Inflammation is inevitable. It’s the body’s natural way of defending against unwanted foreign invaders and helping us bounce back from injury, which is good. But when it kicks into overdrive and turns into low-grade chronic inflammation, things can get worrisome.
Inflammation that persists, day in and day out, can be an instigator for many of the major diseases that plague us – including heart disease, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s.
The good news is a healthy lifestyle can help combat chronic inflammation and lower your risk of disease. And one of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation comes not from the pharmacy, but from a trip to the grocery store. Many experimental studies have shown that components of various foods may have inflammation-fighting effects.
Think of your diet as a teeter-totter: You want the anti-inflammatory foods to rise above the pro-inflammatory ones over the course of a day. And what better way to work a variety of inflammation-defending foods into your diet than through the almighty salad? Turn your fave salads up a notch by adding in any of these foods that make it easier to eat to beat inflammation.
1. Cherry Tomatoes
A team of food scientists from Atlanta’s Emory University recently created an inflammation index of foods, which seeks to determine how much inflammation certain foods cause, as well as how much inflammation some foods prevent. Basically, they used math to create a diet score associated with inflammation within the body. And the ranking system (called the DIS, which stands for dietary inflammation score and lifestyle inflammation score) determined that tomatoes are a top veggie when it comes to fighting off inflammation.
It’s likely the nutritional make-up of tomatoes – like lofty amounts of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and vitamin K – make it easier to keep disease-provoking inflammation at bay. During the warmer months when local markets are in hyper-drive, look out for heirloom varieties of cherry tomatoes, which may retain a greater abundance of anti-inflammatory antioxidants (not to mention even better flavor).
A growing body of scientific evidence is showing that higher intakes of anthocyanins, the plant compounds that give blueberries their deep purple hue, can have some strong anti-inflammatory efficacy. It’s likely that the antioxidant impact anthocyanins have in our bodies will work to limit chronic inflammation.
Besides, sun-kissed blueberries offer a pleasing sweet-tart counterpoint to the earthy flavors that typically dominate salads. You can simply sprinkle a handful over the veggies or blend blueberries into a salad dressing.
These nuts add crunch and inflammation-fighting nutrition to the salad bowl. Regular consumption of walnuts (30 to 60 grams a day) resulted in up to an 11.5% reduction of inflammatory markers among older adults, including one marker, interleukin-1β, that’s been linked with a risk of coronary heart disease, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The researchers believe these findings indicate walnuts’ anti-inflammatory properties may help explain why the nuts are associated with lowered cardiovascular disease risk aside from their ability to improve cholesterol numbers.
Walnuts are rich in plant-based omega-3 fat too, as well as a range of micronutrients that can make your salads work harder for you when it comes to quelling inflammation.
4. Baby Kale
In a study published in the journal Atherosclerosis, scientists looked at levels of six different plant compounds, called carotenoids, in the blood of patients with coronary artery disease. They found that lutein was the only one that corresponded with the inflammatory marker IL-6: The higher a person’s lutein levels, which are found abundantly in dark green veggies like kale and spinach, the lower their IL-6 levels.
Chronic inflammation is typically measured by proteins in the blood or saliva, called cytokines, that are produced when the body is in an inflammatory state. These cytokines — which include interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) — help researchers and doctors understand what’s going on in the body concerning inflammation. In the aforementioned study, the scientists also found that treating cells collected from the subjects with lutein lowered their inflammatory activity.
More proof that some kale a day can keep inflammation at bay: An investigation in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found a link between higher intakes of cruciferous vegetables, which includes kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and lower levels of inflammation in women.
The great thing about baby kale is that it’s less bitter tasting than fully grown kale. It can go from package to salad any time of day.
5. Black Lentils
If you’re looking to add a protein boost to your salads, consider lentils. A body of research suggests that higher intakes of legumes, which includes lentils, can lower the risk of suffering life-shortening heart disease. One reason why upping your intake of legumes can keep your ticker beating strong? They may help reduce inflammation, as indicated by lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein.
The nutritional stew in lentils – including plant-based protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals – is likely why they’re anti-inflammatory. It’s an added bonus if their protein replaces some processed meats in your diet. Processed meat is a category of food that can exacerbate inflammation in the body.
And for an extra nutritional perk, choose black lentils. Black lentils, also nicknamed beluga lentils, contain some of the same inflammation-fighting anthocyanin antioxidants present in other foods, like blueberries. Since black lentils are more likely to hold their shape during cooking, they’re an ideal addition to salads. Plus, they have less of the deep earthy flavor of other lentils that not everyone loves.
6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
It’s a smart move to make this fat the star of your vinaigrettes. The liberal use of olive oil is likely a big reason why research shows the ultra-healthy Mediterranean diet is very effective at making inflammation less of a problem. In one study focusing on the Mediterranean diet, C-reactive protein and several other inflammatory markers significantly decreased in those who consumed 1.7 ounces of olive oil every day for 12 months.
Beyond beneficial monounsaturated fat, extra virgin olive is a rich source of oleocanthal, a naturally occurring compound with anti-inflammatory powers similar to Ibuprofen. But don’t make your dressings with “pure” or “light” olive oil; these are more refined and won’t give your salads the same anti-inflammatory powers.
It’s also worth noting that adding a source of fat to your salads like olive oil or nuts will help with the absorption of anti-inflammatory fat-soluble carotenoid compounds, including the lutein and lycopene found in various vegetables.
Just like other colorful vegetables and fruits, beets contain potent inflammation-taming plant-based compounds. In this case, it’s a class of phytochemicals, called betalains, which research demonstrates can help fend off oxidative stress in the body and, in turn, lower the chances that internal inflammation will spiral out of control. It’s these betalains that are responsible for staining your hands and cutting board when working with beets.
You can add steamed, boiled or roasted beets to a salad or simply grate raw beets and toss them into the mix.
To learn more about inflammation-fighting foods, keep reading:
- 5 Registered Dietitians Share Their Best Advice for Taming Inflammation
- Selenium Is the Inflammation-Fighting Mineral You’re Probably Not Taking
- Does Dairy Really Cause Inflammation?
Featured recipe: Kale Salad with Blueberry Ginger Dressing