Inflammation seems inseparable from a host of common chronic health conditions. Whether you’re talking about physical ailments like heart disease or arthritis or mental ones like dementia, chronic inflammation is central to the discussion. But did you know that food choices can play a role in how your body copes with inflammation? An anti-inflammatory diet can provide nutrients that relieve stress on the body and reduce the risk for illness.
On the other hand, pro-inflammatory foods can boost stress that encourages immune response. Let’s take a look at how your diet can help manage inflammation and potentially protect you from serious illness.
How Food Can Promote Inflammation in the Body
Inflammation is a major buzzword in promoting health as well as preventing or treating disease. It can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
When it’s good, inflammation keeps you healthy. It is your immune system’s natural response to invaders or injury. It helps wounds heal and offers a natural defense against invaders like allergens, viruses, or chemicals.
But sometimes your immune system can’t slow down and inflammation occurs when there is no foreign invader. The body enters a state of chronic low-grade inflammation where the body is essentially attacking itself. This form of inflammation is closely associated with a number of health conditions including:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
It’s possible that managing and preventing chronic inflammation can drastically reduce the risk, or severity, of these conditions.
Food choices can play a major role in inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce low-level inflammation and lower the risk of plenty of common chronic illnesses.
How do some foods promote inflammation? It is multi-faceted. Let’s look at the inflammatory effects of three particular food types:
1. Low-Nutrient-Density Foods
Certain foods have very little nutrition. When a person eats a lot of these foods on a regular basis at the expense of nutrient-dense options, they are denying their body what it needs to function properly. That includes the immune system, cardiovascular system, and more.
2. Immune-Triggering Foods
Some foods may even trigger an immune response. High-sugar foods, foods high in saturated or trans fats, or common allergens like dairy can all put your body’s defense system into action. This can lead painful conditions like arthritis to flare up, or promote unhealthy conditions in and around your organs of blood vessels.
For example, research has shown that high-sugar foods can promote inflammation in endothelial cells that line blood vessels, while also increasing the levels of a number of inflammatory markers. Similar findings are noted for trans and saturated fats.
3. High-Calorie, Weight-Gain Foods
Lastly, in general, the same foods that are typically deemed “unhealthy”—high-calorie, etc.—are pro-inflammatory foods. Inflammatory foods promote weight gain. Weight gain is an independent risk factor in inflammation, and is closely associated with conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
On the other hand, an anti-inflammatory diet would be high in healthful nutrient-dense foods like those often found in Mediterranean- or DASH-style diets.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat
The foods that work best to control inflammation and provide a more stable environment are generally unprocessed and high in nutrition. They typically contain antioxidants and polyphenols, compounds that are shown to reduce inflammatory markers and offer protection from free radicals, cell damage, and chronic disease.
Healthy fats can also play a significant role in limiting or preventing inflammation.
Some foods to feature in an anti-inflammatory diet include:
- Colorful fruits and vegetables: Colorful fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants and nutrients that can limit inflammation, promote a healthy immune system, and encourage general health. Foods to consider include:
- Healthy fats: Trans and saturated fats can promote inflammation, but poly- and monounsaturated fats can provide anti-inflammatory effects. These healthy fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are found in a variety of healthful foods like:
- Olive oil
- Salmon (and other fatty fish)
- Flax seeds
- Almonds (and other nuts/natural nut butters)
- High-fiber foods: Fiber intake is also associated with lower inflammation, reduced risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High-fiber options include:
- Most fruits and vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains (oats and whole-grain breads and pasta)
- Herbs and spices: Seasonings can also help fight inflammation. Some useful seasonings to use in meals include:
Pro-Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
As you might imagine, the usual suspects are all front and center when it comes to the foods you should be avoiding. These foods are closely associated with countless health risks and chronic conditions, and should be limited or eliminated in anti-inflammatory diet.
In addition to any individual allergens or foods that give you negative reactions, foods to avoid include:
- Sugary beverages like soda, sweet tea, and other sugar-sweetened beverages (including those sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners)
- Refined carbohydrates like white bread and pastries
- Deep-fried or fatty foods like:
- French fries
- Soybean oil/vegetable oil (or any with “hydrogenated” on the ingredient list)
- Some types of microwave popcorn
- Packaged cakes and cookies, some pastries
- Some margarines/vegetable shortening
- Excessive alcohol
- Processed meat (sausage, bacon, ham, smoked meat, beef jerky, etc.)
Pro-inflammatory foods can lead to inflammation for various reasons. Processed meat, for example, contains high levels of inflammatory compounds called “advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Alcohol boosts prevalence of inflammatory markers called c-reactive protein (CRP). Refined carbs are high in sugar and promote inflammation by their impact on gut health and blood sugar. Artificial and trans fats boost CRP, as do sugar and HFCS.
General Rules for an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
As mentioned, there is no specific anti-inflammatory diet. Rather, it is making an effort to eat more nutrient-dense, healthful foods and fewer refined and processed foods. Good models to follow are the Mediterranean and DASH diets. A few tips to remember are to:
- Feature fresh, simple ingredients the majority of the time.
- Build your meals around colorful vegetables and lean proteins.
- Eat fish a couple of times per week.
- Snack on colorful fruits, nuts, and seeds.
- Elect whole grains over refined options.
- Limit your intake of processed/refined foods/sugary beverages. Replace with fruits, vegetables, nuts, fresh food, tea, coffee, and sparkling water.
- Read ingredient labels carefully when purchasing packaged food.
- Focus on color—a colorful plate/range of foods consumed across the day will help to ensure your ample intake of antioxidants and a variety of vitamins and minerals.
- Hit a daily fiber intake of 28 to 30 grams per day.
- Cook with olive oil instead of butter, margarine, coconut oil, and vegetable oil.
- Use olive oil as salad dressing.
Fighting Inflammation with Food Choices
Controlling and fighting inflammation isn’t always about taking a pill. Yes, an anti-inflammatory may be your best bet at silencing an acute pounding headache, but it won’t do much when diabetes or heart disease appears. Making a conscious effort to eat an anti-inflammatory diet and avoid foods that cause inflammation can help control and prevent a number of chronic health conditions.
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