7 Anti-Inflammatory Lunch Ideas Full of Antioxidants, Fiber, and Lean Protein

Did you know that what you eat for lunch can help control unwanted inflammation in your body? Some inflammation is really important in certain cases, like when you’re sick or injured. But when this inflammation goes from acute and temporary (beneficial) to chronic and long-term (harmful), your health can suffer. The good news is that certain healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating nutritious and anti-inflammatory foods, can help reverse inflammation and keep it at bay. Hence the health-related benefits of packing an anti-inflammatory lunch.

What is inflammation?

Things in life are rarely black or white, there is often a gray area, and that is certainly the case when it comes to inflammation. As with high cholesterol or high blood pressure, having inflammation is always seen as a bad thing. And while it may be, some inflammation is useful and necessary.

Acute inflammation can be beneficial because it can be part of the healing process, explains Lauren Manaker, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian in Charleston, South Carolina. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is linked to some unpleasant health effects.

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to protect you from harm, for example, inflammation is responsible for the symptoms you experience when you are away from disease. The inflammatory response helps the body heal from cuts, infections, and injuries. But when there’s no immediate damage, but your body starts an inflammatory response anyway, you may have a bout of chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation is not so good and can even increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

How diet affects inflammation

There are several potential factors that can cause or contribute to inflammation, including infections that become chronic, physical inactivity, gut health imbalances, uncontrolled stress, and dietary choices.

Some foods have anti-inflammatory effects, while others can trigger or perpetuate inflammation, says Krista Wale, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Louisiana. Pro-inflammatory foods include ultra-processed foods and those high in added sugars, he says. Red meat, white bread and other refined grains, fried foods, baked goods, sugary drinks, high-sodium foods, and trans fats can also cause inflammation, according to a 2019 research article in Nature Medicine on inflammation chronic and its effects on health and lifespan. These foods can activate the body’s inflammatory response, contributing to a cycle of chronic inflammation over time.

Because the foods we eat play a role in inflammation, Manaker recommends taking advantage of that role by actively choosing anti-inflammatory foods whenever possible. Certain foods can reduce inflammation levels, due to the different nutrients they contain. The Mediterranean diet is a quintessential example of an anti-inflammatory diet, he says. Include foods like olive oil and other healthy fats, whole grains, dairy products, fish, herbs and spices, all of which can help reduce inflammation. These foods are rich in nutrients that have been positively associated with reducing inflammation, such as dietary fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Basic anti-inflammatory foods

For many people, preparing a balanced midday meal can be the most difficult. If your goal is to reduce inflammation, Manaker and Wale suggest building your lunches around the following anti-inflammatory foods:

This way of eating encourages you to prioritize whole, plant-based foods and lean sources of protein. It may seem like a lofty goal at first, but eventually you can try to make fruits and vegetables half of your plate. You should also eat plenty of whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats to get a variety of nutrients. You can also incorporate moderate amounts of animal protein, such as fatty fish, poultry, eggs, and low-fat dairy. These foods provide protein, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.

Anti-inflammatory lunch ideas

Cauliflower with kale, crispy chickpeas and tahini sauce

Victor Protasio

If you’re not sure what filling half your plate with vegetables might look like, this recipe is a great example. It’s a vegan lunch idea, but you don’t have to be vegan to enjoy it. In fact, recipes like this one, which use legumes as the main source of protein, can provide more variety for those who usually get their protein from animal sources. Plus, you get an antioxidant boost from kale, notes Manaker.

Avocado Grain Bowl with Beetroot Ginger Dressing

Greg Dupree

Once you learn how to create a balanced meal, the anti-inflammatory lunch ideas are endless, says Wale. Their general recommendation is to incorporate vegetables for fiber, whole grains, protein and healthy fats. This grain bowl recipe has it all: lentils for protein, brown rice and quinoa for whole grains (and more protein!), and beets and fennel as greens. With avocado and probiotic-rich kefir, it’s got your healthy fats, too. These are the ingredients of an anti-inflammatory meal, he says.

Grilled chicken and spinach quesadillas

Alex Farnum

When you need something that comes together quickly, try following a recipe that uses mostly prepared ingredients, convenience foods can be nutritious and anti-inflammatory! Grocery store roast chicken is ready to shred or dice, and use pre-shredded cheese and jarred pico de gallo or salsa. Chicken provides lean protein, Wale says, and this dish also has avocado for healthy fats. For vegetables, it’s full of spinach, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Roasted salmon with beetroot salad

When asked for their anti-inflammatory food recommendations, dietitians almost always name fatty fish, especially salmon. Fish like salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, says Manaker. Research has found that omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, which can help decrease activity in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

This lunch idea consists of roasted salmon with a bright side salad. It’s the kind of thing you can make ahead for people who bring lunch to work, and it contains beets, a Manakers favorite for adding antioxidants to savory meals.

Grilled chicken and pepper salad

Caitlin Bensel

If you like chicken, this popular protein source can absolutely be part of an anti-inflammatory diet, says Wale. However, you’ll want to stick to leaner cuts, like the boneless, skinless chicken breast used in this salad recipe. It also contains colorful fruits and vegetables such as mini sweet peppers, red onion, parsley and lemon. Adding color to your plate through a variety of vegetables is key to getting more anti-inflammatory antioxidants, says Manaker. It also contains fresh garlic, which gives the whole meal an anti-inflammatory boost, Wale adds.

Spiced sweet potato soup with pistachio dukkah

Alison Miksch

Looking for a lunch idea full of vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices? This soup recipe contains all of these anti-inflammatory powerhouses, but Manaker specifically recommends it as an opportunity to eat more pistachios. Pistachios are a complete source of plant protein and are known for both their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities, he explains, pointing to data published in Nutrients.

While the pistachios add a satisfying crunch and a dose of anti-inflammatory nutrients to this dish, let’s not forget the star of the sweet potato. This root vegetable contains antioxidants called carotenoids, which are particularly beneficial for eye health, but are also associated with reduced inflammation.

Chickpea salad sandwich

Few foods are as portable as the sandwich, which is why no list of lunch ideas is complete with one. This sandwich is a vegetarian version of the classic chicken or tuna salad sandwich. How does it substitute for texture and protein content without poultry or fish? chickpeas Chickpeas are rich in fiber and other nutrients, which support gut health, says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in New York City. And because gut and immune health are linked, supporting a healthy gut through diet can help play a role in regulating inflammation, he adds. It also has a handful of antioxidant-rich greens like celery, parsley, shallots and lettuce. With whole-wheat bread for grains and olive oil-based mayonnaise for fat, it’s a balanced on-the-go lunch.

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