By Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD
The health benefits of choosing whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains over processed foods are nearly endless. One of the primary benefits of these nutrient-rich foods is that they can reduce inflammation in the body.
Exercise can cause acute or short-term inflammation, which is normal. A proper diet helps keep this inflammation under control. What is most concerning is the potential for chronic inflammation as a result of poor diet, stress and/or improper or overtraining in those who exercise vigorously. This combination puts you at higher risk for injury and illness.
Reducing inflammation in your body can help you train more consistently, recover faster from injuries, perform at your highest level and ultimately prevent chronic disease. Let’s take a closer look at how food combats inflammation.
Carbohydrates, protein and fat are your sources of energy (carbs), the building blocks of cells (protein) and the means to absorb vitamins (fat). Both vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in muscle contraction, blood flow, tissue repair and healing. Some are more important than others.
9 diet tips for reducing inflammation
- Choose whole-grain starches, fresh whole fruits and vegetables. These are more nutrient-dense and contain a plethora of vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain and improve health.
- Consume a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables and grains from week to week to obtain the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- Limit refined starches (white versions) and added sugars (white or brown sugar, soda, energy drinks). These less nutrient-dense foods promote inflammatory symptoms such as weight gain and elevated blood glucose and lipid levels.
- Choose skinless poultry, fish, eggs, legumes and fat-free Greek yogurt. These are quality sources of protein, as well as additional sources of calcium, vitamin D, probiotics and unsaturated fat.
- Limit high-fat red meat such as prime rib, bacon and sausage, as well as processed meats like bologna, salami and hot dogs. These are higher in saturated fat, which if consumed in excess will increase inflammation.
- Choose monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, which are thought to neutralize inflammation. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocados and nuts. Research shows consumption of these fats is associated with decreased risk of heart disease and cancer, which are associated with inflammation.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in wild salmon and tuna, walnuts, and ground flaxseed. Omega-3 is an essential fat that our bodies cannot make. We must obtain it from dietary sources or supplements. Research shows that this form of fat can decrease inflammation associated with exercise.
- Limit saturated fat. This includes butter, whole milk, cheese, high-fat red meat and skin on poultry. Our bodies only require a small amount; therefore, daily excess intake will exacerbate the inflammatory response.
- Avoid trans fat altogether. This includes prepackaged baked goods, flavored coffee creams (liquid and powder), some brands of shelf-stable peanut butter, and chocolate- or yogurt-coated snacks. There is no safe level of trans fat. It decreases good cholesterol and not only raises bad cholesterol (considered pro-inflammatory) but recycles and reuses it.
Besides the foods you eat, vitamins and supplements are important to consider. Here are some recommendations that work best for people who exercise vigorously:
Vitamin A: 10,000 IU daily for one to two weeks post-injury may enhance healing
Vitamin C: 1-2 g daily temporarily during intense training or if recovering from minor injury
Copper: 2-4 mg daily during the first few weeks of injury recovery (adequate amount found in average multivitamin)
Zinc: 15-30 mg daily during the first few weeks of injury recovery (adequate amount found in average multivitamin)
Turmeric: an ingredient found in curry powder. Curcumin is an antioxidant compound in turmeric, which gives curry and mustard their yellow color and offers anti-inflammatory benefits. Consider adding turmeric to your spice rack, or for a more aggressive approach, you can take 400 mg daily in supplement form.
Garlic: Research shows it can reduce production of two inflammatory enzymes and may be helpful in keeping arteries flexible and clear, allowing for oxygen-rich blood to get to working muscles. Cooking with two to four garlic cloves daily will add plenty of flavor, plus fight inflammation. If you rarely cook, consider taking 600-1,200 mg of aged garlic extract.
Bromelain: an enzyme found in pineapple juice. Research shows it is an anti-inflammatory. Grab a glass of pineapple juice post-workout or add it to your recovery smoothie for plenty of immune-enhancing vitamin C and inflammation-fighting benefits.
It’s important to consider carefully the way you fuel your body. A proper diet and supplements will help keep inflammation under control.