have read here that it is a good anti-inflammatory, however, I have read elsewhere that it can cause uterine contractions so not good if you are trying to conceive. Though this would contradict pregnant women taking it to stave off nausea.

    Thanks for your input

    mel wrote on December 8th, 2013
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