Athlete's Guide to Fighting Inflammation

Did you know the foods you eat can have a direct impact on inflammation and injury?

Intense exercise triggers the release of compounds known as free radicals. Free radicals can cause cell damage, loss of muscle function, and result in an inflammatory response. Eating foods that are rich in antioxidants and Omega-3s help protect cell membranes from damage caused by these free radicals. These nutrients aid in the growth and repair of injured tissue and can help to enhance both short and long-term recovery from intense exercise.

So what foods help fight against inflammation?

Vegetables - Rich in vitamins & antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, flavonoids, and carotenoids, it’s a no brainer that veggies help fight inflammation. Some of the richest sources include (but are not limited to) bell peppers, onions, green leafy veggies like kale, spinach, and collard greens, beets, mushrooms (also high in Vitamin D), broccoli, and sweet potatoes.

Berries – Research has shown that athletes who consume berries prior to and after prolonged exercise experience less inflammation and oxidative stress. Berries contain several antioxidants, including anthocyanins, vitamin C, and resveratrol. Add a variety to your diet such as blueberries, strawberries, goji berries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Egg Yolks – Yolks are rich in several vitamins & antioxidants, including vitamin A, C, lutein and zeaxanthin. Although egg white omelets are often mistaken for being a “healthier” option, it’s actually the yolks you want. You miss out on all these nutrients eating only the whites.

Whole Grains – Due to their high fiber content, whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, and oats can help protect against inflammation. 

Spices – Some spices, such as ginger or turmeric, contain anti-inflammatory compounds. Add these spices to your dishes, along with garlic, or add a pinch to your smoothies.    

Seeds – Seeds such as flax and chia are rich in both fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. So baseball players -keep eating those sunflower seeds in the dugout! They’re rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids.

Nuts – Rich in powerful antioxidants like vitamin E and anti-inflammatory fatty acids like omega-3, nuts should be a staple in your fight against inflammation. Aim for a variety that includes almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios.

Fatty Fish – Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and albacore tuna are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. *Although I always recommend food first, if you don't consume enough of these omega-3 rich foods in your diet and need to take an additional supplement, make sure you're using a safe and certified product. Look for the "NSF Certified for Sport" logo and ask a sports dietitian before beginning any new supplement.

Tart Cherry Juice - Cherries are very rich in antioxidants. Research has shown this concentrated cherry juice to be beneficial in reducing inflammation.

Citrus Fruits – Rich in fiber, flavonoids, and vitamin C, citrus fruits can help fight inflammation as well as protect your immune system. Add more citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits to your diet.

Avocados – Rich in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E & C, and fiber, these “fruits” come with anti-inflammatory benefits. They’re an excellent replacement to high-saturated fat spreads such as mayonnaise or butter on bread and sandwiches. 

What foods should I avoid that could lead to inflammation?

Refined starches such as white breads, pasta, and rice break down quickly into sugar during the digestive process, which could in turn lead to inflammation, especially in high amounts. Excessive amounts of added sugar such as glucose, fructose, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, and syrup to name a few, can also lead to inflammation. Try reducing the amount of processed, packaged foods you eat such as snack cakes, cookies, crackers, and cereals. If “enriched flour” and “sugar” are the first two ingredients, pass on it and search for a better option.

High intakes of saturated and trans fats could also lead to inflammation. Watch your intake of red meat and processed meats, as these tend to be highest in saturated fat. Hydrogenated and “Partially Hydrogenated” (Trans Fat) are most prevalent in fried foods, snack foods and desserts such as pastries, cookies, candy, and crackers. Read the ingredient label. If “partially hydrogenated’ is listed as an ingredient, skip it.

Alcohol in moderation, especially red wine due to it’s antioxidant content, can actually be a good thing. However, going much over this point of “moderation” (i.e. no more than 1 drink for women, 2 drinks for men) could actually do your body more harm than good. Athletes should avoid drinking alcohol in excess as it could lead to inflammation and negatively impact muscle recovery.

Meal Planning Tips

Incorporating the foods mentioned above will help fight against inflammation. Here are a few simple ideas/recipes to help put it all together into a meal plan.

Breakfast - Make a 2 egg omelet with peppers, onions, spinach, and mushrooms, or toss it all together in this Farmer's Market Breakfast Casserole. Have with a big cup of berries. For athlete's needing additional calories, add a side of oats with walnuts on top. 

Lunch & Dinners - Enjoy a grilled or baked fillet of fish such as salmon, lean protein such as a chicken breast, or plant-based protein such as lentils on a bed of quinoa or brown rice. Season the dish with garlic, ginger, or turmeric, and top with a heaping cup of green vegetables such as broccoli or kale. To add some additional calories and healthy fats, chop up half an avocado and sprinkle sesame or pumpkin seeds on top. Or make this Burrito Bowl Recipe

Snacks - Enjoy fresh fruits and veggies like oranges, grapes, carrots, or cucumbers with a serving of mixed nuts. Or dip apple slices into peanut or almond butter. Have a slice of whole grain bread with nut butter, berries, and flax seeds sprinkled on top, or mix a variety of fruits and veggies together in a smoothie. Enjoy a glass of tart cherry juice, or toss it into a smoothie as your liquid.