By Phoebe Chi, MD
Inflammation. Foods that fight inflammation. Anti-inflammatory diets. It has no doubt become a buzzword in the world of nutrition and health these days. But while there’s little question that the food we eat is an important part of staying healthy, some of these diets are being promoted with very big health claims, among them the assertion that they can cure serious diseases. But does the actual science match up to these claims? And should you follow these dietary guidelines? And what exactly do these diets consist of? These are the questions that will be addressed in this post.
Inflammation: The Good and The Bad
The term “inflammation” refers to a physiological process by which our body’s white blood cells fight off harmful organisms such as bacteria and viruses. When triggered by our immune system, inflammation protects our bodies from infection and is a crucial component of the healing process. Therefore, when appropriate and regulated, the process of inflammation is essential to our health. The problem comes in when inflammation occurs at inappropriate times.
When inflammation is no longer regulated, it no longer serves as a protection against disease. Rather, it becomes a causative factor for disease. This is what happens with chronic inflammation. In chronic, low-grade inflammation, the body’s normally protective immune system starts causing damage to its own tissue, treating it as a foreign invader. This is what happens in rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis—otherwise known as autoimmune diseases. Aside from autoimmune diseases, underlying low-grade inflammation has also been associated with many other conditions—from heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease—as well as some cancers. It is from this knowledge that the idea of the anti-inflammatory diet comes in.
Anti-Inflammatory Diets: Do They Work?
The essence of the anti-inflammatory diet is the elimination of foods that promote inflammation—like processed foods and animal fats—and the increase of foods that decrease the level of inflammation in your body, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fats. The assertion is that eating these foods will prevent or reverse conditions involving inflammation or pain.
But is this particular claim actually proven? The short answer to that from the scientific community would be a resounding “No” followed by a “However…” While the term “studies have proven…” are often used to give credibility to these claims, in the case of anti-inflammatory diets, the majority of studies are, by scientific standards, not of sufficient quality to establish the link between cause (the diet) and effect (disease prevention/reversal), with the majority being either too small or designed in a way that puts them at risk for bias.
While there are studies that clearly show certain foods decrease or elevate measurable blood biomarkers of inflammation (a good measure of how much inflammation is going on in your body), it is important to understand that it has not been proven that every food that increases inflammatory markers will increase the risk of disease. Similarly, it has not been proven that foods that decrease inflammatory markers will always protect from disease. So, while anti-inflammatory foods have a clear scientific basis, much more research is needed to clarify what the true impact of these diets are.
A Healthy Choice
With that said, however, there is nothing wrong with adjusting your diet to incorporate foods that are known to decrease inflammation and to avoid foods that promote it. Actually, I encourage it. Why? Because as you will see, all the foods that decrease inflammation are foods that are already known to be nutrient-rich, have many health benefits, and have been established as important components of a healthy diet (eg. omega-3 fats), while those that promote inflammation are foods that are well-known for their adverse health effects (eg. trans fats). In short, the anti-inflammatory diet is simply a variation of the same healthy diet any doctor or nutritionist would recommend.
The Bottom Line
So what is the take-home point? I would say the most important thing to remember when starting one of these diets is to keep in mind that they may not be the miracle cure you are looking for. On the other hand, since you are not simply a statistic…it just might provide the benefits you need. So if you have arthritis or struggle with chronic pain, eating these foods may in fact help you with your pain…or it also may not make a difference at all. Despite this uncertainty, be encouraged to know that incorporating these foods into your diet is something that will undoubtedly benefit your body in the long run.
With that said, let’s take a look at one of these diets, highlighting the main foods and the recommended intake of some of them. Keep in mind that since food allergies and intolerance are in itself a major inflammatory process, avoid eating any foods to which you have a known sensitivity.
Foods that Fight Inflammation
How much: At least 4-5 servings a day
Best Choices: Dark leafy greens (especially spinach, collard greens, and kale), broccoli, tomatoes
Other Healthy Choices: Bell peppers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, beets, onions, peas, and squashes.
