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Behind numerous diseases and chronic conditions lies one subtle but often progressive factor: inflammation.

During the most harried time of year — the holidays — increased stress can cause an uptick in inflammation. Fortunately, even amidst the hustle and bustle of the season, the foods you choose can significantly help tame the inflammatory beast.

Here’s a look at how to combat inflammation with tasty holiday meals.

While it’s technically the body’s means of protecting against harm, a long-term inflammatory response has been linked to:

An anti-inflammatory diet aims to curb this response and help prevent the onset of disease.

Unlike branded diets that tell you exactly what to eat and when, an anti-inflammatory diet is an overall eating pattern. When you follow this diet, you’ll base your meals around foods that counter oxidative stress and reduce inflammation markers in the blood.

Anti-inflammatory food options

In practice, an anti-inflammatory diet looks a lot like a Mediterranean diet, encompassing foods rich in antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats. These include:

  • colorful fruits and vegetables
  • heart-healthy oils
  • fatty fish
  • nuts
  • legumes
  • whole grains

An anti-inflammatory diet is also defined by what it doesn’t contain. It means cutting back on

  • sugar
  • refined carbs
  • trans fats

Although the anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t have its own line of products or celebrity spokesperson, many people refer to the pioneering work of Dr. Andrew Weil, who has authored numerous books on the subject. His anti-inflammatory diet pyramid offers an in-depth alternative to the traditional food pyramid of bygone days or the USDA’s MyPlate.

Why the holidays may increase inflammation

Inflammation can happen at any time, but the holidays can be a minefield for this physiological response.

The hectic end-of-year pace causes extra stress, which can set off inflammatory activity. For many, the holidays can also be a time of sadness and relational strain. Add to this the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s no wonder inflammation can snowball at this time of year.

Meanwhile, staying up late to wrap gifts, cook, or catch up on work (or tossing and turning at night with financial worries) robs us of restorative sleep.

Traditional food choices around the holidays are another factor that can put us over the inflammatory edge. Drinking more alcohol and overconsuming high-sugar, high-saturated fat foods sets the body up for oxidative stress.

It’s definitely not a holly, jolly outcome.

As you plan your holiday meals, keep anti-inflammatory foods in mind. Here’s how to use the building blocks of this diet in your festive, seasonal cooking.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and veggies form the base of the anti-inflammatory food pyramid for good reason. With their many phytochemicals, they’re among the best foods for “cleaning” your cells of pro-inflammatory free radicals.

Some of the highest-antioxidant fruits and vegetables include blueberries, strawberries, and tomatoes. But since these aren’t in season in most winter climates, try using frozen berries in a fruit compote for a high-fiber dessert or canned diced tomatoes for an easy bruschetta appetizer.

To make the most of anti-inflammatory cold-weather veggies, look to:

  • carrots
  • parsnips
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cauliflower

Any of these can be roasted for a simple-but-delicious side dish.

Use winter greens like kale and cabbage as the foundation for green salads, like this one with pomegranate and pecans.

Fish and seafood

An anti-inflammatory diet uses red meat sparingly, since some research has linked red and processed meats to higher biomarkers of inflammation.

Fish, on the other hand, is rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. These good-for-you fats have been shown to dial back the levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation in the blood.

Used to a traditional ham or beef Wellington dinner? There are other fish in the sea!

Try an equally impressive citrus baked salmon (recipe below) or crab-stuffed flounder with lemon-dill aioli.

Plant protein

Though you may not eat a lot of animal protein on an anti-inflammatory diet, plant protein is always fair game.

In fact, some research has indicated that going fully vegan or vegetarian could improve the inflammatory profiles associated with obesity and rheumatoid arthritis, among other conditions.

To kick off the holiday feast with plant-based protein, whip up a white bean dip with sun-dried tomatoes. Then let the meatless goodness continue with a gorgeously glazed holiday tofu roast as a main dish.

Whole grains

Research consistently shows that the fiber and nutrients in the unrefined versions of grains like wheat, rice, barley, and oats help reduce systemic inflammation.

Fortunately, holiday dining offers plenty of opportunities to include these hearty whole grains.

Wake up to an overnight slow cooker maple cinnamon steel-cut oatmeal, serve whole wheat dinner rolls alongside your holiday main dish, or think outside the box (literally) with an unconventional stuffing made of quinoa and butternut squash.

Healthy fats

Nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil have an important commonality besides being delicious. They contain high doses of monounsaturated fat.

Not only is this type of fat good for your heart, it also helps alleviate cellular inflammation.

Olive, avocado, and canola oils can all work their way into holiday baked goods. Try a 3:4 ratio of olive oil to butter in cakes and cookies.

For more healthy fats, dress up green beans with a sprinkle of walnuts at a holiday dinner. Or, for a New Year’s brunch, channel your inner food stylist with a Christmas tree made of avocado toast.

Herbs and spices

Herbs and spices are your secret weapon for inflammation-busting meals. With no sodium, no fat, and almost zero calories, they’re a healthy flavor go-to in all sorts of menu items.

Turmeric and ginger are two spices that may particularly reduce inflammation. Opt for turmeric-spiced lentil fritters instead of the usual Hanukkah latke or nibble on raw ginger snaps for something sweet after dinner.

Beverages

At mealtimes, it isn’t just what goes on your plate that can quell inflammation. The contents of your cup matter, too.

Drinks like coffee, tea, and red wine are abundant sources of antioxidants.

Since too much alcohol will only add to the inflammatory load, switch things up with coffee or tea-based mocktails.

Espresso mock-tini, anyone?

Sweets

Yes, you can still enjoy dessert at an anti-inflammatory holiday meal!

Believe it or not, one of the highest-antioxidant foods is dark chocolate. Use an extra-dark cocoa powder in a rich chocolate mousse (complete with avocado for healthy monounsaturated fats) to finish off the meal.

Dried fruits make a nutrient-rich addition to desserts, too.

Shake a generous helping of dried apricots into oatmeal cookies or dried cherries into festive fruitcake cookies.

Need more anti-inflammation inspiration? Include these three superfood recipes on the holiday menu.

Fennel-roasted vegetables

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound (lb.) multicolor carrots, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch-thick matchsticks
  • 3/4 lb. parsnips, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch-thick matchsticks
  • 1 red onion, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons (tbsp.) olive oil
  • 2 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Spread carrots, parsnips, and red onions onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle with fennel seeds, salt, and pepper.

Bake for 35–40 minutes, stirring halfway through cooking time.

Serves 4.

Holiday citrus salmon

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb. wild-caught salmon
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. capers
  • 1 blood orange, sliced
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray a large baking dish with cooking spray and place salmon in dish.

Drizzle olive oil over salmon, then sprinkle with parsley and capers. Lay sliced blood orange and lemon on top of salmon and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bake for 2025 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serves 56.

Winter fruit red wine sangria

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups diced winter fruits (your choice of apples, pears, pomegranate arils, oranges, and fresh cranberries)
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 1 750 milliliter (mL) bottle red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 2 tbsp. maple syrup
  • 1 cup pomegranate juice

Instructions:

Place all fruit in the bottom of a large pitcher. Stir in all additional ingredients. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves 6.

You can decide what foods are right for you around the holidays. If you’re looking to calm systemic inflammation for better health, you can always politely decline pro-inflammatory foods you’d prefer not to eat.

Opt instead for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, seafood, beans, and legumes. Just know that the occasional sweet treat or glass of wine isn’t likely to make or break your inflammation levels.


Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.