Chronic inflammation is linked to a host of health issues. Here’s how the anti-inflammatory diet can help.
By Annie Hayes
The anti-inflammatory diet has gained popularity in recent years as something of a panacea to modern living. Eating a diet rich in added sugars, refined carbs and processed and packaged foods, drinking alcohol, prolonged stress and a lack of exercise are all lifestyle factors that can promote inflammation in the body, so switching to an anti-inflammatory diet may help.
However, in small amounts, inflammation can be a good thing. ‘Acute’ inflammation is the cornerstone of the immune system’s healing response, and without it, we wouldn’t recover from infection, illness or injury. But when inflammation persists over weeks, months, or years, becoming ‘chronic’, it can be hazardous to your health. So how can you ensure you get the right balance and avoid tipping into dangerous inflammation territory without denying your body what it needs?
Certain foods can help to reduce or even prevent chronic inflammation, known as the anti-inflammatory diet. We spoke to Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan, about which specific foods influence the inflammation process and where to start with the anti-inflammatory diet:
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s way of fighting against infections, injuries, and toxins in an attempt to heal itself. ‘Acute inflammation is the type that comes on quickly,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘The affected part becomes red, hot, swollen, painful and unable to function properly.’ Your immune system reacts by sending antibodies, proteins and extra blood to the site of the issue, usually for a few hours or days until the healing process is complete.
However, sometimes inflammation is chronic, which means it lingers. This is due to the presence of a type of scavenger cell called a macrophage, says Dr Brewer, which releases powerful chemicals, including free radicals. Chronic inflammation may be caused by:
- A medical condition that causes the immune system to malfunction.
- Long-term exposure to irritants, such as industrial chemicals or air pollutants.
- Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, obesity, alcohol, stress and diet.
Left unchecked, chronic inflammation acts on your tissues and organs. ‘It occurs throughout the body and especially affects the circulation,’ Dr Brewer says. ‘You won’t feel any soreness or see any swelling, but the immune cells and chemicals present can cause slow damage that increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke.’
For that reason, chronic inflammation is linked to a host of health issues and diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. This type of inflammation can be assessed by measuring blood levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) in the blood.
What is the anti-inflammatory diet?
The anti-inflammatory diet is an eating plan designed to reduce or prevent inflammation. Much like a plant-based diet, the anti-inflammatory diet is a style of eating that encompasses many different types of diets, including the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the vegetarian diet.
In theory following an anti-inflammatory diet is straightforward. You simply need to consume more anti-inflammatory foods – fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), healthy fats, herbs and spices, and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – and reduce your intake of inflammatory foods, such as added sugars, refined carbs and other highly-processed foods, red meats and alcohol.
Fruit and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants, which have a natural anti-inflammatory action.
Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids possess anti-inflammatory properties. The antioxidants found abundantly in the fresh produce aisle of the supermarket protect your cells from the effects of free radicals – unstable atoms that damage cells, protein and DNA in a process called oxidative stress, causing illness and ageing.
‘Fruit and vegetables are good sources of antioxidants such as polyphenols, which have a natural anti-inflammatory action,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Used by plants to protect against ultraviolet radiation and attack by viruses, fungi and bacteria, they provide beneficial anti-inflammatory actions for us too, and help to damp down inflammation.’
Omega-3 fatty acids are found abundantly in fish and other seafood, as well as nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. They reduce the production of molecules released during your body’s inflammatory response, such as cytokines. Omega-3 supplements have also shown beneficial anti-inflammatory effects in clinical trials, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology found.
An anti-inflammatory diet should provide a balance of protein, carbs, and fat at every meal, along with vitamins, minerals and fibre. Foods that may help manage or reduce inflammation include:
Fruits and vegetables
All fruits and vegetables fight inflammation in some way. Fill up on cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale – they contain sulforaphane, which fights inflammation by reducing your levels of cytokines. Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries contain potent antioxidants known as anthocyanins. Citrus fruits, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and grapes are also well-documented as potent inflammation-fighting produce.
✔️ Try this: Aim to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Unlike their refined counterparts, whole grains like oats, brown rice and whole wheat bread are high in fibre, antioxidant-rich and nutrient-dense. In a meta-analysis published in the journal Medicine, diets rich in whole grains were associated with a significant decrease in inflammatory markers such as CRP – and as such, helped to reduce systemic inflammation.
✔️ Try this: Swap refined grains for foods that list a whole grain as the first ingredient.
Pulses include all beans, peas and lentils. They are high in fibre, antioxidants, and magnesium, which is known for its inflammation-dampening properties (incidentally, low magnesium intake is linked to incidence of chronic inflammation). Incorporate back beans, chickpeas, garden peas, lentils, kidney beans, runner beans into your recipes.
✔️ Try this: Replace the red meat usually found in dishes like chilli and bolognese with beans, peas and lentils.
