Summer produce is vibrant and flavorful, making the farmers' market one of my favorite places to shop this time of year. Another perk? Many summer foods are packed full of nutrients and bioactive compounds, which research says may help reduce and suppress inflammation.
Inflammation in the body is caused by irritants and foreign compounds—often from our environment and food—and when it continues long-term, it leads to an overstimulated immune system that research has linked to health conditions like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune conditions.
Reducing inflammation through diet is considered a key component to preventing disease, slowing the aging process and improving overall health. Incorporating ripe summer produce is a great way to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits. Here are eight of summer's best inflammation-fighting foods to take advantage of over the next few months.
Even though it's now available year-round in larger markets, summer is technically this leafy green's prime season. Arugula has a lighter, leafier texture, and it's got a slight peppery flavor that makes it perfect to toss with a citrus dressing and some ripe berries.
Arugula is a leafy green akin to spinach, kale, and lettuces like romaine, red leaf and radicchio. The leafy green family's anti-inflammatory perks come from antioxidants (like beta-carotene and vitamin C) and phytochemicals, which are compounds in plant foods that act like antioxidants. Go ahead and skip the cooking on hot days and toss together a big salad instead!
Did you know that one cup of fresh strawberries halves has more vitamin C than a medium orange (89mg vs 70mg of vitamin C)? That's over 100% of your daily value in one little cup! And since vitamin C is an antioxidant, this bioactive nutrient not only sweeps up harmful free radicals to protect cells from inflammatory damage, but may also help to suppress some inflammatory proteins in the blood.
All berries are at their sweetest and most flavorful during summer months, so no worries if you're not a strawberry fan. You'll get similar vitamin C content, as well as compounds related to their bright red and deep purple colors, in blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, too. Another perk is that berries are a great source of fiber, which can help lower heart disease risk and slows the digestive process to help keep blood glucose levels more stable.
View Recipe: Spinach-Strawberry Salad with Feta & Walnuts
This creamy fruit is full of monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, fiber and carotenoids, which collectively work together to soothe inflammation in the body. In fact, the bioactive compounds in an avocado may even be able to counteract inflammation triggered by less healthy foods containing saturated fats.
A 2013 study found that individuals who ate a burger topped with avocado had lower levels of inflammatory markers than those who ate the burger by itself. Slice or cube ripe avocado to add to a sandwich or salad, mash it to use as a spread in place of mayo, or make a quick guacamole.
Pictured recipe: Big Beautiful Summer Salad
It's hard to beat sweet, juicy cherries when they're in their summertime prime! They're also packed full of antioxidants and polyphenols, like anthocyanins. In fact, eating both sweet and tart cherries, as well as drinking tart cherry juice, has been associated with lowering one's risk of conditions driven by inflammation such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Plus, their anti-inflammatory effects may even improve brain functioning and sleep. Those with joint issues or arthritis may want to take special note, since some research suggests the compounds in cherries may provide pain relief similar to ibuprofen.
Pictured recipe: Cherry-Berry Oatmeal Smoothies
Garlic's pungent flavor seems like it might increase existing inflammation in the body, but incorporating plant-based foods with strong aromatic compounds (like garlic) is actually considered a key component of an anti-inflammatory diet, particularly when it comes to cancer.
Others flavor additions include fresh summer herbs like basil and cilantro, and aromatic spices like turmeric, black pepper and cinnamon. The fragrant compounds in garlic, herbs and spices have been used medically in other cultures for years, and those with who have joint pain and swelling or arthritis may feel the greatest benefits.
View Recipe: Roasted Garlic-Parmesan Cream Sauce
They add a nice touch of color and crunch, but radishes aren't a vegetable you hear much about when it comes to improving health. However, the root vegetable shouldn't be overlooked, because it's part of the cruciferous vegetable family. This group of vegetables—which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and bok choy—appear to have with powerful anti-inflammatory properties when eaten regularly, particularly when it comes to reducing cancer risk. This is thought to be from the sulfur-containing compounds known as glucosinolates they contain. Research supports these veggies' health potential so much that a weekly minimum—at least five servings—is recommended to reap the benefits.
Eat up: Healthy Radish Recipes
Anyone else find themselves adding ripe tomatoes to mot every dish and meal this time of year? There's really nothing better than a perfectly ripened summer tomato, which is why I usually end up picking them up at my local farmers' market two to three times a week.
While tomatoes are great sources of vitamin C, folate and potassium, they also contain the phytochemical lycopene which elevates them to superstar status in the anti-inflammatory food world. Research suggests lycopene reduces current inflammation, as well as suppresses future, which is believed to help lower cancer risk (particularly prostate) and heart disease risk.
Pictured recipe: Heirloom Tomato Salad with Charred Corn & Pepper Salsa
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
I know it *technically* doesn't have a season, but extra-virgin olive oil is ideal to use with fresh summer produce, salads, and even in marinades for its flavor and potential health benefits. While olive oil has a small amount of omega-3 fats, the compound oleocanthal really makes it a key anti-inflammatory pantry staple.
Oleocanthal suppresses inflammatory compounds, likely a key reason that olive oil is associated with reduced disease risks when it comes to brain, heart and joint health. And if grilling is one of your staple cooking methods in warmer months, olive oil may even offer potential protection from AGEs and HCAs (those harmful compounds formed during high-heat cooking) with vitamin E's antioxidant effects.
Try it: Herbed Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert. Her work is regularly featured in Cooking Light, RealSimple, Parents, Health, EatingWell, the American Heart Association and more. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.