Inflammation is a normal part of your body’s immune response. Once your immune system notices that something’s off, it triggers inflammation and directs it at an invading germ, chemical, or allergen to protect your health.

But inflammation can become a problem when your immune system stays revved up, even though it isn’t battling a foreign invader. This is called chronic inflammation, and there are plenty of reasons why this happens—infections that won’t go away, stress, certain medications, and a diet high in refined carbs and sugar, to name just a few. Chronic inflammation can damage many areas of your body, including your heart, joints, and brain. This damage raises your risk of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s.

The good news? Adding anti-inflammatory foods to your daily diet can help—and it’s pretty easy to do! Here, two top dieticians give us a rundown of their go-to plant-based inflammation-fighters and how to best enjoy them.

1. Blueberries

These little fruits pack a serious anti-inflammatory punch. Blueberries have high levels of anti-inflammatory antioxidants that help fight oxidative stress in your body. Oxidative stress, in case you’re not familiar with it, can cause cell and tissue damage along with certain serious health conditions, including cancer and heart diseaseStudies show that eating blueberries regularly has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. 

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Add blueberries to salads, smoothies, baking, sprinkle over muesli, or enjoy them as a nutritious snack.

 

2. Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are “rich in antioxidants, especially lycopene, which have anti-inflammatory properties,” says dietitian Keri Gans. One study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that men who had more lycopene in their diets had a lower risk of prostate cancer, particularly aggressive forms of the disease. Another, published in The Journal of Nutrition, found that lycopene strongly prevented the growth and spread of breast cancer cells.

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To slip more tomatoes into your day-to-day, Gans recommends adding them to salads and sandwiches. You can also dip them in hommus or grill them on kebabs. Also, don’t forget: Salsa is basically all tomatoes, and it makes a tasty topper on everything from chicken to tofu.

3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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Extra virgin olive oil contains a phenolic compound called oleocanthal which has anti-inflammatory benefits, Gans says. Research has even compared the anti-inflammatory effects of oleocanthal to ibuprofen.

Need a little more convincing before you swap out butter for extra virgin olive oil? One study published in the Journal of Epidemiology suggests that oleic acid—which is the main fatty acid in extra virgin olive oil—can reduce inflammatory markers in the body, which are commonly looked at to diagnose and monitor inflammatory conditions, including infections, autoimmune conditions, and cancer.

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Cording suggests drizzling extra virgin olive oil over salads or pasta or using it to sauté or grill vegetables instead of butter, which can actually increase inflammation. You can even use it as a quick and easy dip for veggies—just add salt for extra flavour.

One thing to keep in mind: It’s best to limit yourself to using one to two tablespoons a day to get maximum benefits without messing with your overall health goals. “Extra virgin olive oil is a calorie-dense food, so you have to be mindful of portion sizes,” Cording points out.

4. Nuts

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Nuts are rich in vitamin E, which has anti-inflammatory effects, Gans says. “They’re also good sources of plant-based omega-3s, which are helpful in fighting inflammation,” Cording adds.

Walnuts in particular have solid anti-inflammatory properties. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined data from 26 trials that included more than 1,000 people and found that those who consistently ate walnuts had lower total cholesterol, lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, and lower levels of a protein linked to heart disease than people who ate diets with fewer walnuts.

Walnuts also contain polyphenols (plant-based compounds) called ellagitannins that are converted in your GI tract to molecules called urolithins—and those have been found to help protect against inflammation.

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“Nuts are great as an on-their-own snack or in a trail mix,” Gans says. “They can be added to yoghurt, muesli, a salad, or even tossed into a stir-fry.” Another idea: Throw nuts into the food processor to get them nice and crumbly. Then use the mixture as a substitute for traditional breadcrumbs on chicken and fish.

5. Avocados

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Avocados have a lot going for them in the anti-inflammatory department. They’re a good source of vitamins C and E, and provide omega-3 fatty acids, Gans points out. “They also contain monounsaturated fats, beta carotene, lycopene, and manganese, which all have antioxidant properties,” Cording says.

A cool study published in the journal Food & Function in 2013 analysed inflammatory markers in the blood of study participants after they ate a hamburger with or without about 50g of avocado. Afterward, the researchers discovered that the avocado group had lower levels of inflammation than those who had plain hamburgers.

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There are a few easy ways to enjoy avocados, per Gans: Mash it onto whole-grain toast with a poached egg on top, blend into a smoothie, or slice in a salad. You can even use avocado as a mayo sub—just mash it up and smear it on.

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