Inflammatory Food Index Proves Dining Drives Inflammatory Response

A few years ago, we reported on a newly created index to rank how particular foods encourage or discourage inflammation—a well-known contributor to chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. Since the index is complicated and primarily for use by scientists, we also asked contributing medical editor and nutrition expert Andrew L. Rubman, ND, to give us his easy-to-follow list of foods that reduce inflammation—making us healthier—along with the most inflammatory foods that should be avoided. But first, here’s a recap of how the index works…

How Do Foods Spark Inflammation?

Researchers at the University of South Carolina, including James Hébert, ScD, creator of the index, and Philip Cavicchia, PhD, who helped him design it, scored 41 foods and food components thought to positively or negatively affect levels of inflammation, based on a review of all the English language, peer-reviewed studies relating to diet and inflammation that were published between 1950 and 2007. Since then, new research is bringing the index closer to “prime time”—ready to be used in epidemiological and clinical studies.

Carbohydrates, fat and cholesterol were among the food components most likely to encourage inflammation, while magnesium, beta-carotene, vitamins A, B-6, C, D and E, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, turmeric and tea were the strongest anti-inflammatories.

Next, using data from the Seasonal Variation of Cholesterol Levels Study (SEASONS), they examined the records of 494 men and women (average age 48), looking specifically at the relationship between the inflammatory index (what they ate) and their blood levels of C-reactive protein (typically called CRP). Manufactured by the liver, CRP predicts vulnerability to inflammation and is also elevated in people with obesity, allergies and immune disorders—a lower CRP is thought to translate to reduced risk for heart disease, cancer and other inflammation-related chronic health conditions.

After factoring in variables such as age, weight and smoking status, the researchers found that there is indeed a relationship between an anti-inflammatory diet based on the inflammatory index and a reduced level of CRP. A newer study confirms the accuracy of the index.

Now, here are Dr. Rubman’s picks of the best and worst foods if you want to reduce inflammation in your body…


  • Wild salmon, mackerel and other omega-3-fatty-acid-rich fish.
  • Berries.
  • Green, leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach and kale).
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.).
  • Deeply pigmented produce, such as sweet potatoes, eggplant and pomegranate… along with carrots, plums, oranges, peppers, peas and red grapes.
  • Nuts.
  • Whole grains.
  • Tea—specifically black, green and white teas.
  • Cold-pressed fresh oils, including avocado, flaxseed and olive oils in particular.
  • Spices (specifically, garlic, ginger, turmeric, saffron).


  • Desserts made with lots of sugar (cookies, candy, ice cream and so on).
  • Sweetened cereals.
  • “White” carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white potatoes, English muffins, etc.).
  • Nondiet soft drinks.
  • Anything containing high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Processed meats (bologna, salami, hotdogs, sausage and others made with preservatives and additives).
  • French fries, potato chips and other fried snack foods.
  • Fast foods, most specifically the ones that are high-fat, high-calorie, high simple carbohydrate—which describes most of the inexpensive offerings at quick-serve restaurants.
  • Margarine, because it contains processed sterols called stanols that have been implicated in both atherosclerosis and various fatty-deposit diseases. (But not naturally occurring fats, including cholesterol and saturated fat, which are beneficial in moderation.)
  • Organ meats such as liver, because these often contain undesirable products including antibiotics, fertilizer and other unwanted residues.

How to Feel Better Fast

While on the topic, Dr. Rubman urged me to add one more bit of information to this “highly inflammatory” list. “It should also include almost any food eaten quickly, especially if you drink a lot of liquid while eating,” he said, noting that this is all the more true for people who then end up soothing their predictable digestive distress by taking antiheartburn medication. His advice is to eat slowly…chew thoroughly…avoid liquids during a meal so that you don’t dilute the stomach acid and reduce its ability to help digest food…and include items from the “best” list in every meal, every day, while eliminating those from the “worst” list or at least reserving them for an occasional treat. “Within weeks, you will decrease your risk for disease, improve your digestion, enjoy more energy and feel better overall,” he promised.