Fight Inflammation With These Foods 7 Ways To Clean Up Your Diet

There’s a lot of hype these days about eating clean and following an anti-inflammatory diet, and while those sound like worthwhile goals, few people likely know what they really mean. There’s no official definition for clean eating, which is why it can vary, depending on who you ask. What people typically mean is to eat minimally processed foods, such as fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and seafood, nuts, beans and grains, and exclude highly processed foods or foods that contain refined sugars or flours, says Kaleigh McMordie, MCN , RDN, creator of the Lively Table blog and dietitian in Abilene, Texas.

The truth is, while some may disagree with the above definition, the benefits of eating less processed, more whole foods are undeniable, and reducing inflammation in the body is one of them. Eating a diet of minimally processed foods can help reduce your body’s inflammatory response, says McMordie.

Fresh, whole plant foods and healthy fats are packed with powerful antioxidants that help fight what’s called oxidative stress, essentially an imbalance between antioxidants (disease-fighting) and free radicals (disease-causing) that can be a trigger for the inflammation. They also help fight inflammation by feeding gut bacteria, which in turn can reduce fire through multiple pathways, says Vanessa Voltolina Mazzella, MS, RDN, a nutritionist based in Westchester, New York. Here’s how to make clean eating work for you.

1. Prioritize foods without labels.

Reading those little panels on the can or package is one of the oldest strategies in the healthy diet playbook. But if you want to give your diet a real makeover, you’ll mostly eat foods that don’t request labels such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Of course, there are some minimally processed foods that come with labels and are still considered healthy, and this is where you need to use your detective skills. For McMordie, that means choosing foods that don’t have a lot of added ingredients. For example, if he’s looking for a nut butter, he’ll look for one that contains just nuts and maybe a little salt but no added sugar or oil.

Next, see if the ingredient list contains things you don’t know or can’t pronounce. A long list of unrecognizable or unpronounceable ingredient names is likely a sign that the product may be filled with additives or artificial ingredients, says Mazzella. Finally, she checks the sodium, trans fats and added sugars on the label. According to dietary guidelines, the Daily Value for sodium should be 5% or less (making it a low-sodium food), trans fats less than 1% of daily calories, and added sugars less than 1%. 10% of total daily calories.

2. Load up on fiber.

If you’re adhering to the strategy above, you’re already loading up on foods that are good sources of fiber, a nutrient found only in plants and that most Americans don’t get enough of. While dietary guidelines recommend that women get at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men 38 grams, most Americans only count on about 15 grams per day, and that could lead to a plethora of health problems. Short- and long-term inflammation can be the result of inadequate fiber, says Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RDN, Atlanta-registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The fiber effect. Plus, fiber is the building block for a healthy gut, which is where about 70 percent of your immune system is located. She recommends shooting 30 to 40 grams per day, slowly increasing your intake and making sure you drink more water as you increase your fiber.

3. Keep an eye out for added sugar.

The naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables isn’t the problem here. It is the sugar added to foods that is of concern. When you eat more sugar than your body needs (and needs it to function properly), the pancreas releases insulin to move the sugar from the blood to other areas of the body where it’s used or stored. The problem? Too much sugar and insulin in the body can cause cells to become resistant to insulin over time, which is a risk factor for inflammation and many related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. says McMordie. By eating fewer sugary foods, you’ll have more room on your plate for healthier foods like vegetables. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming no more than 25 grams (equal to six teaspoons) of added sugar per day if you’re a woman, 36 grams (equal to nine teaspoons) if you’re a man. To keep added sugar low, check labels, as many staple foods like ketchup, pasta sauce, and salad dressing contain added sugar. So whenever possible, use fruit to sweeten foods, says McMordie. For example, add fresh or frozen berries to plain yogurt (don’t buy the flavored kind), and use banana puree or applesauce to replace some or all of the sugar when cooking.

