Inflammation is one of the most powerful ways your body protects itself. In response to infection, disease or injury, your immune system releases protective chemicals and sends blood where it is needed for healing. Too much inflammation, however, is dangerous. High levels contribute to serious conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A diet rich in inflammatory foods — such as refined grains, added sugars and unhealthy fats — increases these risks. Luckily, the opposite is also true: A largely anti-inflammatory diet provides protection, while enhancing your overall health.
Although you could spend large amounts of money filling your grocery cart with anti-inflammatory foods, it is possible to buy many healthy eats for less.
As rich sources of healthy fats and antioxidants, nuts can be valuable staples in an anti-inflammatory diet. And, they're one of the most affordable heart-healthy snacks. Numerous studies link nut consumption with lower levels of inflammation and other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure.
An analysis of several studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2015 showed that people who regularly eat nuts tend to have a lower risk of heart disease and cancer-related death than people who don't.
To save money, purchase nuts from bulk containers at your local co-op or health food store. For added heart-healthy benefits of omega-3s — essential fats that lower inflammation — go for walnuts. Instead of potato chips or pretzels, snack on two tablespoons of raw or roasted nuts between meals. Also consider sprinkling chopped nuts over a leafy green or fresh fruit salad.
Similar to nuts, seeds are valuable sources of heart-healthy nutrients known to lower inflammation. Valuable providers of the omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, flaxseeds and chia seeds are particularly good options.
According to research published in the scientific journal Nutrients in 2016, flaxseeds and their derivatives — such as flaxseed oil — can reduce levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation.
Purchase whole flaxseeds or ground flaxseeds in bulk at your local co-op — they might be available in a special mylar package so they stay fresh and the nutrients active. You can also order ground flaxseeds from Amazon. A 15- or 24-ounce package is less than $10.
Sprinkle ground flaxseeds over yogurt or mix them into your morning smoothies. Whole or ground flaxseeds can also add nutty flavor to homemade baked goods such as whole-grain muffins.
3. Beans and Lentils
Beans and lentils are leading sources of fiber. In addition to promoting digestive health, upping your fiber intake can lower inflammation. Rich in protein, beans and lentils also provide heart-healthy alternatives to inflammation-boosters such as fatty meats and dairy products.
Dried beans and lentils also happen to be some of the most affordable foods, costing well under $1 per serving once cooked. Buy them at any grocery store and throw them in the slow cooker with veggies, water and desired seasoning for a simple, nutritious soup.
For a cheaper alternative to frozen veggie burgers, make your own patties using cooked mashed beans. Season with desired ingredients — such as spices, chopped bell pepper and whole-grain bread crumbs — to enjoy immediately or freeze for later use. Even canned beans cost well under $5 per can and can be handy for last-minute use.
Berries are some of the best anti-inflammatory foods, especially if you eat a variety. Their antioxidant properties make them especially helpful by delaying or preventing certain types of cell damage that contribute to inflammation. For maximum antioxidant perks, go for blackberries, raspberries, tart cherries, strawberries, cranberries or blueberries.
Buying berries when they are in season at your local grocery store or farmer's market can help you save money because prices drop significantly when supply increases. Go for the larger containers, as smaller contains are generally pricier per serving.
Freeze berries you won't eat within a few days by washing the berries, removing the stems and storing them in freezer-tight containers. During other seasons, purchase large bags of frozen berries to use in smoothies or to add to your morning oatmeal.
Oats contain compounds known as avenanthramides, which appear to play an important role in lowering inflammation. Even eating oats for a short period of time has been shown to reduce overall and LDL — or "bad" — cholesterol.
As a nutritious whole grain, oats can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Make oatmeal using low-fat milk or water, then top it with berries, chopped walnuts and a drizzle of honey for an anti-inflammatory breakfast. Mix oats into homemade goods like whole-grain muffins, cookies or granola. You can even blend uncooked oats into smoothies.
Instead of single-serve tubs or boxes of oatmeal packets, which cost more per serving, purchase a large container of quick or old-fashioned oats from your favorite grocery store, or scoop oats from your co-op's bulk section to store in air-tight containers in your pantry.
6. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, providing an array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, as well as fiber. Dark leafy greens like kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, collards and chard are rich suppliers of vitamin K, which protects your bones and helps fight off inflammatory disease.
Purchase greens from your local farmer's market or grocery store, stocking up when a particular variety is in season. Rather than buy a mixed green salad blend, which tends to be more costly, purchase a few varieties to chop and toss together yourself.
To make fresh greens last longer, wash and chop any you won't use within a few days to freeze for later use in soups, stews and smoothies. You don't even need to thaw the frozen greens before use. Leafy greens also work well in stir-fries, omelets and wraps.
7. Olive Oil
Well known for its healthy fats, olive oil can play an important role in an anti-inflammatory diet. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition in Feb. 2016 showed that extra-virgin olive oil may help prevent rheumatoid arthritis by lowering inflammation.
Extra virgin olive oil consists of juice freshly squeezed from olives, and the fresher the juice, the healthier and tastier it is. It's also a staple in Mediterranean diets, which are linked to positive heart health.
While olive oil can be pricey, shopping at Aldi instead of Whole Foods can save you about 50 percent. To incorporate more olive oil into your diet, swap out ranch or thousand island dressing for olive oil and vinegar. Use it instead of butter on whole-grain bread and to sauté colorful vegetables over medium heat. Because olive oil has a low smoke point, avoid high heat on the stove to prevent overcooking.
8. Fatty Fish
All fatty foods aren't created equal. The omega-3 fats in oily fish like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines and lake trout are some of the top recommended anti-inflammatory foods. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish, particularly fatty varieties, per week.
To save funds, don't buy fresh fish from the seafood counter, especially those labeled "previously frozen." Those same items can be found in the freezer section at a lower price, so purchase the frozen fish and defrost them yourself.
If you find a great deal on fresh fish, stock up and freeze portions for later use. Though fresh fish only lasts up to a few days in the fridge, frozen fish lasts for two to three months. For a few months of longer freezer shelf life, cook the fish first. When you're ready to enjoy it, grill, bake or sauté the fish in extra virgin olive oil.