How it fights for you: A staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) was considered medicinal as far back as ancient Greece. While more than 200 compounds have been teased out of extra-virgin and virgin olive oil, it’s their anti-inflammatory phenolic compounds that appear to offer up the most potent health benefits.
What to eat: Buy extra-virgin olive oil that is pungent, even a little bitter, with that back-of-throat burn. That’s how you know you’re getting polyphenols.
While there are no U.S. guidelines on intake, the European Food Safety Authority recommends 20 grams (1 1/2 tablespoons) daily.
And get this: To examine the health effects of a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease, nearly 6,000 participants were assigned to either a Mediterranean diet that included 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily, a Mediterranean diet with a daily serving of an ounce of nuts, or a low-fat control diet. Heart disease dropped dramatically in both Mediterranean diet groups — by 30 percent, compared with the control group on a low-fat diet.
Nuts and seeds
How they fight for you: Nuts (such as almonds, cashews and peanuts) and seeds (such as flax, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower) are rich in healthy fats and contain a bevy of antioxidants, which indirectly fight inflammation. Nuts help reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which is prone to free radical attack and inflammation. Nut eaters tend to weigh less than people who don’t eat nuts, probably because nuts and seeds are particularly satiating. Less body fat helps stave off inflammation.
What to eat: All nuts and seeds are healthy. Walnuts contain ALA — the plant form of omega-3 fats, which is anti-inflammatory. Walnuts, as well as pecans and baru nuts (a new import from South America) are particularly rich in antioxidants. There are no official U.S. guidelines for nut consumption, but research studies show heart and other health benefits at 1 to 1 1/2 ounces daily.
And get this: Nut eaters have better heart health than people who don’t eat nuts, concluded a 2018 review of the research by Loma Linda University scientists. They noted that that people who eat about 1 3/4 ounces of nuts daily show reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
People who eat more nuts tend to weigh less, have smaller waistlines and are less likely to develop heart disease or metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors such as high blood sugar, high blood pressure and excess fat deep in the abdomen, which raises risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
Test tube studies show that sesamin, a phytonutrient in sesame seeds, is a potent cancer-fighter, thanks in part to its anti-inflammatory abilities.
Seafood and omega-3s
How they fight for you: Fish are the highest food source of two types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA. The American diet is woefully low in these fats, which not only prevent the formation of inflammatory compounds but also help destroy them. While scientists can’t say for sure why fish eaters tend to be healthier, omega-3s get at least some of the credit.
What to eat: Follow the American Heart Association’s recommendation to have at least two 3.5-ounce (cooked) servings of fish weekly. Your best bets are high in omega-3s but low in mercury: Arctic char, mackerel (Atlantic), rainbow trout, salmon and sardines.
And get this: Large-scale nutrition surveys find that fish eaters have a lower risk of developing heart disease, dementia and depression. Some, but not all, studies detected lower levels of inflammatory compounds in their blood.
One well-known Italian study that tracked more than 20,000 men and women age 35-plus for four years found that people who ate fatty fish at least four times a week were 40 percent less likely to develop heart disease. Fatty fish was particularly protective.
Averaging just 1.76 ounces of fish daily was linked to a 16 percent lower likelihood of having depression, according to a 2016 meta-analysis of 16 studies.