Share on Pinterest
All photos and recipes by Jackie Varriano

Ice cream. Your favorite song on the radio. Inflammation. What all these things have in common boils down to the phrase “too much of a good thing can make you sick.” In moderation, all of them can be wonderful. Yes, even inflammation.

Inflammation is a naturally occurring reaction of the healing process in your body. Sometimes, inflammation can get out of control, wreaking havoc on your body for weeks, months, or even years.

When this occurs, it’s called chronic inflammation, and it can increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It can also trigger rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease marked by joint pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Certain lifestyle choices can help contribute to inflammation. These include eating a lot of processed foods or those high in sugar and refined carbs, drinking an excessive amount of alcohol, and not getting enough exercise.

However, learning a little about balance can help keep inflammation and RA in check. In fact, for people with chronic inflammation and RA, finding that balance, and maintaining it with diet, is even more important.

“You learn in medicine that our bodies are complex and there’s no one thing that can correct all of our problems,” says Christine M. Thorburn, MD, a rheumatologist, or specialist in treating autoimmune conditions like RA.

“The bottom line I tell my patients with any autoimmune inflammatory illness is you need to be a better steward of your own body than people without an autoimmune disease. [Your lifestyle] will affect you more. My philosophy of diet is it needs to be well-balanced,” she tells Healthline.

In her training as a rheumatologist, Thorburn says that it’s her understanding that “our own immune system” is what’s driving inflammation.

Luckily, there are a few easy things someone can do to help achieve balance and keep inflammation in check. It’s what Thorburn calls “getting back to basics for eating.”

“As far as preservatives and additives, food needs to look like it’s supposed to, and it’s not normal for bread to stay fresh on the shelf for two to three weeks,” she says.

In addition to highly processed foods, she recommends cutting out what she calls “the white diet,” meaning white sugars, flours, and rice. Instead, replace them with complex, fibrous carbohydrates, whole grains, and foods that are naturally sweet, like fruit.

Natalie Butler, RDN, LD, agrees with Thorburn and even takes things a step further by having clients with inflammatory, immune-related diseases and RA begin with an elimination diet.

The first thing she asks her clients is if they’re consuming gluten or dairy.

“It’s not always the milk sugars that are the problem with dairy, it’s the proteins that can cause immune reactions; same thing with grains that contain gluten. Gluten is one of the proteins that trigger more inflammation or trigger more symptoms,” Butler says.

She recommends people give up all things gluten or dairy for one month. Substitute foods like beans, lentils, peas, potatoes, quinoa, wild rice, and oats for wheat-containing items.

“I encourage people to eat whole foods, instead of packaged gluten-free things,” Butler says.

Instead of dairy, she recommends consuming almond milk or coconut milk and steering clear of plant-based yogurts, as they’re often highly processed.

“I always encourage people to replace yogurt with some fermentable food. Supporting your gut bacteria and reinoculating your gut with healthy bacteria is an important part of managing rheumatoid arthritis. I’m encouraging nondairy sources of probiotics, whether it’s a supplement or it’s kombucha or kimchee.”

Butler recommends keeping a journal during the elimination month and seeing how you feel after — something Thorburn agrees with.

“Sometimes it’s really hard for individuals to figure out which food items in a meal are giving them discomfort. Everyone is different, and it’s hard to say. It’s a trial and error for the individual to find out,” Thorburn says.

Ultimately, everything should be personalized. That said, cutting gluten and dairy might not be right for you.

“I’m not an advocate of eliminating dairy unless they’re lactose intolerant, but yogurt is low lactose anyway, and not going radical with any diet. I don’t recommend being wheat-free unless someone truly has celiac disease,” Thorburn explains.

With that said, those who have sensitivities, regardless if they have lactose intolerance or celiac disease, should be mindful of how dairy and gluten affects them. Eliminating foods that cause inflammation is going to help reduce symptoms.

“You can have a long list of foods that are preferred and then, just as much as possible, avoid things that are filled with preservatives, artificial flavors, or colors,” Thorburn says.

One-month checkup After a month of trying a new eating plan, it’s always wise to reassess and add in foods if wanted.

If you’ve decided to eliminate gluten or dairy from your diet and abstain from processed foods, what does that leave you?

Thorburn recommends the Mediterranean diet

  • Focus on eating fatty fish, like salmon or sardines, in place of red meat.
  • Other animal protein options include anything wild, pastured, or grass-fed.
  • Fill up on plenty of fruits and veggies.
  • Add in healthy fats, like olive oil, raw nuts, and seeds like chia and flax.
  • Get your carb fix with whole grains and legumes.
  • Learn more about what foods to eat and avoid here.

“Eat coldwater fish with omega-3 fatty acids, hard nuts, [and] olive oil. Have protein be a side portion of the plate — not the focal portion,” Thorburn says of the Mediterranean diet.

Eat all vegetables in their whole form in addition to fun ways, like sweet potato noodles. And don’t forget about fat and water intake.

Don’t overlook healthy fats “Fat is so important to lubricate your joints, so if someone has chronic pain in their joints, I’m encouraging healthy fats at every meal because that, along with proper hydration, can really help to improve that joint flexion and protection of the joints,” Butler says.

Managing inflammation is a long game. There might be stumbles along the way, but the most important thing is to stick with it to find the plan that works for you.

“My experience is persons who are very thoughtful can reduce the amount of medicine, but rarely be able to stop all medicine. I would encourage people to really work with their rheumatologist. It’s not a quick fix to change your diet, but it can make an impact in the long term,” Thorburn says.

