The obvious advice is to cut down on these pro-inflammatory foods while increasing your consumption of foods that are richest in omega-3s. Less obviously, if you eat a lot of meat, consider switching to organic versions. “Conventionally farmed animals are fed grain, which bumps up the omega-6 content of their meat,” says Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and the author of True Food. “Organic and free-range animals, by contrast, dine on grasses, nuts and other plant life that has a higher omega-3 content.” Also to keep in mind: Some conventional fish farmers now incorporate corn into their feed, so check labels and choose wild fish if you can.
#3 Reduce Insulin Surges
When the body detects a rise in glucose, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that causes cells to absorb glucose in an effort to keep blood sugar at optimal levels. Why is this important? “Insulin is pro-inflammatory,” says Edwards. “The more insulin you produce, the more inflammatory markers you make.” Ideally, the body breaks food down into glucose slowly, causing insulin to be released at low levels. However, with refined foods, the breakdown happens quickly, and insulin floods the body.
Many, but not all, studies suggest that you can keep insulin levels in check by eating more whole grains with your meals. Whole-grain foods are rich in fiber, which slows the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream. How much is enough? A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 7.5 to 10.5 servings a week produced the biggest reduction in inflammation-related deaths (from, for instance, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease) in postmenopausal women, notes lead author David Jacobs, PhD, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
#4 Minimize Sugar
Exactly half of a sugar molecule is made up of fructose (the other half is glucose). “Fructose goes directly to the liver,” says Bowden. If you routinely eat a lot of fructose, the liver becomes overtaxed and through a complex set of chemical reactions creates fatty liver tissue, similar to the organ damage caused by overindulging in alcohol. Since fat cells release pro-inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, eating or drinking sugary foods contributes to your overall inflammation level.
Incredibly, every day most Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugar (that’s sugar in addition to what we get naturally in whole foods), according to the American Heart Association, which recommends women cut down to about six teaspoons. Because sugar is found in so many foods, keeping a tally may not be possible. What you can do instead is focus on eating a diet rich in whole foods and eliminating processed foods whenever possible, says Moreno.
#5 Get Plenty of Antioxidants
“Inflammation is the body’s reaction to free radicals, unstable oxygen-containing molecules that are harmful,” says nutritionist Keri Glassman, RD, author of The New You and Improved Diet. “Plants are rich in chemicals called antioxidants that are able to neutralize free radicals or even prevent them from being created in the first place.” A diet rich in fruits and vegetables translates into less inflammation in the body, according to a 2011 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. The darker the color (think kale, eggplant, beets) and the smaller the size (blueberries, pomegranate, goji and açaí), the greater the health boost. And because each pigment in the produce is associated with specific antioxidants, all of which have different benefits, try to eat foods in a variety of colors.