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How to Improve Recovery With the 15 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Display of delicious best anti-inflammatory foods

Injury and inflammation are annoying. Not being able to exercise is frustrating. But we can actually influence the recovery process by a couple of simple mechanisms. In this article I will discuss anti-inflammatory aspects and how we can leverage the health benefits of anti-inflammatory foods. I will also inform you about the foods to avoid and my top five easy-to-follow rules of thumb. 

What Is Inflammation, Anyway?

Inflammation is our immune system's natural behavior to fight an infection or to heal an injury. It is a fairly complex process by which white blood cells protect us from infection from outside invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. 

Inflammation is the essential first stage in repairing any damaged tissues — followed by the proliferation and remodeling stages. In this first stage, an increased amount of inflammatory chemicals (as part of the white blood cells) are sent to the affected areas. The body clears out damaged or dead cells and starts rebuilding new ones. 

Acute inflammation may at times be uncomfortable (redness, heat, swelling, or pain) but it is a good thing as it heals the body. Inflammation should never be suppressed but supported and encouraged for a faster and healthier healing. The right foods can be extremely effective to fight inflammation. 

The problem arises when someone suffers from chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is when a certain area does not seem to heal and constantly stays in a state of inflammation. The immune system does not seem to be able to correct the damage. In the worst cases, chronic inflammation may even lead to high blood pressure, asthma, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s. Some causes of chronic inflammation include smoking, obesity, alcohol, or chronic stress. 

This can be avoided. That's why I always promote a healthy lifestyle. Food is an essential part of it. The good news is that anti-inflammatory foods highly correlate with healthy and clean eating anyway. We can reap a wide range of general health benefits and support weight loss or improved athletic performance.

Less Inflammation, More Happiness

The connection between inflammation and happiness may seem a bit far-fetched. But it's not. 

Scott Adams, the inventor of the Dilbert cartoon, defines happiness as the sum of health plus freedom. Of course, personal freedom is crucial. But only good health will eventually allow us to enjoy that freedom. Leveraging the anti-inflammatory properties of the right foods can very positively influence our health conditions. 

This is not a short-term fix but a long-term game. The right foods in combination with being active and generally living a healthy lifestyle contributes to better physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being, thus making us happier. 

To achieve that practically, let's look at some of the top anti-inflammatory foods.

What Are the Top Foods in an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

It’s surprisingly easy to follow a more anti-inflammatory diet. I will share a simple list of foods with anti-inflammatory effects that you will find in a typical grocery store. Some of these are referred to as superfoods (BTW, kiwis are a highly underrated superfood).  

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fatty Fish)

Studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) are probably the best foods to reduce inflammation. Omega-3 can mostly be found in fatty fish. People who are regularly consuming fatty fish or omega-3 supplements experience a reduction in inflammation. A good source of fatty fish high in omega-3 are salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, or sardines.

2. Turmeric

Turmeric is a plant of the ginger family and used as a spice in curries. One key compound of turmeric is curcumin, a polyphenol that is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. In order to increase the effect of curcumin, scientists recommend combining it with piperine, which can be found in black pepper.

3. Nuts

Nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, or peanuts) and seeds (such as flax, sesame, or pumpkin) all contain healthy fats and are anti-inflammatory. Walnuts and pecans in particular contain the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is the plant-based version of omega-3 fatty acids.  

4. Olive Oil

Evidence shows that extra-virgin olive oil (especially its components, referred to as phenols) has anti-inflammatory effects and improves blood vessel function.

5. Leafy Greens

Apart from the fact that veggies are great and should form a substantial part of our diet anyway, they are also rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals. Both are compounds that reduce inflammation. Some of the most effective veggies are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or collards.

6. Fruits 

Best anti-inflammatory foods: blueberry in a bowl

Fruits are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Berries like strawberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and also oranges have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. I love blueberries and eat them every day. They are known to improve cognition in people and seem to have a nootropic effect. I love to eat them with pancakes

7. Avocados

Avocados not only offer a fresh taste, they are also a great source of healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants. A study compared people eating hamburgers with and without avocados. The group who ate their hamburger with avocado saw a positive impact on inflammation markers.

8. Vitamin D

Studies have established the connection between low vitamin D and a variety of inflammatory diseases. To increase vitamin D levels, just get out into the sun or use vitamin D supplements.

9. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate with a very high percentage of cocoa (at least 70%) is also rich in antioxidants. Its anti-inflammatory effects are mainly due to its ingredient flavanols. 

10. Peppers

Most types of peppers (including bell and chili) are a very rich source of vitamin C and have also been proved to be anti-inflammatory. 

