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.
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“Exercise can cause acute or short-term inflammation, which is normal,” says sports health dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD. “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.
Foods that fight inflammation include a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat since they’re 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.
Patton outlines nine recommendations for foods that decrease 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. 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 and instead, we must obtain it from dietary sources or supplements.
- 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. While the FDA banned trans fats in most foods, they can still be found lurking in things from flavored coffee creamers to certain types of microwave popcorn. So make sure you read labels carefully. There is no safe level of trans fat. It decreases good cholesterol and not only raises bad cholesterol (considered pro-inflammatory), but it also recycles and reuses it.
Find vitamins in the food you eat
Here are some recommendations that work best for people who exercise vigorously:
- Vitamin A: Find vitamin A in foods like sweet potato, spinach, carrots and tomatoes.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C can be found in foods like citrus (think lemons and limes), cantaloupe and red and green peppers.
- Vitamin D: This vitamin can be found in oily fish, fortified foods and dairy products.
- Calcium: Find calcium in low-fat milk, cheese, broccoli, kale, fortified orange juice, low-fat Greek yogurt and fortified non-dairy milk.
- Copper: Eat sesame, pumpkin, shittake mushrooms, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and cashews to get your copper intake in. Copper is also great during the first few weeks of injury recovery (adequate amount found in average multivitamin).
- Zinc: Up your intake of zinc by eating lean beef, crabmeat, chicken, cashews and fortified cereals.
- 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 milligrams daily in supplement form.
- Garlic: It can reduce the 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.
- Bromelain: An enzyme found in pineapple juice. Grab a glass of pineapple juice after your 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,” she says. “A proper diet and supplements will help keep inflammation under control.”