Nutrition: In addition to being rich in flavonoids and carotenoids which have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, leafy greens are a great source of magnesium, which is a necessary mineral that confers several health benefits. Some research have also suggested that diets rich in cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli) are associated with a slightly lower risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer. Tomatoes, which are rich in vitamin C and potassium, also contain lycopene, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Tip: Cooking tomatoes in olive oil can enhance the amount of lycopene you absorb (it is a fat-soluble molecule), which can help maximize their anti-inflammatory properties.
How much: 3-4 servings a day
Best choices: Berries (Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries), red grapes, cherries
Other healthy choices: Oranges, peaches, nectarines, pink grapefruit, plums, pomegranates, apples, and pears.
Nutrition: Berries and cherries are rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins—compounds which also have anti-inflammatory properties. Red grapes contain several compounds, including resveratrol, that can reduce inflammation and which have been linked to lower risk of several diseases.
How much: 3-5 servings a day
Healthy choices: Barley, oats, brown rice, basmati rice, wild rice, buckwheat, quinoa
Nutrition: Whole grains are high in dietary fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Fiber found in whole grains not only decrease the level of inflammation in your body, they also lower cholesterol and are beneficial for heart and gut health. For more on fiber and its recommended intake, this guide will help.
How much: 5-7 servings per day
Best choices: Extra-virgin olive oil, walnuts, avocados, and seeds (hemp seeds and freshly ground flaxseed)
Other healthy choices: Expeller-pressed canola oil, other nuts
Nutrition: Healthy fats are those rich in either monounsaturated or omega-3 fats. Extra-virgin olive oil and walnuts are rich in polyphenol antioxidants, and consuming them in place of other fats may reduce levels of inflammation. They also naturally improve cholesterol and protect your heart. Avocados are rich in potassium, magnesium, and fiber, as well as contain carotenoids and tocopherols—compounds which have been associated with reduced cancer risk.
How much: 2-6 servings per week
Best choices: Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, anchovies
Nutrition: Fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fats, particularly EPA and DHA, which reduce inflammation that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. For more information on omega-3 fats and their natural food sources, this article will help.
Beans & Legumes
How much: 1-2 servings per day
Healthy choices: Black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lentils
Nutrition: Beans are rich in folic acid, magnesium, potassium and soluble fiber.
Herbs & Spices
Best choice: Turmeric
Other healthy choices: Garlic and ginger.
Nutrition: Turmeric contains a powerful anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin that is believed to be effective at reducing inflammation caused by several diseases. Tip: Since it is hard to get the amount of curcumin needed to confer a significant health benefit, one can enhance its absorption by eating tumeric with black pepper.
Best choice: Shiitake
Other healthy choices: Portobello, ‘white button’ mushrooms
Nutrition: Mushrooms are very low in calories and rich in all of the B vitamins, selenium, and copper. Mushrooms also contain lectins, phenols and other substances that provide anti-inflammatory protection.
Best choice: Those that contain at least 70% cocoa (the higher the better)
Nutrition: Cocoa is rich in antioxidants called flavanols that reduce inflammation and keep the cells of your arteries healthy. They may also reduce the risk of certain diseases.
Best choice: Green tea
Other healthy choices: White and oolong teas
Nutrition: Green tea contains powerful antioxidants called catechins, which reduce inflammation and protect cells from damage that can lead to disease. Green tea has also been shown to enhance weight loss efforts.
Vitamins & Supplements
Although the best way to get your nutrition is through natural food sources, vitamins can help if you have certain food restrictions or have a difficult time eating a balanced diet. However, not everyone needs one. For more information, this article on multivitamins can help you determine whether you would benefit from one, while this article focuses on fish oil and its benefits.
Here’s to eating toward better health!
*Like always, the information provided here is for general educational purposes only and is not meant to be used as medical advice. It is recommended that you consult with a trusted health care provider prior to starting any diet regimen or nutritional supplement.