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Anti-inflammatory diet: what foods to eat?

Anti-inflammatory diet: what foods to eat?

Team ErbologyErbology

Inflammation can manifest in many ways and is related to chronic disease. What is an anti-inflammatory diet and what foods should you eat?

June 23, 2022 9:12 am

What is inflammation?

As a simple example, if you accidentally cut your finger while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, it will become red and inflamed. Similarly, if you fall down the stairs and sprain your ankle, it will become swollen and inflamed. This type of inflammation is visible and hard to miss because of its clear external manifestation. However, how can we identify inflammation inside our bodies? Let’s find out what inflammation is and what foods to eat as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. 

Inflammation occurs inside the body when our immune system reacts to any foreign bodies. These could include any type of microbe, pollen or chemical substance. When this occurs, our body is essentially trying to protect our health from any “invading” substance.  

We need some inflammation for healing, however it becomes problematic when inflammation becomes chronic. 

Sometimes inflammation continues even when there is no foreign substance to defend ourselves from. This is when we need to be concerned about inflammation. In fact, a chronically inflamed system can develop diseases. 

Chronic inflammation can cause organ damage and plays a role in most major illnesses, from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Inflammation is the process by which our body naturally defends itself against pathogens. 

A large body of evidence has shown that there is a strong link between oxidative stress and inflammation. In fact, oxidative stress plays a detrimental role in chronic inflammatory diseases.(1)

Inflammation and chronic disease

Inflammation itself is not a disease however it is a biological process that contributes and leads to disease if left unmanaged and chronic. 

Not only can certain health conditions cause inflammation, so can certain foods and dietary patterns. 

Fortunately, by making conscious choices around the food we do and don’t eat, we can actively prevent inflammation. There are many benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet which can help you to get your health back on track. 

So how do you know if you should be eating anti-inflammatory foods? The answer is that everyone should be eating them! There are only benefits to be gained from trying an anti-inflammatory diet and virtually nothing to lose, besides inflammation! 

Of course, some people have more or less inflammation depending on their health condition, so everyone experiences inflammation at different levels. 

Moreover, if you have a chronic health condition, you most likely have chronic inflammation too. Common health conditions linked to chronic inflammation include gut conditions such as Crohn’s disease, IBS and ulcerative colitis, conditions of the heart including heart disease and high blood pressure, obesity, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and Type 1 diabetes.(2)

With regards to diet and inflammation, there is no one-size fits all. 

Food triggers

In fact, inflammation triggers vary from person to person, however some foods are more or less inflammatory for everyone. 

For example, most of us should limit refined starches and processed meats, especially those of us with heart disease. Moreover, gluten and dairy can be triggering for people with gut issues. 

You can read more about gluten here and why you shouldn’t cut it out of your diet unless you have been advised to do so by a doctor or dietitian. 

Overall, we may all have different triggers so it’s important to discuss these with a dietitian to understand how diet is impacting your health. You can also experience inflammation if you have certain food sensitivities. In fact, when your immune system reacts to a food that you are sensitive to, this causes your antibodies to increase, subsequently leading to inflammation. 

As previously mentioned, your body perceives the food you are sensitive to as a “foreign” substance and therefore defends itself against it. 

Again, we are not all created equal and therefore we will not all experience inflammation from the same foods. For example, your friend may be able to enjoy pasta with no issues at all whilst if you have a gluten sensitivity, it will cause inflammation for you.(3) 

Hidden inflammation

It’s important to remember that not all inflammation is visible, especially when it comes to inflammatory foods. Much of the inflammatory process occurs within the body and wouldn’t be visible from the outside. In fact, all ultra processed foods can trigger internal inflammation processes. 

So even if you don’t have any specific food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities, it’s a good idea to minimise your consumption of ultra processed foods in order to keep inflammation at bay. 

If inflammation is internal and not visible, how do you know whether it’s occurring? This is challenging because inflammation can be silent, however there are some physical manifestations that you can look out for which indicate inflammation.

Some examples of visible inflammation include skin rashes, swelling of hands or feet, abdominal bloating or discomfort and puffiness in the face. You may also feel fatigued, you may experience joint pain, gut disturbances, migraines and struggle to lose weight or maintain weight. In addition, inflammation can make us more susceptible to catching the common cold or flu and it can also delay our recovery process and we do eventually get better after contracting them. 

Where do I start? 

The food you eat and the food you avoid will have a significant impact on your body’s inflammatory response. As mentioned previously, we are all different and unique so there is no one-size-fits all inflammatory diet. 

However there are anti-inflammatory foods which can provide benefits to all of us (unless of course you are allergic/intolerant to any of these foods). So before we discuss anti-inflammatory diet and what foods to eat, let’s find out which inflammatory foods we should avoid! 

