A Guide to Chronic Inflammation — Plus, an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan

Here's what to know about chronic inflammation and an anti-inflammatory diet plan with tips on what to eat to fight it and prevent serious health conditions.

Despite all the flack it gets, inflammation can actually be a good thing. Think about it: When you stub your toe or you develop an infection, your immune system triggers this inflammation to remove any harmful substances and kickstart the healing process, which is why the affected areas will swell, turn red, or feel hot and painful. "Inflammation actually protects and heals the body by helping it come back to balance," says Wintana Kiros, R.D.N., L.D.N., founder of Reset Lifestyle.

Problems occur when the inflammatory response doesn't heal the injury or sticks around longer than you actually need it. This kind of chronic inflammation can damage other healthy tissues over time — and If it doesn't ease up, chronic inflammation can lead to cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis (plaque build-up on artery walls), type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis, according to an article published in the journal Oncotarget. Chronic inflammation also can cause DNA damage that may lead to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. In fact, experts estimate that chronic infection and inflammation is linked to 15 percent of human cancers.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent acute inflammation, which has its purpose, from turning into chronic inflammation, which has its problems. Your kitchen is a great place to start, particularly with the help of an anti-inflammatory diet plan. Here's what you need to know about inflammation and how to combat it.

The Basics of Inflammation In the Body

Your body creates inflammation as a quick way to heal everything from paper cuts to the flu. Essentially, the immune system increases blood circulation to the injured area, instigates infection-fighting heat, and sends white blood cells and other compounds to ward off bacteria and mend damaged cells. When it's doing that job, inflammation is a good thing. (Worth noting: Short-term post-workout inflammation is also beneficial.)

But sometimes, the inflammatory process may get triggered without the presence of injury, or it might not end when it should. What's more, the reason it continues isn't always known, according to the National Cancer Institute. In general, though, inflammation may be triggered by conditions such as chronic back pain; autoimmune disorders such as lupus; ongoing infections including tuberculosis, viruses, bacteria, allergies; and even gum disease. Obesity is also linked with a risk of chronic inflammation, as it increases the number of particular cytokines (substances secreted by immune system cells) that trigger inflammation. The condition also lowers levels of adiponectin, a hormone released by fat cells that has anti-inflammatory properties, according to a study published in the journal Archives of Medical Science. (Learn more about five of the most common autoimmune diseases.)

A blood test can reveal your body's current inflammation levels. One option is a high-sensitivity c-reactive protein (hs-CRP) test. CRP is a compound in the body that becomes elevated during inflammation, and this test can give you some idea of your future heart disease risk, according to research from Harvard. Not everyone needs to be screened for this protein, but you may want to ask your doctor about getting tested if you have a family history of heart disease — especially if you have additional risk factors such as high cholesterol (more than 200) or high blood pressure (greater than 140/90). You may also consider a CRP test if you have insulin resistance, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease, says Lisa M. Davis, Ph.D., a nutrition consultant and researcher in Baltimore.

woman pouring olive oil over vegetables as part of anti-inflammatory diet meal plan
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How to Control and Limit Chronic Inflammation

Making a few tweaks to your lifestyle can help keep inflammation at bay. A few changes that might help:

  • Get moving. When you're strength training or doing cardio, you're creating mini tears in your muscles, which triggers inflammation to heal the trauma and create stronger muscle fibers, Harley Pasternak, MSc., previously told Shape. But exercise also triggers the expression of two anti-inflammatory cytokines that help to control the body's inflammatory response after you're finished breaking a sweat. Plus, frequent exercise is associated with lower levels of inflammatory cytokines in blood plasma, according to a review published in Physiology.
  • Get some sleep. Physical and emotional stress are both associated with the release of inflammatory cytokines, and people with irregular sleep schedules are more likely to have chronic inflammation than consistent sleepers, according to the NIH article. (
Potato Chips and Cola as foods that increase inflammation in the body
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The Worst Foods for Inflammation

If you're thinking about testing out an anti-inflammatory diet plan for a day or forever, keep this list of inflammatory foods to avoid in mind. In general, these nutrients are found in inflammatory foods such as packaged and processed foods, as well as fatty animal products.

Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are needed to help cells function properly, but when consumed in excess, the acids can have harmful effects on the cells in the heart and blood vessels, according to the NLM. What's more, these fatty acids may inhibit the positive anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids. The problem: Corn, soybean, sunflower, canola, palm, and safflower oils are significant sources of omega-6s, according to a study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. These ingredients are commonly used for cooking and are found in processed foods, so you could consume too many omega-6s without realizing it. (

Processed Carbs

Think of your body as a furnace, says Kiros. Processed carbohydrates act a lot like paper, and when they go into your furnace, they burn up in seconds. "Processed carbs spike blood sugar, dump insulin in your system to manage the sugar, and then they make you crave more carbs because you're running out of energy," says Kiros. It's a constant cycle that happens when you eat processed carbohydrates, she adds. (ICYDK, insulin is a hormone that helps manage blood sugar so it can be used as energy.)

If you routinely experience a big spike in blood sugar following a meal, your body will overproduce free radical molecules (aka unstable molecules that can build up in cells and cause damage to DNA, lipids, and proteins) and release more inflammatory cytokines, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. And this can have serious health effects: A study of nearly 1,500 women found that those whose diets consisted largely of foods with high glycemic indexes, or foods that quickly increase blood glucose levels(think: sugar, soft drinks, white bread, potatoes, and white rice), were almost three times more likely to die of an inflammatory disease than women who consumed mostly foods with low glycemic indexes. (FTR, carbs definitely have a place in a healthy diet.)

While all these substances may cause inflammation, it's important to remember that you don't have to avoid inflammatory foods entirely. Protein, healthy fats, and fiber are like logs that keep your furnace running steadily, and if you intentionally pair those nutrients with processed carbs, your blood sugar levels are more likely to stay stable, says Kiros. "You can still enjoy them without causing inflammation or spiking your blood sugar," she adds. After all, if you take on an anti-inflammatory diet with an all-or-nothing mindset, you'll have a hard time sticking to it, she explains.

Saturated Fat

There isn't a clear consensus among researchers on whether or not saturated fat is directly linked with inflammation, but it's worth mentioning. Some research shows that saturated fatty acids increase the production of inflammatory mediators (aka messengers that promote an inflammatory response) and induce the expression of inflammatory genes, while other systematic reviews of scientific research suggest that the current evidence linking saturated fatty acids with inflammation remains inconclusive. (FYI, here's the difference between "good" and "bad" fats.)

What is known, however, is that saturated fat — found in foods such as beef ribs, sausage, some processed meats, and cheese — can cause problems when it's consumed in excess. Saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which combines with other substances to form a plaque that builds up in your arteries, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Since the body perceives this plaque as abnormal, inflammatory cells are released to cover the plaque and wall it off from the flowing blood. But if the plaque ruptures and mixes with the blood, it can form a clot, which may lead to heart attack and stroke, according to Harvard Medical School.

What's more, an 8-week intervention study in people with high cholesterol showed that a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat (just 5 percent of dietary fat came from saturated fat) was linked to reduced inflammation. TL;DR: Keeping your saturated fat consumption low can be good for your heart and potentially inflammation levels.

The Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Okay, you know which inflammatory foods to avoid, but which foods should you add to your plate? Reference this anti-inflammatory foods list. Each of these nutrients — and the anti-inflammatory foods they're found in — will help prevent those serious health effects of chronic inflammation.

Antioxidant-Rich Foods

ICYDK, antioxidants are compounds that help fight off free radicals that can cause cell damage, and ultimately, inflammation, according to Harvard Medical School. More specifically, antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E and phytonutrients such as carotenoids (found in orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes) and flavonoids (found in red and purple fruits such as apples, berries, and grapes) all help turn off the inflammation switch, too, says Kiros. And thankfully, you can find them in plenty of fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens, citrus, berries, bell peppers, and more. Some spices also pack inflammation-fighting antioxidants, including cinnamon, curry, dill, oregano, ginger, and rosemary. Teas are chock-full of them, too, including the green, black, white, and oolong varieties, so feel free to include a brew in your anti-inflammatory diet meal plan.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, help build brain cells, keep your heart healthy, and have an anti-inflammatory effect, says Kiros. And higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with decreased biomarkers of inflammation, according to research from Oregon State University (OSU). To ensure you get omega-3s in your diet, nosh on chia seeds, walnuts, oysters, and herring, according to the NIH. Kiros' favorite omega-3 sources for an anti-inflammatory diet meal plan: flaxseed and hemp seeds, sardines, salmon, and mackerel.

Healthy Fats

Unlike saturated fats, which can lead to that build-up of plaque and potentially cause inflammation, monounsaturated fats help lower LDL cholesterol (the "bad" kind that can collect in arteries) and may reduce inflammation, according to Oregon State University's Micronutrient Research Center. Likewise, polyunsaturated fat can also help lower LDL cholesterol, which is important since low-cholesterol diets may also reduce inflammation in the body, per OSU. You can find these better-for-you fats in olive oil and avocados, as well as walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds, all of which contain these healthy fats and omega-3s to ease inflammation, says Kiros.

