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February 14, 2022

Understanding The Dietary Inflammatory Index & Foods That Reduce Stress

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Stress inflammation foods

Raise your hand if you know the best way to de-stress. Alcohol? Dessert? How about consulting with the dietary inflammatory index first? For those who don’t know, the dietary inflammatory index is a guide to the best foods that aid in stress relief and lowering inflammation.

Stress is linked to inflammation, which leads to susceptibility to infections, cancer, obesity, depression, etc1,2. The dietary inflammatory index (DII) weighs the impact of our food on the state of inflammation and stress in our bodies, using data from multiple countries1. It helps inform us as to which foods reduce stress, and by changing how many anti-inflammatory foods versus pro-inflammatory foods (such as saturated/total/trans fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates) we consume in a day, we could tilt the scales on how much we are plagued by stress and inflammation.

Let’s get into the nine best foods that reduce stress and help lower inflammation:

  1. Turmeric: One of the highest-scoring anti-inflammatory foods on the dietary inflammatory index, it has a long history in traditional holistic medicine3. It is often available in powder form and can be easily added to many liquid foods/drinks such as soups, sauces, coffee, tea, and smoothies.
  2. Fiber: The daily recommended intake for women and men is around 25g and 38g, respectively, but some studies have found that even just an increase of 5 additional grams of fiber daily can be helpful2. High fiber sources include chia seeds, lentils, chickpeas, brussels sprouts, oranges, and soybeans. Also, consider eating the skin of your fruits and vegetables to add more fiber to your diet. Make sure to clean them well first.
  3. Polyphenols: This group of compounds is why many plant foods benefit our health3. Foods plentiful in polyphenols include coffee, cacao/chocolate, legumes, and red wine/grapes. Certain polyphenols (such as flavanols, flavones, and flavanones, found mainly in tea, herbs, olive oil, tomatoes, potatoes, spices, citrus fruits, nuts, beans, and apples) have also been associated with weight loss. Another common polyphenol found in berries (called ellagic acid) can even help reduce skin wrinkles from radiation and control blood pressure and cholesterol.
  4. Beta carotene: Common foods that contain this include spinach, kale, cantaloupe, oranges, and blackcurrant juice2. Easy ways to incorporate these foods into your diet are to blend them into juices or add them to salads.
  5. Magnesium: This mineral is generally found in seeds (such as pumpkin or chia), nuts, beans, and whole grains4. Start your day by throwing a few of these foods into a nice, warm bowl of oatmeal. For an added boost, you could mix some polyphenol-containing foods, such as dark chocolate and berries, for a healthy diet that reduces inflammation.
  6. Ginger, garlic, onions: These flavorful plants have long been recognized for their various health benefits and ranking well in the dietary inflammatory index while adding some zest to your meal. Of the three, ginger is rated highest in benefit1. Make sure to drink up on those ginger teas!
  7. Vitamins: We all know vitamins are good for us, but which are best? In the context of reducing inflammation1, it seems vitamin D (found in fish, eggs, fortified milk, mushrooms2) > vitamin C (found in peppers, citrus fruits, kiwis, broccoli5) > vitamin E (found in nuts/vegetable oils, seeds and grains2) > Vitamin A (found in leafy greens, orange and yellow fruits/vegetables, tomato products, fish oils6) > Vitamin B6 (found in chickpeas, fish, poultry, starchy vegetables7).
  8. Omega 3 fatty acids: Fatty fishes and other seafood (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, and oysters) are excellent sources of essential DHA/EPA omega 3s8. Meanwhile, plant sources, including seeds and nuts, supply the ALA type of omega 3s, which is also necessary and can be converted to limited amounts of EPA and DHA in our bodies.
  9. Zinc: This common mineral, often taken for colds/flu, is found in shellfish (i.e., oysters, crabs, and lobsters) and pumpkin/squash seeds and nuts9. Whip up a healthy dose of zinc by making a nice soup or trail mix with these foods that help lower inflammation.

Now that we know how to reduce inflammation in our diets, what about foods for stress relief? It turns out many of the foods that help lower inflammation are also suitable for stress relief:

  1. Omega 3 fatty acids: Seafood-sourced omega 3s regulate dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters, which are imbalanced in depression and anxiety10. While not typically something we think to eat in times of stress, keeping a few cans of ethically sourced seafood in our pantry for an easy, stress-free meal to cheer us up can be helpful. Even eating just 8 oz a week is enough to meet the weekly recommendations by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans11.
  2. Magnesium: Being deficient in magnesium can lead to changes in mood and increased anxiety10. Add nuts and seeds to yogurt for a healthy, stress-reducing, guilt-free dessert.
  3. Zinc: Like magnesium, not eating enough zinc can affect mood and anxiety levels10. Oysters top the list of best foods to reduce stress while increasing zinc in the diet9. How about some dollar oysters at happy hour?
  4. B vitamins: This group of vitamins, especially folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, are essential in the optimal functioning of our nervous systems10. Most meat/seafood and dairy products will provide enough of these B vitamins and include some of the best foods for stress relief. Meal prep a batch of stews or whip up some low-fat milk/yogurt smoothies for a stressful week ahead of time.

Now that you know about the best foods to reduce stress and better understand the dietary inflammatory index, try incorporating more of them into your diet. Balance the pro-inflammatory foods you usually stress eat with the anti-inflammatory foods above. Many healthy, flavorful foods can be prepared beforehand, so keep some handily ready, as you never know when stress may strike. Then, while others sit around focused eating, you can raise your hand and share the best foods to de-stress.

  1. Shivappa N, Steck SE, Hurley TG, et al. Designing and developing a literature-derived, population-based dietary inflammatory index. Public Health Nutr. 2014;17(8):1689-1696. doi:10.1017/S1368980013002115
  2. Iddir M, Brito A, Dingeo G, et al. Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition: Considerations during the COVID-19 Crisis. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1562. doi: 10.3390/nu12061562
  3. Durazzo, A, Lucarini, M, Souto, EB, et al. Polyphenols: A concise overview on the chemistry, occurrence, and human health. Phytotherapy Research. 2019; 33: 2221– 2243. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6419
  4. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Magnesium: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Aug 11, 2021.
  5. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin C: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Mar 26, 2021.
  6. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Mar 26, 2021.
  7. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin B6: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Mar 26, 2021.
  8. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega 3: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Aug 4, 2021.
  9. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc: fact sheet for health professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets. Updated Dec 7, 2021.
  10. Kris-Etherton PM, Petersen KS, Hibbeln JR, et al. Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety. Nutr Rev. 2021; 79(3): 247-260. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025.
  11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. December 2015.