Those in the medical field have long known there is a connection between chronic inflammation and most diseases, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Inflammation is the way the body responds to infections and injuries. Our bodies release chemicals to injured areas to isolate and heal them. But when the inflammation is ongoing, it can cause lasting damage.
One of the ways we can reduce the amount of inflammation in our bodies is by modifying our diets. There’s not a lot of research to back up specific nutrients, but when we look at what healthy people eat, their diets are mostly plant based.
Unfortunately, only 1 in 10 adults eat the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So here are a few ways to up your intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, nuts and more, to reduce inflammation and prevent disease.
Eat more fiber
There is overwhelming evidence that diets high in fiber help with inflammation and prevent disease. You can get fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
With fruits and vegetables, try to eat a variety of colors so you benefit from the phytonutrients that give fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Phytonutrients are compounds like beta carotene that get turned into vitamin A in our bodies, resveratrol in red wine that acts as an antioxidant and lutein that keeps your eyes healthy. Make sure you eat the skin of foods like apples and potatoes to get the fiber. Leafy green vegetables are high in fiber and iron.
We get a lot of our fiber from whole grains. Things like quinoa, barley and oatmeal are naturally dense in fiber content. Try choosing brown rice over white rice, whole wheat pasta over white pasta and whole wheat bread over white bread to get fiber out of those foods.
Plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, nuts and seeds give you a double whammy. These foods have fiber and protein. Our bodies break the protein down into amino acids and use those to build antibodies to fight off disease and infection.
Each day, men should get 30 to 40 grams of fiber and women 20 to 24 grams. If you eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, as well as a healthy amount of whole grains, you’ll meet the recommendations.
Up the omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation in the body, support brain health and prevent heart disease. Our bodies can’t produce omega-3, so we have to get it from our diet. It’s found in fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna but it’s also in things like flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Aim to eat two to three servings each week.
Season foods with herbs and spices
Herbs and spices are anti-inflammatory, so try to use a lot of those in your cooking. Fresh or dry, it doesn’t matter, just avoid salt. The ones that tend to have the most research backing them right now are turmeric, garlic, ginger and cinnamon.
Support immune health with probiotics
While they aren’t usually plant based, we’re finding probiotics play a big role in people’s health in general. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria that are in our intestines. Research has shown the gut microbiomes of a healthy individual and someone with a disease are completely different. So we can infer that when you incorporate probiotics into your diet regularly, you’re going to be a healthier individual.
You primarily find probiotics in kefir and yogurt. Greek yogurt has more protein in it but any yogurt has probiotics. You can also get probiotics in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee and pickles, but they aren’t going to have as strong of an effect as with dairy products. I recommend consuming yogurt and other fermented products on a regular basis.
Probiotic supplements are another source of the healthy bacteria.
Start with small changes
I don’t want you to go from not eating any anti-inflammatory foods to eating eight cups a day – that would be too drastic. Start small. Can you add an extra serving at dinner time or add a snack? If you’re having a sandwich or a casserole, can you add any extra vegetables to gradually build it up over time?
Focus on overall wellness
You need to think of overall wellness from multiple perspectives because food can’t fix other areas of your routine. Make sure you rest, drink plenty of fluids and exercise.
Susan Berkman is a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.