“Anti-inflammatory” is a buzzword in the health space, whether we’re talking foods to fight inflammation, supplements, or expensive gadgets promising to reduce pro-inflammatory environmental exposures. By and large, I think reducing inflammation is a worthwhile goal. Inflammation goes hand-in-hand with chronic disease, pain, joint issues, and overall poor health.1 But most people don’t need to go full biohacker mode to achieve meaningful results.
The foods you eat make a significant positive or negative contribution here—driving up inflammatory processes or delivering anti-inflammatory agents like polyphenols, omega-3s, and monounsaturated fats. In fact, food is arguably the easiest lever to pull, aside from taking an anti-inflammatory drug. Every time you eat, you have the opportunity to forego refined grains and french fries cooked in rancid oil and instead choose high-antioxidant produce, seafood, or eggs. That’s a lot easier than cutting all the stress out of your life or fixing a busted circadian rhythm.
Today I’m offering up a list of six of my favorite foods to include when you’ve got inflammation in your sights.
But First, Context
As I’ve discussed in previous installments, there are times when inflammation is a good thing and times when it’s a bad thing. Acute, short-term inflammation is often (but not always) neutral or positive. Chronic, long-term inflammation usually signals trouble.
Sometimes, 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 run the risk of blunting the positive effects of that workout.
Eating a big meal tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. If you’re overeating every single meal, this is problematic. 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 fast, it’s fine. Context.
Eating high-glycemic foods tends to raise inflammatory markers in the short term. Again, if you’re pounding bags of chips or loaves of white bread on a regular basis, they will induce systemic inflammation—or at least continuous acute spikes that mimic systemic inflammation. If you’re eating a white potato after your glycogen-depleting sprint workout, the subsequent inflammatory spike will be either nonexistent or nothing to worry about. Context.
Even foods typically found on “Top 20 Foods to Fight Inflammation” lists aren’t fair game for everyone. Take tomatoes. The lycopene in tomatoes has well-documented anti-inflammatory effects. Tomatoes are also nightshades, which aggravate autoimmune disorders for some people. That’s why the autoimmune protocol diet strictly prohibits nightshades (along with many other foods) during the elimination phase. Dairy is another example. A 2017 review concluded that the evidence for dairy is “strongly indicative of an anti-inflammatory activity in subjects with metabolic disorders and of a pro-inflammatory activity in subjects allergic to bovine milk.”2 Go figure.
So as I begin to rattle off my list of anti-inflammatory foods, remember to keep context in mind. These are foods that I feel good eating, and science backs up my experience. If any of these foods disagrees with you, there are plenty of other good options.
Alright, enough context. Let’s get to the foods.
6 Foods to Fight Inflammation
Wild Fish Fat
Omega-3s are required for a healthy inflammatory response. When my arthritis starts to sneak up on me, I can tell I’ve gone too long without fish fat. I usually feel better after I make some fatty salmon for dinner or dump a can of sardines over leafy greens for a quick lunch. That’s just my subjective experience, but a host of studies confirms:
Omega-3 status is inversely associated with CRP in men. The higher the omega-3, the lower the systemic inflammation.3
Daily fish oil for six months reduced inflammation in patients with metabolic syndrome and especially those with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.4
Delivering a “fish-fat” emulsion intravenously to patients with systemic inflammatory response syndrome had anti-inflammatory and liver-protective effects.5
Six months of omega-3 supplementation reduced CRP among heavy smokers.6
I strongly prefer to get my omega-3s through deep-red wild sockeye, oysters, and other pastured animal products, but supplements and cod liver oil work, too. Plant-based folks can use chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnut oil to boost their intake.
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. I like to toss cubed, steamed butternut squash with red palm oil, sea salt, black pepper, cayenne, and turmeric. This fish soup is pretty tasty, too, or add 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, vitamin K, beta carotene—all incredibly important in maintaining antioxidant status.
There’s not a ton of human research in this area, but in one study, palm oil (high in saturated fat) greatly reduced oxidized LDL in humans when compared to the treasured monounsaturated fat.7 And that was refined palm oil. I suspect unrefined red palm oil, with all nutrients intact, would perform even better.
Red palm oil also buffered antioxidant status and protected against oxidative damage in the pancreases of rats experimentally given diabetes8 and in the livers of rats exposed to a toxin.910
Now, red palm oil is controversial, so it’s important to shop sustainably. If you’d prefer not to go this route, there are other less controversial, but still anti-inflammatory, cooking oils available…
Like olive oil. Being a big fan (and purveyor) of extra virgin olive oil, I’ve extolled its virtues elsewhere on the blog, but they bear repeating. Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fats (notably oleic acid) and polyphenols that are to your body’s defense system what spinach was to Popeye. One standout is a phenolic compound called oleocanthal, which exerts similar anti-inflammatory effects to ibuprofen.1112 I’ll drizzle olive oil over salads, fish, steak, cottage cheese, even fresh fruit in the summer. The more peppery the better, both from a pure enjoyment perspective and also because more pungent olive oils generally have a higher polyphenol concentration.
In folks with impaired glucose tolerance, adding 10 grams of olive oil to a meal reduced post-meal oxidative stress.13
Consuming olive oil with more polyphenols led to fewer oxidized LDL.1415
Pretty much every list of anti-inflammatory foods contains broccoli or cauliflower or kale or cabbage, but I thought I’d one-up those writers and include them all. Although I eat fewer vegetables than I used to overall, when I do, cruciferous veggies still get pride of place—mostly because they taste good, but also because they contain helpful compounds like sulforaphane, which activates important anti-inflammatory pathways.16
In studies, broccoli lowered colonic inflammation in mice,17 while red cabbage reduced oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation in rats.18
Although blueberries top most anti-inflammatory food lists, and for good reason, I think the other berries get left out. I don’t put a lot of faith in the superfruit phenomenon (though I’m sure goji berries are perfectly healthy), but when it comes to inflammation, there isn’t really a bad berry out there. 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 biomarkers of inflammation like oxidized LDL and serum malondialdehyde.19
Preliminary evidence suggests that blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries can ameliorate metabolic syndrome through modulation of inflammation.20
In fit individuals, daily consumption of blueberries coupled with more berries immediately before a 2.5-hour run attenuated the normal post-exercise inflammatory response.21
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 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. I recommend these eggs, fish, soup, or golden milk recipes.
Turmeric beat both ginger and an anti-inflammatory drug for treating arthritis (I’ve had similar results).22
You don’t have to eat all the foods on this list to consume a generally anti-inflammatory diet. Scores of other foods are perfectly healthy, but the preceding foods are the ones that I find downright therapeutic. By the same token, regular consumption of these six foods does not guarantee total prevention of autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, IBD, or other inflammatory conditions. It takes more than food to do that. But if you’re already eating Primally, you’re probably off to a great start.
What about you? In the comment section, let me hear about your favorite anti-inflammatory foods.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.