It goes without saying that ultra processed foods are a top cause of inflammation in the body.(4) Overall, an anti-inflammatory diet is one that steers clear of ultra processed foods. In other words, anything that has a list of unpronounceable ingredients, that lists sugar or salt as the first ingredient, or that your grandparents wouldn’t recognise as food! 

Such foods include potato chips, processed meats like bologna, pepperoni and salami, processed cheeses such as nacho cheese dip, all sugary beverages and soda, deep-fried foods and pre-packaged commercial sweets. 

Many of these foods are filled with trans fats which are strongly correlated to cardiovascular disease and inflammation. Be mindful that many products marketed as “healthy” or “natural” contain hidden ingredients such as high levels of sodium, saturated and trans fats, and sugar.

Whole vs. processed 

Once you’ve cut back on ultra processed foods, you can introduce more whole anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. Whole foods are a weapon against inflammation! By whole foods, we literally mean “whole” foods, like a whole apple (not apple juice), a head of lettuce, or a tomato! Other examples of whole foods include brown rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, oats, fish & eggs ( if you’re not vegan). 

In other words, if it grows on a tree or lives on land or in the sea, it’s a whole food. But what about healthy foods that aren’t technically “whole” foods? There are “processed” foods which are absolutely suitable to consume regularly and which can be foods to eat as part of a healthy anti-inflammatory diet. 

For example, a tub of store bought hummus that is low in sodium and has a very short list of ingredients is technically “processed” but still healthy.  The same is true of canned tomatoes or any canned vegetables ( just watch out for the sodium content). The main thing to remember is to carefully read the ingredients list to make sure what’s inside the product. 

Related reading

“Fruits and vegetables such as berries and leafy greens naturally contain high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols which are known to be protective and contribute to fighting inflammation.”

Mediterranean diet,DASH diet & foods to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet 

The literature has shown that some of the top anti-inflammatory foods are: tomatoes, green leafy vegetables, fruit including berries and citrus fruits, nuts, fatty fish and olive oil.(5) Does this list of foods ring any bells? If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ll know that at Erbology we are firm believers in the Mediterranean diet.

In fact, every single one of these anti-inflammatory foods is widely consumed within the Mediterranean diet. So, what foods should you eat as part of an anti-inflammatory diet? Fruits and vegetables such as berries and leafy greens naturally contain high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols which are known to be protective and contribute to fighting inflammation. There is evidence that coffee which is also high in polyphenols, may also be protective against inflammation.(6)

Both the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet have a lot in common, and they are both intrinsically anti-inflammatory. 

These diets have successfully reduced cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and also inflammation. The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest diets in the world and many of its components make it an excellent anti-inflammatory eating pattern. 

One of these components is Omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation. Moreover, there is a strong focus on extra virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean diet. 

Unlike processed oils like soybean oil which is commonly used in highly processed foods, extra virgin olive oil is anti-inflammatory. 

The DASH diet, which we have spoken about in more detail here, aims to reduce high blood pressure. Given that it reduces blood pressure and promotes weight loss, this dietary pattern also reduces inflammation. In fact, both obesity and high blood pressure are linked to inflammatory processes.(7)

Should I be cutting out animal products?

Whilst plant-based diets can definitely fight inflammation, some vegetarian and vegan diets can still include ultra-processed foods. So even if you avoid animal products, some of which are inflammatory (i.e. processed meats and cheeses), it doesn’t mean that your diet will automatically be anti-inflammatory. 

Making a conscious effort to include whole foods will contribute to more anti-inflammatory benefits.  

Working with a dietitian to understand which foods trigger inflammation for you is highly beneficial. Sometimes people still experience inflammatory symptoms even though they have made all the right changes and are focusing on a whole food diet. 

A dietitian can help you identify whether you have any food allergies or sensitivities which you may not be aware of. In some cases, an elimination diet is appropriate to discover triggers via a process of elimination. 

How do I know if my anti-inflammatory diet is working?

If you start feeling better and see that your symptoms are resolving, this is an indication that your anti-inflammatory eating habits are working! Your body communicates with you via several avenues so you can attune to your body’s changes to understand how it is reacting to your diet.

Some people report clearer skin, improvements in joint and muscle pain, improved quality of sleep, fewer headaches, less brain fog, improved IBS, more energy, lower blood pressure, and less stress and anxiety. 

Slow and steady wins the race

Making changes can be challenging and it requires effort. If you expect to see overnight results, you will be disappointed. 

When it comes to your health, the wellness industry may promise you magic pills and potions for instant results, but steer clear of these empty promises. 

Drastic and extreme changes do not set you up for success in the long-term. Start small and set yourself SMART goals that you can comfortably achieve and stay motivated for. 

Depending on your baseline health condition and your level of inflammation, your results will be different to someone else’s. So don’t compare yourself to other people, your journey is unique and yours only. 

Small wins can be very motivating and encourage you to keep up your healthy behaviors. So don’t give up, and enlist the help of a professional if you need. And remember, slow and steady wins the race! 

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