There’s a lot of buzz these days about “eating clean” and following an anti-inflammation diet, and while these sound like worthy goals, few people probably know what they really mean. There’s no official definition for clean eating, which is why it can vary, depending on whom you ask. “What people typically mean is eating minimally processed foods, like fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and seafood, nuts, beans, and grains, and excluding highly processed foods or foods that contain refined sugars or flours,” says Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, creator of the blog Lively Table and a dietitian in Abilene, Texas.
Truth is, even though some might disagree with the above definition, the benefits of eating less processed and more whole foods are undeniable, and tamping down inflammation in the body is one. “Eating a diet of minimally processed foods can help reduce your body’s inflammatory response,” McMordie says.
Fresh, whole plant foods and healthy fats are loaded with powerful antioxidants that help fight what’s called oxidative stress, essentially an imbalance between antioxidants (disease fighters) and free radicals (disease causers) that can be a trigger for inflammation. They also help fight inflammation by nourishing gut bacteria, which can in turn reduce the fire through multiple pathways, says Vanessa Voltolina Mazzella, MS, RDN, a nutritionist based in Westchester, New York. Here’s how to make clean eating work for you.
1. Prioritize foods without labels.
Reading those little panels on the can or package is one of the oldest strategies in the healthy diet playbook. But if you want to give your diet a true makeover, you’ll eat mainly foods that don’t require labels like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Of course, there are some minimally processed foods that come with labels and are still considered healthy, and this is where you need to use your sleuthing skills. For McMordie, that means choosing foods that don’t have many added ingredients. For instance, if she’s looking for a nut butter, she’ll look for one that has only nuts and perhaps a little salt but no added sugar or oils.
Next, see if the ingredient list contains things you don’t know or can’t pronounce. “A long list of ingredient names that are unrecognizable or unpronounceable is likely a sign that the product may be full of additives or artificial ingredients,” Mazzella says. Finally, check the sodium, trans fat, and added sugars on the label. Per dietary guidelines, the daily value for sodium should be equal to or less than 5 percent (which makes it a low-sodium food), trans fat less than 1 percent of daily calories, and added sugar less than 10 percent of total daily calories.
2. Fill up on fiber.
If you’re adhering to the above strategy, you’re already loading up on foods that are good sources of fiber, a nutrient found only in plants — and one that most Americans aren’t getting enough of. While dietary guidelines recommend that women get at least 25 grams of fiber a day and men 38 grams, most Americans tally only about 15 grams a day, and that could lead to a plethora of health woes. “Short-term and long-term inflammation can be the result of inadequate fiber,” says Nichole Dandrea-Russert, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta and author of The Fiber Effect. Plus, “fiber is the foundation for a healthy gut, which is where about 70 percent of your immune system lies.” She recommends shooting for 30 to 40 grams a day, increasing your intake slowly, and making sure you drink more water as you boost the fiber.
3. Keep tabs on added sugar.
Naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables isn’t the problem here. It’s the sugar added to foods that’s worrisome. When you eat more sugar than your body needs (and it does need some to function properly), the pancreas releases insulin to move the sugar from the blood to other areas of the body where it’s used or stored. The problem? “Too much sugar and insulin in the body can cause cells to become insulin resistant over time, which is a risk factor for inflammation and many related chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression,” McMordie says. By eating fewer high-sugar foods, you’ll then have more room on your plate for healthier foods like vegetables. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming no more than 25 grams (equal to six teaspoons) of added sugar a day if you’re a woman, 36 grams (equal to nine teaspoons) if you’re a man. To keep added sugar low, check labels, as many staple foods like ketchup, pasta sauce, and salad dressing contain added sugar. Then, when possible, use fruit to sweeten foods, McMordie says. For instance, add fresh or frozen berries to plain yogurt (don’t buy the flavored kind) and use mashed banana or applesauce to replace some or all of the sugar when baking.
