Chances are, you’ve already gotten the word that inflammation is implicated in the onset and worsening of a multitude of diseases. Inflammation is the body’s naturally protective reaction to injury or harmful substances. When you stub your toe and it swells, that’s because your immune system is responding to the acute injury with inflammation that kicks off the healing process. It’s not that type of inflammation, but rather generalized, long-term inflammation, called chronic inflammation, that contributes to disease.

Researchers have firmly established a link between chronic inflammation and diabetes, heart disease, dementia, kidney disease, arthritis and many other illnesses. While the exact role of inflammation in disease isn’t completely clear, evidence suggests that inflammation in our vascular system—our blood vessels—is particularly problematic. By way of analogy, patient advocate and health evangelist Dr. David Sherer, MD, likens a healthy circulatory system to a network of highways with perfectly smooth roads. Inflammation causes potholes and bumps to form, making it harder to transport oxygenated blood to our organs.

Our cells naturally produce more inflammatory substances as we age, but we have some measure of control over our levels of chronic inflammation in the form of lifestyle choices like exercise and the foods we eat. Study after study has shown that people who eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains have lower levels of chronic inflammation—and lower levels of disease and early death—than those whose diets are high in red meat, added sugars and salt, and refined grains. But which vegetables are best when it comes to fighting inflammation?

Non-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory vegetables

Before we discuss specific vegetables, it’s helpful to bear in mind that nearly all vegetables (so long as they are unprocessed) are preferable to refined grains and other processed foods when it comes to inflammation. That’s because even if a vegetable doesn’t actively reduce the amount of chronic inflammation in your body, chances are that it at least won’t cause inflammation levels to rise. Any time you subtract from your diet an ultra-processed food and replace it with an unprocessed vegetable, you’re helping to lower the net level of chronic inflammation in your system because you’ve removed an inflammation trigger and replaced it with something that is non-inflammatory at minimum, if not actively anti-inflammatory. So, while the following list highlights some heavy hitters among anti-inflammatory vegetables, don’t assume that a food you don’t see on the list would be a bad choice.

Forms of vegetables

In our world of superabundance, vegetables are offered in a variety of forms which may affect their nutritional quality.

Avoid any vegetables that have been heavily processed. Technically, any plant-based food can be called a vegetable, but just because a food’s main ingredient is plant-based doesn’t make it healthy. After all, the main ingredient of cheese puffs is corn, but even children know not to mistake them for vegetables. Not all examples of processed vegetables are as obvious as cheese puffs, however. The vegetables in pre-made packaged meals may have been treated with preservatives that incite inflammation.

The very best choice for how you purchase your vegetables is fresh, raw, whole, and organic. Purchasing them in that form lets you start with the full nutritional and anti-inflammatory vegetable potential and gives you complete control over how the food is prepared and served.

Of course, not all vegetables are available fresh year-round, and your lifestyle might not permit the frequency of shopping required to keep fresh vegetables on hand at all times. Your second-best choice, then, is frozen vegetables, since freezing uses no harmful preservatives while locking in flavor and most nutrients.

Third in the pecking order is canned vegetables. They can be perfectly nutritious and flavorful but be sure to read the ingredients…the fewer the better. Look for no-sodium or low-sodium options and avoid ingredients you don’t recognize.

When it comes to preparation, try to avoid overcooking your vegetables. If you’ll be sautéing or lightly frying your veggies, use olive oil. Season with pepper, onion, garlic or spices, minimizing salt usage. Obviously, vegetables deep-fried in animal fats will cause inflammation even if they began life as anti-inflammatory.

Inflammation heavy hitters

Broccoli… Broccoli has been enjoying a renaissance of late, and with good reason. It’s highly nutritious, with lots of vitamin C. It also boasts high quantities of sulforaphane, a bioactive compound that has been found to simultaneously inhibit enzymes that promote inflammation while promoting antioxidant enzymes. Steam or roast it to preserve its nutritional value, or snack on it raw.       

Sweet potatoes… Not just for Thanksgiving, these delicious and satisfying veggies are an excellent source of an anti-inflammatory compound called beta-carotene, as well as fiber and a host of other vitamins and minerals. Bake or boil, seasoning lightly.

Carrots… The old saw about eating carrots to promote vision is true, thanks to the beta-carotene that’s a hallmark of this classic root vegetable. But carrots also contain the anti-inflammatories falcarinol and falcarindiol. The bad news is that falcarinol and falcarindiol are leached out when carrots are cooked. The good news is that raw carrots are delicious.

Leafy greens… Kale, spinach, collard greens, endive, arugula, turnip greens, and beet greens all boast numerous health benefits including anti-inflammation, thanks to phytochemicals such as zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene. They also tend to be high in vitamin K, manganese, folate and other vitamins and minerals. Eat them raw in salads or sandwiches, or cooked, since the cooking process doesn’t diminish their nutritional value.

Peppers… Peppers don’t usually come immediately to mind when we think about nutritious vegetables, but they belong near the top of any list of anti-inflammatory plant foods. Bell peppers contain quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that’s been shown to reduce pain levels and improve quality of life for people suffering from diabetes. And chili peppers contain ferulic and synaptic acids, both thought to be anti-inflammatory.

Beets… The humble beet is a nutritional powerhouse. It contains a phytochemical called betacyanin which is known to be an anti-inflammatory, plus plenty of potassium, nitrates and fiber. Beets are delicious roasted or juiced.

Radishes… Remember radishes? It seems hardly anyone eats them anymore, which is a shame, since they’re packed with antioxidants. A compound in radishes called sulforaphane may reduce cancer risk and prevent DNA damage in cells. Radishes also happen to be high in vitamin C and, as a bonus, may have antifungal properties. They come in a range of colors besides the classic red, with variations in flavor for those with low tolerance for red radishes’ kick. Munch them raw or slice them up and add to sandwiches or salads.

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