4. Skip the salt.

Not only does it contribute to high blood pressure, which can drive inflammation, but it can also affect the immune system, setting the body inflamed in ways that go beyond heart problems, according to the AHA. The average individual eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium each day, which is a far cry from the 1,500 milligrams per day recommended by the group to stave off high blood pressure and heart disease (2,300 milligrams is the upper limit). Checking food labels for sodium can help, but so can eating whole, unprocessed foods, which typically contain little or no salt. Then replace the salt shaker with other herbs and spices like garlic, paprika, vinegar or Mrs. Dash, Mazzella says.

5. Go organic or not.

Studies have shown that organic foods can be better not only for the environment but also for your health, even when it comes to inflammation. Some studies show that pesticide exposure can increase inflammation signals in the body and alter gut bacteria in mice and in vitro, says McMordie, adding, however, that many of the pesticides studied have been banned in the United States for decades, and the its not entirely clear what level of exposure could cause these effects. Of course, organic foods are often more expensive than their conventional counterparts, but if that’s not within your budget, don’t worry. Any fruit or vegetable, organic or not, is better than none, she says. If there’s wiggle room in your budget, though, focus on organic products that make a difference. Buying organic produce with peels that you don’t eat (like avocados and bananas) may not matter since the peel blocks chemicals. For produce like leafy greens and strawberries where there isn’t a protective outer layer, organic is a wise choice. To make your decision easier, check out the Dirty Dozen Environmental Working Groups, a list of the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.

6. Get smart about GMOs.

Foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a burning issue, and while it’s important to know what that means, they’re not something to lose sleep over. Yet you should know that GMOs are often in products with soy, corn (as corn syrup or cornstarch), papaya and cassava, Mazzella says. Many food additives, preservatives and flavorings also tend to be genetically modified. So do GMO foods matter if you’re trying to eat clean and suppress inflammation? Possibly. While much controversial information about GMO foods is emerging, data shows links between pesticides used on GMO foods and inflammation, oxidative stress and fatty liver, says Jyothi Rao, MD, medical director of Shakthi Health and Wellness Center in Mount Airy and Elkridge, Maryland, and coauthors of Body on fire. Rao recommends avoiding these foods as much as possible by eating organic if you have the means and affordability.

7. Think back to meat.

While it contains nutrients, especially protein meat, it can also have numerous deleterious health effects. Substituting plant proteins like legumes for meat can reduce inflammation from the fiber and phytonutrients in plants, which aren’t found in meat, Dandrea-Russert says. Plus, that juicy steak (and other meats) contains saturated fat and advanced glycation products (AGEs), both of which have been shown to be inflammatory. You can choose lean meats to cut some of the fat, but AGEs can occur in beef, poultry, eggs and fish whether the food is lean or not, she says.

You don’t have to completely eliminate animal products; scale back by making meat a side dish, go meatless on Mondays (or make Mondays the only day you consume meat), or skip meat for two of your three daily meals.

Is gluten the culprit?

If you’ve gone gluten-free to quell digestive woes, join the club—but it might not be for nothing. Gluten as a trigger for digestive problems is greatly exaggerated, as most people don’t have a problem with gluten and can continue to eat it, says Kaleigh McMordie, MS, RDN. Yet there are some people who experience an inflammatory response to this protein found in foods made from wheat, barley and rye. How can you know? Eliminate gluten for a short time and then reintroduce it, paying attention to your symptoms and how you feel when you go without it versus when you eat it.

In some cases, it’s not gluten that’s causing the problems but carbohydrates, also known as FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), which include lactose and fructose. You can try a low-FODMAP diet to flush out offenders, which includes some of the healthiest fruits, vegetables, and grains around, but McMordie recommends consulting a dietician, as FODMAP elimination diets are complicated and only meant to be temporary. (A dietitian can help you get to the bottom of your overall GI issues so you can feel your best.)

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Anti-Inflammation, in 2023.

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