4. Skip the salt.
It not only contributes to high blood pressure, which can drive inflammation, but it can also affect the immune system, inflaming the body in a way that goes beyond heart issues, according to the AHA. The average individual eats 3,400 milligrams of sodium every day, which is a far cry from the 1,500 milligrams per day recommended by the group to avoid high blood pressure and heart disease (2,300 milligrams is the upper limit). Checking food labels for sodium can help but so, too, can eating whole, unprocessed foods, which typically contain little or no salt. Then replace the salt shaker with other herbs and spices like garlic, paprika, vinegar, or Mrs. Dash, Mazzella says.
5. Go organic — or not.
Studies have shown that organic foods can be better not only for the environment but also your health, even when it comes to inflammation. “A few studies do show that pesticide exposure can increase signals of inflammation in the body and alter gut bacteria in mice and in vitro,” says McMordie, adding, though, that many of the pesticides studied have been banned in the US for decades, and it’s not entirely clear what level of exposure might cause these effects. Of course, organic foods are often more expensive than their conventional counterparts, but if that doesn’t fit into your budget, don’t sweat it. “Any fruit or veggie, whether organic or not, is better than none,” she says. If there is wiggle room in your budget, though, focus on the organic products that make the most difference. Buying organic produce with peels that you don’t eat (like avocados and bananas) may not be important since the peel blocks chemicals. For produce like leafy greens and strawberries where there’s no outer protective layer, organic is a wise choice. To help make your decision easier, check the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, a list of the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.
6. Get smart about GMOs.
Foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot-button issue, and while it’s important to know what it means, they’re not something to lose sleep over. Yet you should know that GMOs are often in products with soy, corn (like corn syrup or cornstarch), papaya, and cassava, Mazzella says. Many additives, preservatives, and food flavorings also tend to be genetically modified. So do GMO foods matter if you’re trying to eat clean and tamp down inflammation? Possibly. “Although there’s a lot of controversial information coming out about GMO foods, data does show links between pesticides used on GMO foods and inflammation, oxidative stress, and fatty liver,” says Jyothi Rao, MD, medical director of the Shakthi Health and Wellness Center in Mount Airy and Elkridge, Maryland, and co-author of Body on Fire. Rao recommends avoiding these foods as much as possible by eating organic if you have the means and accessibility.
7. Rethink meat.
While it does contain nutrients — especially protein — meat can also come with numerous deleterious health effects. “Substituting plant-based proteins like legumes for meat can reduce inflammation due to the fiber and phytonutrients in plants, which aren’t found in meat,” Dandrea-Russert says. Plus, that juicy steak (and other meats) contain saturated fat and advanced glycation end (AGE) products, both of which have been shown to be inflammatory. You can choose lean meat to reduce some of the fat, but AGEs can occur in beef, poultry, eggs, and fish whether the food is lean or not, she says.
You don’t have to cut animal products out entirely; scale back by making meat a side dish, go meatless on Mondays (or make Mondays the only day you consume meat), or skip the meat for two of your three daily meals.
Is gluten the culprit?
If you’ve gone gluten-free to quell digestive issues, join the club, but it may be for nothing. “Gluten as the trigger behind digestive issues is highly overblown, as the majority of people don’t have any issue with gluten and can continue eating it,” says Kaleigh McMordie, MS, RDN. Yet there are some people who do experience an inflammatory response to this protein that’s found in foods made with wheat, barley, and rye. How can you know? Eliminate gluten for a short period and then reintroduce it, paying attention to your symptoms and the way you feel when you go without versus when you’re eating it.
In some cases, it’s not gluten that’s causing the problems but carbohydrates, aka FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), which includes lactose and fructose. You can try a low-FODMAP diet to suss out offenders, which include some of the healthiest fruits, veggies, and grains around, but McMordie recommends consulting a dietitian, as FODMAP elimination diets are complicated and only meant to be temporary. (A dietitian can help you get to the bottom of your GI issues in general so you can feel your best.)
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Anti-Inflammation, in 2023.