Anti-inflammatory Diet: A Natural Way to Improve Health and Reduce Joint Pain & Stiffness

Inflammation is part of our body’s natural healing process and is necessary to help us recover from an injury or an illness.  Normally our body turns off the inflammatory response when our wound is healed or we recover from an infection.  However, when our inflammatory response does not get turned off properly, it can lead to a state of chronic inflammation which can be very destructive.  In fact, the following are just a few of the many diseases/conditions that have been associated with chronic inflammation: arthritis, stroke, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and many gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Our diet can play a big role in the inflammatory process.  For example, omega-6 fatty acids which are found in vegetable oils, animal products, cereals and grains, can promote inflammation within the body.  On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids, most abundantly found in fish, can bring down inflammation in our body.  A healthy diet should include both types of fat, and many experts recommend a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.  Unfortunately, the typical American diet has a very unbalanced ratio and studies have found that that our ratio may be closer to 10:1 or 16:1, which can promote inflammation within our body.

In addition to looking at the types of foods we eat, we also need to look at the quantities.  Some studies have found that overeating can cause an inflammatory response and it is well known that fat cells in our body secrete inflammatory factors, which increases potential for inflammation.  So what can you do to help manage inflammation naturally?  The following are a few steps to take:

  • Achieve or Maintain a Healthy Body Weight. As stated above, body fat can promote inflammation.  So, weight management can be one of the best ways to keep inflammation at bay, improve health and reduce joint pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.  As an added bonus, each pound of weight loss can take 3-5 pounds of pressure off of weight bearing joints (i.e. the hips and knees), which can help to bring even more relief to those suffering from arthritis.
  • Increase Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Diet. Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, and it is recommended to eat 2-3 servings per week.  If you don’t include any fish in the diet currently, aiming to eat 1 serving of fish per week is a good starting point.  Walnuts, flaxseed and fish oil supplements are also good sources of omega-3’s, but it is important to talk to your doctor before starting any supplements.
  • Watch portions of Omega-6 fatty acids, Saturated Fats and Trans Fats. Olive/canola oil, nuts, avocado and peanut butter are very healthy fats, but portion control is important to keep the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in check.  Limit butter, hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, fried foods, baked goods and animal fats (i.e. fats in meats and full-fat dairy products) as they promote inflammation and are not as heart healthy.
  • Reduce Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates. Too many sodas, cookies, pastries and other sugary foods can lead to inflammation within the body.  They are also very calorie dense, and these added calories can often lead to weight gain which can promote even more inflammation.

Foods to Include:

  • All Fruits and Vegetables
    • Think color:  aim for a variety of colors, and choose fruits and vegetables with bright colors or deep dark tones.
    • Some good choices include: Berries, Oranges, Green veggies (i.e. broccoli/spinach) tomatoes and grapes.
  • Fish, lean meats, and vegetable proteins
    • Aim to eat fish 2-3 times per week
    • Chicken and turkey without the skin and lean cuts of meats (the word “round” or “loin” often indicates leaner cuts)
    • Beans, nuts, seeds and soy products
  • Monounsaturated (“Healthy”) Fats
    • Avocado, Nuts, Peanut Butter, Olives and Olive/Canola/Peanut Oils
  • Whole Grains
    • Whole wheat bread, whole grain oats, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn
      • Tip: Look for the word “whole” with the first ingredient on the nutrition label
  • Low-Fat Dairy Products
    • Skim or 1% milk
    • Low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese, yogurt or cheese

Foods to Limit:

  • Saturated Fats and Trans Fats
    • Fatty cuts of meats, the skin from chicken or turkey, fried foods
    • Butter, margarine, gravy, mayonnaise, cream sauces and cheese sauces
    • Cakes, cookies, pastries, chips, Doritos, and other high-fat snacks
    • High-fat dairy products like whole milk and full-fat cheeses
  • Refined Carbohydrates and sugars
    • White breads, white rice, white pasta and other refined grains
    • Cakes, cookies, pastries, ice cream and other sugary snacks
    • Sugary beverages like sodas, fruit drinks, sports drinks, sweetened tea, etc.

Remember that any food can fit into a healthy diet in moderation.  The key is to build a healthy base for your diet and then limit portions of some of the foods that may promote inflammation.  Rather than focusing on what to avoid, focus on trying to include the fruits, vegetables, fish and other foods that help to balance inflammation.  Also, keep in mind that achieving/maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important lifestyle approaches to minimize inflammation