This article appeared on the SumoSalad blog in 2019. Click here to read the original.
You might have heard the buzz about anti-inflammatory foods. But what do anti-inflammatory foods actually do and can they really help ease inflammation? We find out.
What is inflammation anyway?
Before we get to anti-inflammatory foods, we need to understand the kind of inflammation they can fight. Unfortunately, you probably know inflammation in its really acute form. You stub your toe, it gets red and swollen, then eventually it heals. That kind of inflammation is good – it helps the immune system repair damaged tissues and stops any nasty bacteria or viruses spreading throughout the body. Winning – except for the stubbed toe part, obviously.
However, the problematic kind of inflammation is chronic systemic inflammation. This is when the body remains in that defence mode over time and keeps sending out inflammatory cells – even when there’s not a sore toe to heal.
“Systemic inflammation is chronic inflammation that occurs throughout the body damaging tissue, causing internal scarring, limiting mobility, causing chronic pain and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer,” says nutritionist Ashleigh James.
“Inflammation is measured by testing for C-reactive protein, or CRP. Elevated CRP indicates that there is inflammation somewhere in the body. CRP less than one is ideal, one to three is considered average and above three is associated with risk for heart disease and other serious conditions.”
There are a range of possible triggers for chronic, low-grade inflammation. However, your diet and lifestyle is thought to be one possible stressor. “A growing body of research is revealing how obesity, poor diet, stress, hormone imbalance and nutritional deficiencies can lead to inflammation,” explains Ashleigh. Foods that are processed or highly refined such as processed meats, sweets, refined baked goods and some dairy products can be culprits. They often contain large amounts of sugar, salt and certain chemicals, which can trigger the immune system into a pro-inflammatory state. “There are also numerous studies showing the pro-inflammatory and adverse health effects of things like MSG, aspartame and high fructose corn syrup,” says Ashleigh.
Chronic inflammation is not ideal, however, the good news is that a healthy diet and lifestyle can help reduce your risk. “There is a lot of research being done around how certain components in foods can help to heal inflammation,” says Ashleigh. “Science is also identifying active compounds in foods and beginning to understand the effects of these compounds.”
At its heart, an anti-inflammatory diet is pretty simple. It’s essentially your classic Mediterranean diet – plenty of colourful vegetables, fish and olive oil and less processed food. Along with lots of good fibre, colourful plants contain polyphenols, which have powerful antioxidant properties.
“High levels of inflammation in the body causes high levels of oxidative stress, which is where free radicals overwhelm your body’s natural antioxidant defences,” says Ashleigh. “Free radicals cause damage in your body as they react with other molecules. One of the best ways to combat inflammation is to increase your intake of antioxidant-rich food, which will help neutralise the free radicals and reduce inflammation.”
Here are a few awesome anti-inflammatory foods you can add to your shopping list to get you started:
Nuts Walnuts in particular are a great nut to add to the mix. This is because they’re high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids called ALA. In fact, a study from Penn State University found adding walnuts to your diet can reduce levels of C-Reactive Protein.
Leafy greens Yep, there is nothing that kale can’t do. Well, kind of. Spinach, kale, rocket and the like are full of inflammation-fighting antioxidants. The vibrant green colour is the giveaway that’s it’s packed with the good stuff. They are one of the best anti-inflammatory foods!
Berries Once again, the bright colours of these gems indicate they’ve got anti-inflammatory properties. Blueberries and strawberries are both great options and they’re packed with antioxidants. Citrus fruits like oranges also get the tick of approval because of their Vit C content.
Fatty fish Don’t fear fat! Well, the right kinds of fat. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines (if they’re your thing…) are great to add to your anti-inflammatory menu. They’re rich in good omega-3 fatty acids, which essentially help balance out inflammatory fats in your diet. Bonus: they’re great for your brain, too.
On the flip-side, there are foods that can promote inflammation. Unsurprisingly, it’s many of the usual food culprits. Super processed carbs like white bread, fried foods and sugary drinks all make the list. Sure, these aren’t really the best choice anyway – but they also have certain properties which can contribute to inflammation.
Take deep-fried fast foods – they’re high in the wrong kinds of fat (i.e. they’re not avocado…). Unless advertised otherwise, most are fried in partially hydrogenated oils, which means they contain trans fats. Trans fats have repeatedly been linked to inflammation, along with a bunch of alarming side effects.
Same goes for too much refined sugar and sugary drinks. “Too much refined sugar both directly and indirectly causes inflammation, explains Ashleigh. “Firstly, large amounts of sugar triggers the release of large amounts of insulin, kicking off a cascade of inflammatory responses, since too much insulin causes inflammation in the body. Secondly, the pancreas must secrete large amounts of insulin to combat the intake of sugar, which, over time, may contribute to insulin resistance. Once you are insulin resistant, your body requires more insulin to control blood sugar than it should. Since insulin is a fat-storing hormone, the more you secrete, the more your body stores fat.”
It’s also worth noting that too much red meat and processed meat has also been associated with inflammation. Eating a little less meat (you don’t need to cut it out) and boosting your intake of plants is a really easy win. It’s that kind of “flexitarian” approach we’re all about.
Does eating anti-inflammatory foods actually make a difference?
Over time, sticking to a wholesome anti-inflammatory diet can pay off. A 2018 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that following an anti-inflammatory diet was associated with lower risks of dying from any cause. The study of over 68,000 Swedish men and women found that participants who most closely followed the diet had an 18% lower risk of all-cause mortality, a 20% lower risk of cardiovascular mortality and a 13% lower risk of cancer mortality, when compared with those who followed the diet to a lesser degree. It isn’t the most cheery study, but the study authors say that even adopting as much of the diet as you can may offer health benefits.
The diet may also boost your bones. A 2017 study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that women with the least inflammatory diets lost less bone density during the six-year follow-up period than the women with the most inflammatory diets – even though they started with lower bone density over all. It might not be the first thing on your priority list, but having strong bones is essential, especially as you age.
There’s a pile of scientific papers on this subject, which will take you back to year 10 biology. But in essence, a colourful plant-based diet with some good fats are an excellent start.