11. Green Tea or Matcha

Green tea or matcha, which are ground green tea leaves, contain caffeine and the healthy polyphenols that are responsible for their anti-inflammatory effect. In addition, studies show that green tea can reduce the risk of chronic inflammation consequences such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or diabetes.

12. Coffee

Like green tea, coffee contains caffeine, which is anti-inflammatory. In fact, coffee has the highest concentration of caffeine. It is also a natural nootropic.

13. Zinc

Research suggests that zinc decreased inflammation and oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Oxidative stress triggers inflammation and may increase the risk of diseases like cancer. Zinc can be conveniently supplemented

14. Red Wine

Yes, you may like to hear that. I certainly do. Red wine (in moderation!) has been shown to have a positive effect on inflammation. However, too much alcohol has the opposite effect, as we will see in a later section.

15. Bromelain 

Bromelain is another anti-inflammatory enzyme that is especially found in pineapple. It is known to help in pain relief. There are even studies suggesting that it may possess anti-cancer properties but these are not conclusive yet. The safest way to take it is simply natural, by eating a pineapple.

Anti-Inflammatory Food Consumption and Best Intake Timing

People frequently ask me about the best time to eat certain foods. The most important thing is to base food intake on the 24-hour circadian rhythm on average. In all of my programs, I first determine the ideal caloric need specifically for a client. Caloric need is always relative to the circadian rhythm. Next, I create the optimal composition and macro split specific to a client's goal. The timing of when to eat what foods with the 24 hours is less important (with some exceptions, like don't drink coffee too late if you have trouble sleeping), especially regarding when to eat anti-inflammatory foods. In most cases it comes down to personal preference.

One thing we must not forget is that if our body is in a state of inflammation or injury, typically the calorie need is higher. The body needs more energy to heal. The basal metabolic rate (BMR) may increase by 15-50% (depending on the injury). 

Tissue repair requires protein. During stages of inflammation or injury I recommend you slightly increase protein intake. In terms of fat, you should aim for a good balance (1/3 each) between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. The omega-6 (vegetable oils) to omega-3 ratio should ideally be 1:1 to better support anti-inflammatory effects.

Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

Thankfully the inflammatory foods to avoid follow the same guidelines as healthy and clean eating plans. The main culprits that can amplify inflammation include:

  • Trans fats (fats that you find a lot in fried foods or fast food, margarines, and most processed foods, like everything ready-made and packaged)
  • Refined (processed) carbs where most fibers were removed (like white bread, sugary soft drinks, pasta, most cakes and pastries, or candy)
  • Vegetable oils (high in omega-6 fatty acids, like sunflower, corn, or soybean oil)
  • Too much alcohol (stay under two standard drinks per day for men, and one standard drink per day for women)
  • Added sugars
  • Processed meats (especially red meat like sausages or bacon)

My Top 5 Easy-to-Follow Rules of Thumb

If you want to go simple and be on the safe side, follow my five rules of thumb to get good anti-inflammatory effects:

Rule 1: Cut Out the Shit

This is the most important advice in general for fitness, health, and well-being. Cut out, or at least reduce, the junk like processed foods, added sugars, fried foods, trans fats, and refined carbs. Replace it with wholesome foods. 

Rule 2: Eat the Rainbow

Best anti-inflammatory foods in a colorful infographic

Find a good balance of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes, referred to as eating the rainbow. A colorful plate is a good sign. 

Rule 3: Get Enough Omega-3

Omega-3 is probably the most effective anti-inflammatory food. We can get it from a variety of natural sources. If not, supplementation of Omega-3 is very convenient and safe. 

Rule 4: Reduce Red Meat

Red and especially processed meat is assumed to be pro-inflammatory. If you are a meat lover, at least try to reduce it and replace it with fish or plant-based proteins.

Rule 5: When in Doubt ...

... simply eat more salmon, nuts, avocados, kale, spinach, turmeric, dark chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, and peppers.

Use the Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Speed up Recovery 

Nutrition is extremely powerful. That is why it is one of the main pillars of the 4 Legs of Fitness model. With it, we can influence our well-being or athletic performance in a positive or negative way. 

Inflammation is a necessary evil in our bodies and we can address it with anti-inflammatory foods to speed up recovery. The main recommendations are to cut out processed foods, added sugars, trans fats, and refined carbs. Eat the rainbow by having a good balance of colorful fruits and veggies. Get enough omega-3 and reduce red meat. Drink alcohol in moderation. Generally add healthy foods like nuts, avocados, kale, spinach, turmeric, dark chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, peppers, and fatty fish, and you'll be on the safe side.

Building sustainable healthy eating habits is one of the key components of my programs. Cut out the guessing and get started on your Build Bullet-Proof Health today.

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