There are two kinds of healthy fats: Monounsaturated fats, found in nuts, seeds and avocados, and polyunsaturated fats, found in fish and certain nuts and seeds. Both are packed with inflammation-fighting antioxidants. Olive oil is especially potent – it contains oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen. And the anti-inflammatory properties of avocados are so powerful, they’ve been shown to offset less-healthy foods.
✔️ Try this: Swap out butter, margarine and vegetable oils for olive oil, avocados, and nuts and seeds.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish have been shown to prevent the formation of inflammatory compounds and also help destroy them. The likes of sardines, salmon and rainbow trout are packed with EPA and DHA – these fatty acids are metabolised into resolvins and protectins, which have proven anti-inflammatory effects. These omega-3s can be found in pine nuts, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds but are less accessible.
✔️ Try this: Eat more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed, walnuts and oily fish.
Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and compounds that act as potent anti-inflammatory agents. Turmeric contains curcumin, chilli peppers contain capsaicin, black pepper contains piperine, and rosemary contains rosmarinic acid and carnosic acid – all of which have been proven to fight inflammation.
✔️ Try this: Rather than seasoning your meals with salt, experiment with other flavour-enhancers like garlic and ginger.
Coffee, tea and dark chocolate
Coffee, tea (especially green tea) and dark chocolate are rich in phytonutrients, such as polyphenols, which help to tackle inflammation. They also contain caffeine, which offers protection against inflammation in the brain.
✔️ Try this: Be sure to choose dark chocolate that contains at least 70 per cent cocoa or higher to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits, and enjoy your tea or coffee without added sugar or syrups, which release pro-inflammatory substances in the body.
Inflammatory foods to avoid
Certain foods and drinks can make chronic inflammation worse. When following an anti-inflammatory diet, try to avoid (or limit your intake) of the following foods:
- Processed foods, such as crisps and crackers
- Processed meats, such as hot dogs and sausages
- Foods with added sugar or salt
- Refined carbs, such as white bread, white pasta and baked goods
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Sugar-sweetened drinks and fruit juice
- Desserts, such as ice cream, biscuits and cakes
- Processed seed and vegetable oils, like sunflower and peanut oil
- Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, butter, and margarine
Some people find they experience an inflammatory reaction when they eat gluten, while others report issues with plants belonging to the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, aubergine and peppers. If you experience this, speak to your doctor. They may recommend omitting these foods from your diet for two weeks to see if the symptoms improve.
Anti-inflammatory diet sample menu
What might an anti-inflammatory diet look like over the course of a day? Below, Dr Brewer shares her recommendations for 24 hours of anti-inflammatory eating:
➡️ Breakfast: Smoked salmon with omega-3-enriched scrambled eggs and fresh fruit juice.
➡️ Lunch: A large mixed salad with watercress, spinach leaves, rocket, fresh herbs, avocado, pecan nuts, pomegranate, humus, mixed beans, coleslaw, and a dressing made with walnut oil, lemon juice and black garlic.
➡️ Dinner: Mackerel with roasted Mediterranean vegetables – aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, red onions, courgettes – and sweet potatoes.
➡️ Snack and drink: Fresh fruit, plus water and herbal tea.
How to support an anti-inflammatory diet
To support your anti-inflammatory diet beyond your weekly shop, incorporate these lifestyle tips – or consider taking a specialist supplement:
One of the most successful ways of reducing inflammation in the body is to lose any excess weight. ‘This is especially beneficial if you tend to store fat around your waist,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Losing weight reduces the production of inflammatory chemicals from fat cells.’
Light exercise options, such as walking and cycling, are most beneficial to chronic inflammation. ‘Over-exercising can make inflammation worse, due to the production of free radicals in exercising muscle,’ Dr Brewer says.
Get enough rest
Losing sleep for even part of one night can trigger the key cellular pathway that produces inflammation, according to research published in the journal Elsevier. So be sure to prioritise your 40 winks.
Glucosamine supplements have a powerful anti-inflammatory action, says Dr Brewer. ‘It’s as effective in treating severe osteoarthritic knee pain as the prescribed anti-inflammatory drug, celecoxib,’ she says. ‘Its anti-inflammatory action has also been associated with longevity due to reduced risks of heart disease and stroke.’
Try Devil’s Claw
Devil’s Claw is a traditional herbal remedy that contains anti-inflammatory substances like harpagoside, Dr Brewer continues. ‘It can significantly improve inflammation-related rheumatic pain and stiffness in muscles and joints, including back pain.’
Turmeric supplements may help
Turmeric contains curcumin, ‘a powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant that helps to reduce pain and swelling,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘It does this in a number of ways, including blocking the effects of TNF-alpha (tumour necrosis factor-alpha) which is implicated in many serious inflammatory diseases.’ So curcumin supplements may also be beneficial.
Experiment with CBD
You could also try CBD (cannabidiol) oil. CBD has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, Dr Brewer adds. ‘It interacts with our own endocannabinoid receptors to help regulate inflammation,’ she says. ‘Evolving science suggests that CBD can help to reverse chronic inflammation by blocking TNF-alpha in a complementary way to turmeric.’