Inflammation is your body’s way of healing itself, whether you have an infection, injury or some sort of toxin invading your body. But when you suffer from chronic inflammation, you may be putting yourself at risk.

“Inflammation is part of the body’s defense mechanism and can be good or bad,” said Melissa Keeney, RDN, a registered dietitian with St. Vincent’s Medical Center. “Chronic inflammation is when your body is in an inflammatory state for a long time and that can lead to debilitating and life-changing conditions.”

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Signs of chronic inflammation might go unnoticed.

While acute inflammation may cause redness, swelling, pain or stiffness (think sprained ankle), chronic inflammation has more subtle symptoms, including:

  • Body pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Gastrointestinal issues like acid reflux, constipation or diarrhea
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Frequent infections

Chronic inflammation has been connected with a number of serious diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease and more.

Inflammation on the menu

Chronic inflammation can result from things we put into our body like alcohol or tobacco, but it can also be the result of our diet.

Keeney said the following foods may cause inflammation:

“It’s important to note that just because a food or drink can cause inflammation does not mean people need to avoid it completely,” she said, adding that “aiming to include more fresh foods and less processed foods can help decrease inflammation in the body.”

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The opposite is also true.

Just as some foods can increase inflammation, Keeney said others are known to decrease it. These are mostly plant foods and unsaturated fats containing compounds that boost one’s health.

She offered the following food suggestions and dining tips to decrease inflammation:

  • Add an extra fruit or vegetable to a meal. Choose blueberries, dark green leafy vegetables, apples, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, which are believed to protect against inflammation.
  • Swap enriched or white flour products for whole grains. In addition to whole-wheat pasta and bread, try farro or brown rice pasta. For breakfast, go for overnight oats or a warm quinoa breakfast bowl.
  • Add beans and lentils to meals. Try kidney beans into soup, lentils in sloppy joes, or hummus on a sandwich.
  • Choose fish and seafood. Salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, swordfish, trout and sardines are packed with heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids. Add two servings a week to your menu, such as oven-baked salmon or Mediterranean tuna salad with canned tuna, shallot, red bell pepper and cucumber.
  • Go nuts. Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Add pine nuts to pasta or make trail mix with nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate (also an anti-oxidant!).
  • Add herbs. Herbs and spices – garlic, ginger, sage and thyme, for example – boost flavor and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Tea time. Opt for green and black tea which are associated with reduced inflammation.

“Remember – an all-or-nothing approach may backfire and constantly stressing over what you’re are eating can cause inflammation as well!” Keeney advised. “Aim for small, manageable changes with meals and snacks. Other ideas include exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and having a mindful practice such as meditation or yoga.”