Low-Glycemic Foods

Remember, having high blood sugar levels can cause inflammation from the free radicals and inflammatory cytokines your body produces in response. That's why high glycemic load diets (eating patterns that center on foods that have a high potential to raise blood sugar) may trigger inflammation, according to research from OSU. Of course, it can be difficult to understand which foods won't totally spike your blood sugar without scouring Google. The easiest way to tell if a food has a high or low glycemic load: its fiber content. "Low-glycemic foods usually have a higher content of fiber, so I want people to think of foods that have more fiber, such as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts," says Kiros.

Plate of salmon fillet steak roasted with spices served with fresh salad as part of anti-inflammatory diet meal plan
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Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan

How can you incorporate anti-inflammatory foods onto your plate? Look to these anti-inflammatory recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all the mini-meals in between. Note, this anti-inflammatory diet plan shouldn't be seen as a menu to follow to a T all week long, but rather an example of what a daily anti-inflammatory diet plan could look like.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan Ideas for Breakfast

  • 1 cup oatmeal with skim milk: Oatmeal contains flavonoids and has no saturated fat.
  • 2 tablespoons raisins and 1/2 cup blueberries: Both raisins and blueberries are rich sources of antioxidants.
  • 1 tablespoon walnuts: Walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids and would be a great topping for your oatmeal.
  • 1 cup green tea: Green tea is rich in antioxidant polyphenols but isn't linked to increased inflammation as you'd find with moderate-to-heavy coffee drinking.
  • 1/4 avocado on whole-wheat toast: Avocado boasts anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats and omega-3s.
  • A frozen berry smoothie with 2 tablespoons chia seeds: The berries provide antioxidants, while the chia seeds offer omega-3s and healthy fats.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan Ideas for Lunch

  • 3 ounces turkey: Turkey offers protein and contains just 3 grams of saturated fat (just 6.75 percent of the USDA's recommended daily allowance for total fat intake), making it the perfect meat to include in a sandwich along with the rest of the following suggested foods.
  • 100-percent whole-wheat bread, red-leaf lettuce, and tomato: The tomato, lettuce, and whole-grain bread contain antioxidants lycopene, anthocyanins, and lignans, respectively.
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise: The mayo brings some much-needed flavor to this sandwich, and the small amount of omega-6s in mayo's soybean oil is okay if you don't consume high sources of it elsewhere in your diet.
  • 6 ounces 100-percent fruit juice: Fruit juice provides antioxidants.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan Ideas for Snacks

  • 2 tablespoons mixed nuts: Nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat.
  • 3/4 cup grapes: Grapes contain anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant.
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt offers a source of probiotics, which can restore the balance of bacteria in your gut. (When it's out of wack, the bacteria send signals to your immune system to create inflammation.)
  • 1/3 cup fresh berries: Berries provide antioxidants and fiber to this anti-inflammatory snack.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan Ideas for Dinner

  • Three ounces baked wild salmon sprinkled with oregano: Salmon is a top source of omega-3s, and oregano contains antioxidants.
  • 1/2 cup brown rice: Brown rice is high in lignans.
  • Steamed asparagus spears drizzled with olive oil: Asparagus contains various antioxidants, and the olive oil provides monounsaturated fat.
  • Salad made with 1 1/2 cups spinach leaves, sliced red peppers, red onion, and 2 tablespoons avocado cubes: The red peppers, onion, and spinach contain antioxidants (the latter also contains a small amount of omega-3s), and the avocado offers monounsaturated fat.
  • Dressing made with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon vinegar: The olive oil is a source of anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fat.
  • 6 ounces red wine: Wine contains polyphenols.
  • A homemade tuna burger, mixed with bell peppers and scallions: The tuna contains anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, while the added peppers give a boost of antioxidants.
  • A side of non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, squash, or mushrooms: These non-starchy vegetables are low-GI foods, helping to keep blood sugar stable.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan Ideas for Dessert

  • 1 cup sliced fresh peaches, sprinkled with cinnamon: Peaches contain carotenoids and flavonoids, while cinnamon packs polyphenols.
  • Overnight chia seed pudding, made with 1/4 cup chia seeds and 1 cup liquid (such as plant-based milk or juice): The chia seeds boast 11 grams of fiber per two tablespoons and are the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Fresh fruit: The added fruit to the chia seed pudding offers a source of antioxidants.
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