Inflammation has become so mediagenic that we are seeing a new term; an anti-inflammatory diet is popping up in social conversations. But what is inflammation? Is it always bad? What is the role of food in decreasing inflammation? We dig into all these questions as we explore an anti-inflammatory diet.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural way of protecting us from harm. There are two types of inflammatory responses, acute – short-term and chronic, which is long-term. An example of acute inflammation is the pain and swelling that occurs shortly after bumping your head. This acute inflammation is due to your immune system dispatching white blood cells to surround and protect your fresh injury. Within a few hours or days, that inflammation will subside.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation occurs within our bodies over a long period of time, often without visible symptoms. Chronic inflammation can be caused by many different factors. Some include prolonged acute inflammation due to an infection or injury, an autoimmune disorder, long-term exposure to irritants, chronic stress, smoking and alcohol. Although inflammation plays a vital role in healing, chronic inflammation may increase the risk of various diseases including some cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, periodontitis and more.
Where Does Food Fit In?
Inflammation is a complex process, and an anti-inflammatory diet is usually discussed in the context of managing chronic inflammation as food choices can influence inflammation. When it comes to reducing inflammation through food, this diet recommends consuming nutrient-dense foods that contain important nutrients like vitamin E, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants like polyphenols which are what give color and flavor to fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants work by reducing levels of free radicals, which are molecules created naturally by our metabolism, but can lead to inflammation when the levels are out of control.
However it is important to be clear, food choices alone are unlikely to solve chronic inflammation. Your healthcare provider will likely have a multifaceted plan that may involve medication, stress management, reducing irritant exposure (e.g., stop smoking), eating healthy and other factors.
What Foods Make Up an Anti-inflammatory Diet?
Food can play a role in health, including inflammation. You may have heard about anti-inflammatory diets involving superfoods with special powers. It might surprise you to learn that eating patterns that can help to reduce inflammation, or keep it low contain all the classic foods we think of when we imagine a healthy diet: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, healthful fats – especially omega-3 fatty acids and spices. Anti-inflammatory diets also recommend limiting the consumption of fried foods, refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats and alcohol.
Foods that are typically recommended in anti-inflammatory diets include:
- Olive oil
- Vegetables, such as tomatoes and leafy greens
- Nuts, such as walnuts and almonds
- Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel
- Spices, such as ginger, turmeric and curcumin
- Green tea
What Does the Research Say?
Because the connection between inflammation and what we eat is complicated, research is ongoing. However, some research demonstrates that a diet high in anti-inflammatory properties can improve rheumatoid arthritis and periodontitis. Additionally, research reviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to inform consumers of the Dietary Guidelines of America show that eating recommended amounts of foods like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and lower amounts of red and processed meat, refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages can reduce the risk of chronic diseases that have an inflammatory component, like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Did you know the Mediterranean and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets are examples of anti-inflammatory diets? There is a solid body of evidence supporting each of these diets in several positive health outcomes. View them here:
Despite the promising evidence that what we eat can impact inflammation, beware of claims that an anti-inflammatory diet can completely cure chronic diseases thought to be caused by inflammation. These claims are unfortunately overpromising.
Diet is not the only factor involved with inflammation but making more healthful food choices may help reduce it or prevent it from getting worse. The anti-inflammatory diet is not to be viewed as a miracle cure-all, but rather a style of eating that prioritizes foods that are known to benefit health. These foods also happen to be the foods that are recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Mediterranean and DASH Diets. As always, it is important to find a healthy eating pattern that works for you. If you are managing chronic inflammation, know that food can play a role in your treatment and should be viewed as one part of your comprehensive plan of care.