Recipes you’ll be shopping for:

  • buckwheat pancakes with nectarines
  • simple overnight oats
  • sardine nicoise salad

Produce

IngredientHow much the recipe needs
blueberries1/4 cup
sliced almonds1 tablespoon
Organic Girl butter and red leaf lettuce mix1 5-ounce container
large heirloom or slicing tomato1
nicoise or Kalamata olives1/4 cup
green beans1/2 pound
lemons2
baby fingerling potatoes1/4 pound
lime1
zucchini2 small
cherry peppers3
green onions1 bunch
lacinato or dino kale1 bunch
red onion1 small
peaches or nectarines2
ginger2 1/2 teaspoons

Protein

IngredientHow much the recipe needs
shrimp1 pound
large boneless, skinless chicken breast2
sardines1 4-ounce tin
eggs 3

Pantry

IngredientHow much the recipe needs
Bob’s Red Mill buckwheat flour3/4 cup
all-purpose flour3/4 cup
brown sugar1 tablespoon
sugar1 tablespoon
baking soda1 teaspoon
rolled oats1/2 cup
grainy mustard1 tablespoon
olive oil1/2 cup
soy sauce2 tablespoons
sesame oil1/2 teaspoon
peanuts1/3 cup
hazelnuts1/2 cup
chia or flax seeds1 1/2 teaspoons

Dairy

IngredientHow much the recipe needs
unsalted butter2 tablespoons
buttermilk2 cups
Califa vanilla almond milk1 cup
Share on Pinterest

Serves: 3

Ingredients

  • olive oil for coating pan
  • 3/4 cup Bob’s Red Mill buckwheat flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 nectarines

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients.
  2. In another bowl, whisk together egg, buttermilk, and butter.
  3. Add wet ingredients to dry in 2 batches, mixing until just incorporated. It’s fine to have lumps in the batter.
  4. Place a skillet on medium heat and add a little olive oil to the pan.
  5. Place 1/3 cup of batter on the hot skillet. Wait until bubbles form and flip.
  6. Slice nectarines to top pancakes.
Share on Pinterest

Serves: 1

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup Califa vanilla almond milk
  • 1/4 cup blueberries
  • 1 tbsp. sliced almonds
  • Optional add-ins: 1 1/2 tsp. chia seeds or flax seeds

Directions

  1. Add rolled oats and almond milk to a pint glass jar. Screw on the cap and shake to combine.
  2. Place in the fridge for at least 6 hours or overnight.
  3. Stir just before eating.
  4. Top with blueberries and almonds.
Fat, carbs, and protein per serving When looking to control inflammation, the amount of fat, carbs, and protein in your diet is important. Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet:
  • 12.1 grams of fat
  • 67 grams of carbs
  • 15.4 grams of protein
Share on Pinterest

Serves: 2

Ingredients

  • 1 5-oz. container Organic Girl butter and red leaf lettuce
  • 1 large heirloom tomato, quartered
  • 1/4 cup nicoise or Kalamata olives, sliced
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
  • 1 4.38-oz. tin skinless, boneless sardines packed in olive oil
  • 1/2 lb. green beans, blanched and cooled
  • 1/4 lb. baby fingerling potatoes, boiled and halved

Dressing

  • juice of half a lemon
  • 1 tbsp. grainy mustard
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Add dressing ingredients to a small jar with a lid. Shake to combine. Set aside.
  2. On a large platter, place butter and red leaf lettuce mix. Evenly place out tomato, olives, eggs, green beans, and potatoes. Break up sardine fillets and disperse.
  3. Shake dressing once more if it’s settled, and spoon desired amount over salad. Serve.
Fat, carbs, and protein per serving Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet:
  • 39.4 grams of fat
  • 22.2 grams of carbs
  • 19.9 grams of protein
Share on Pinterest

Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. shrimp
  • 2 small zucchini
  • 3 cherry peppers, or your choice of a slightly spicy pepper, sliced
  • 1 bunch green onions, sliced thin on a bias until the light green part
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, roughly chopped

Dressing

  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp. minced ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Add dressing ingredients to a glass jar with a lid. Shake to combine. Set aside.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add shrimp and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from water and plunge into an ice bath. Peel and set aside.
  3. With a vegetable peeler, peel zucchini into ribbons.
  4. Assemble salad by placing zucchini ribbons, pepper slices, and green onions on a platter. Top with shrimp and drizzle the dressing. Finish by topping with peanuts.
Fat, carbs, and protein per serving Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet:
  • 16.1 grams of fat
  • 12.5 grams of carbs
  • 31.4 grams of protein
Share on Pinterest

Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cooked wild rice
  • 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 bunch lacinato or dino kale, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • juice of one lemon
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

Directions

  1. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper, and sauté in a large pan.
  2. Once cooked, slice on a bias as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.
  3. Place kale in a large bowl with olive oil and lemon juice. Massage with your hands or tongs to coat the kale completely and soften.
  4. Add in red onion, red pepper, and olive oil.
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Top with chicken and hazelnuts and toss.
Fat, carbs, and protein per serving Here’s how the macros for this recipe fit into your diet:
  • 18.9 grams of fat
  • 38.3 grams of carbs
  • 30 grams of protein

Remember, our bodies occasionally need inflammation to help heal, but inflammation that’s out of control is a red flag. Be aware of your diet. Eat foods that have healthy fats, are low in simple carbs, and have good sources of protein. Focus on what makes you feel good diet-wise to keep your inflammation in check.


Jackie is a food writer and recipe developer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Zagat.com, Eating Well, Serious Eats, The Seattle Times, and more. You can find more of her writing on her website.