Foods that fight inflammation have been on my mind following the launch of my new book last week, The Vegan Athlete's Nutrition Handbook. The book highlights the advantages of a plant-based diet for athletes (as well as non-athletes and anyone in between!). One of the main advantages of adding more plant-based foods to your plate is the abundance of compounds in plants that fight inflammation rather than promote inflammation.
One question that popped up during an interview I did this week for Singletracks podcast is, how do plant-based diets help athletes fight inflammation and expedite recovery? My answer was a little more involved than what I'm about to share here (check out my answer in detail and the full podcast here), but, in summary, there are two things in plants that fight inflammation: fiber and phytochemicals.
You may have heard me mention fiber once or twice (wink wink ... what I mean is that I've probably gotten on your nerves with the amount of times I get overly excited about fiber!). It's essential for creating a healthy gut and fighting inflammation both in the gut and throughout your system.
Phytochemicals, also sometimes called phytonutrients, are compounds created by plants that protect them from environmental factors like weather and insects. There are thousands of them and, when we consume them, they are protective to us. Many of them act like antioxidants, fighting free radicals, protecting our organs, like the liver and heart, and supporting healthy physiology (like detoxification and a strong immune system).
In essence, all plants are pretty stellar when it comes to fighting inflammation, because most of them contain both fiber and phytonutrients. However, there are a handful of standout superstars that deserve honorable mention:
Watercress (and other leafy greens!)
While we know that leafy greens are power-packed with nutrients, like carotenoids, vitamin C, and fiber, all of which fight inflammation, this lesser known veggie was suggested by the CDC as the healthiest vegetable in the world. It comes with dietary nitrate, a compound also found in kale and other leafy greens, that turns into nitric oxide when we consume it. Nitric oxide helps to dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow, bringing oxygen and nutrients to cells, helping to fight inflammation. Also similar to other leafy greens, it's packed with carotenes like beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, all powerful scavengers of free radicals. If watercress isn't available to you or if its peppery flavor isn't your thing, try other anti-inflammatory leafy greens like kale, arugula, collards, Swiss chard, spinach, or mustard greens.
Add raw watercress (or other leafy greens) to salads, grain bowls, and sandwiches, lightly sauté it in a stir fry, blend it into pesto, or stir it into a soup.
Chia seeds are loaded with two powerful anti-inflammatory nutrients, omega 3 fatty acids and fiber. Dietary fiber is the foundation of a healthy gut because it feeds the bacteria in our gut that produce short chain fatty acids, compounds that mitigate inflammation. Fiber also acts like a broom for our digestive tract, sweeping out inflammatory pathogens and toxins. Omega 3's have been shown to fight inflammatory responses in the body, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and depression.
Honorable mentions go to omega 3-rich hemp seeds and flaxseeds. Flax seeds exert their powerful effects when they're ground into flax meal, so make sure to grind your flaxseeds before enjoying them on oatmeal, blended into smoothies, or used in baking.
Both chia and flax can be used as an egg substitute in baking. One tablespoon of chia or flax plus three tablespoons of water equals one egg). You can also make chia pudding (see recipe below!) or sprinkle chia seeds into smoothies or on top of smoothie bowls.
Avocados top the list of anti-inflammatory foods because they are packed with several anti-inflammatory nutrients including fiber, monounsaturated fat, carotenoids, and glutathione. I mentioned fiber above, but it's worth mentioning again! Dive deeper into all of fiber's magic by checking out my book on fiber or taking a peek at this fiber-filled post). Just one avocado has approximately 10 grams of fiber, which is one-third of your 30–40 grams of fiber a day needs! Avocados are also most unsaturated fat in the form of monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to be protective against heart disease, especially when it's consumed in place of saturated fat. Carotenoids are phytonutrients that act like antioxidants in the body, scavenging those free radicals that create inflammation. Finally, avocado is one of the best sources of glutathione — a lesser known compound compared to compounds like vitamin C or vitamin E (two other antioxidants avocado contains!). Glutathione is a tripeptide (three amino acids put together) that our bodies make. We also get it through food. It acts like a potent antioxidant and has been shown to support liver, brain, and immune health.
Make avocado toast your go-to morning breakfast, add avocado to sandwiches, blend avocado into sauces and dressings, or make avocado chocolate mousse.
Berries of all kinds, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are packed with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals like anthocyanins, stilbenoids, and ellagitannins. Among all fruits, berries contain some of the most diverse phytochemicals, many of which act like antioxidants, scavenging free radicals from the body and fighting inflammation. These antioxidants have been shown to be protective against certain types of cancer like skin, breast, and lung cancers.
Of course, berries can easily be enjoyed solo as a snack, but there are many other ways to enjoy berries as well! Make a chia berry spread for extra anti-inflammatory benefits of the omega 3, fiber, and phytochemical trio. Add berries to plant-based yogurt to make a parfait. Or toss berries into a salad for natural sweetness.
These little gems happen to be top of mind because of the research I found on them for The Vegan Athlete's Nutrition Handbook. Tart cherries, in particular, have been studied for their ability to quench oxidation and improve recovery in both strength and endurance athletes.
Tart cherries contain plentiful phytochemicals including (fancy names alert!) anthocyanins, flavonoids (quercetin, kaempferol, isorhamnetin), flavanols (catechin, epicatechin), gallic acid equivalents, procyanidins, and phenolic acids. Both tart cherries and sweet cherries contain these compounds; however, tart cherries have higher concentrations.
Bonus: Studies also show that tart cherry juice may help with sleep by increasing overall time in bed, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency with the same dose. Unlike melatonin, which may help with sleep quality but not without residual mental and physical fatigue, tart cherry juice may also improve cognition and performance. Boom! Cherries for the win.
Snack on cherries, blend them into smoothie bowls, add them to oatmeal or blend frozen cherries with plant-based yogurt for a delicious (n)ice cream!
If I'm being honest, it was actually very challenging to narrow down anti-inflammatory foods to just five from the plant-based kingdom because there are so many! In fact, most plant-based foods have inflammation-fighting compounds including fiber, vitamins and minerals, plus mega amounts of phytonutrients that act like antioxidants. Bottom line is that eating a variety of colorful plant-based foods will help to keep your gut healthy, squelch inflammation-promoting free radicals, and support multi-organ health, like liver, brain, and heart health. Below is a tasty dessert (or snack!) recipe from my book, The Vegan Athlete's Nutrition Handbook, to get you started.
Cool Down Chia Pudding
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: none
1 cup plant-based milk, unsweetened
¼ cup chia seeds
½ cup pumpkin puree (or substitute avocado)
2 ½ tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or ground cinnamon
Vanilla Cashew Cream Ingredients
1 cup cashews, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, drained
½ cup plant-based milk, unsweetened
¼ cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt (optional)
Add the pudding ingredients (from the plant-based milk to the pumpkin pie spice) to a blender or food processor.
Blend until smooth.
Transfer the pudding into a bowl (or two individual bowls) and refrigerate for at least four hours.
Meanwhile, make the vanilla cashew cream: Add the cashews, plant-based milk, maple, vanilla, and salt into a blender or food processor.
Blend until smooth.
Top the pudding with one or two dollops of vanilla cashew cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon, if desired.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Per serving: 322 calories, 12 grams protein, 37 grams total carbohydrate (26.5 grams net carbohydrates), 16 grams fat, 10.5 grams fiber, 63 milligrams sodium
Calcium 352 mg
Iron 5.6 mg
Magnesium 155 mg
Selenium 18 mcg
Zinc 2.6 mg