Inflammation has become one of the buzziest words in the health and wellness world—and with good reason. Experts believe it is linked to a number of diseases and conditions, including cancer, heart disease, allergies, Alzheimer’s, even depression.
But inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. “It’s part of the immune response, a necessary function of the human body,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, a board-certified family physician, nutritional researcher, and six-time New York Times bestselling author of books such as Eat to Live. “Injuries and infections require the inflammatory process to destroy pathogens, repair damage, and heal.”
So how can inflammation simultaneously keep the body safe and harm it? The answer is duration. A short-term inflammatory response to injury or infection resolves when the body is healed. Chronic inflammation is ongoing and can be caused by factors such as poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and stress. When your body is in a constant state of alert, it puts your heart, brain, and other organs at risk for damage.
Unfortunately, chronic inflammation doesn’t always present with outward symptoms, making it a silent threat to the body. However, one major source of pro-inflammatory compounds is fat tissue, says Fuhrman, so excess fat is a signal that chronic inflammation is likely inside the body. Frequent headaches, fatigue, and brain fog, he notes, can also be signs of persistent inflammation.
Your Diet’s Effect on Inflammation
The good news is that relatively simple lifestyle and diet changes can help mitigate the effect inflammation has on your body. “Overall good nutrition can enhance your body’s immune system and reduce inflammatory stress,” says Mindy Komosinksy, outpatient dietitian nutritionist at Capital Health.
According to Komosinksy, to curb inflammation, your diet should include healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds; fatty fish such as salmon and tuna; and plenty of fruits and vegetables. “Fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation,” she says. “Fruits and vegetables should make up at least half your plate at meals. They are packed with antioxidants that support the immune system and may help fight inflammation. Particularly good choices include berries—blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries—and cherries.” Komosinsky also says to choose whole grains instead of refined ones. “Fiber lowers C-reactive protein, a substance in the blood that indicates inflammation.”
What’s the Big Deal About Turmeric?
The orange spice we refer to as turmeric is actually the dried and ground rhizome of a plant in the same family as ginger. Largely due to its curcumin content, turmeric is often credited with these benefits:
- Fighting inflammation
- Helping prevent cell damage through oxidation
- Protecting the heart
- Reducing effects of arthritis
- Boosting memory
- Possibly fighting diabetes and cancer
To get the biggest bang from your turmeric, try combining it with black pepper, which contains piperine, and will dramatically increase the absorption and effects of the curcumin.
Foods to avoid include the processed and fried kinds; red meat; refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies, cakes, and candies; and sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda. “Animal products and processed foods do not have antioxidants and phytochemicals…and they contain pro-inflammatory compounds that promote inflammation and drive formation and accumulation of plaque in the artery walls and proliferation of cancer cells,” Fuhrman explains. “An example is the TMAO—Trimethylamine Oxide—a pro-inflammatory compound that is produced from bacteria in the digestive tract when you eat meat or chicken regularly. A diet high in animal protein favors the development of bacteria in the gut that are pro-inflammatory.”
Fuhrman adds that vegetable oils, such as corn and soybean oil, are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. “The inflammatory and disease-promoting effects of these oils are increased with the heat from cooking and become more dangerous the higher the temperature and the longer they are cooked. Frying foods in oil is simply too unhealthful, even for occasional use.”
There’s bad news for those with a sweet tooth as well. “Sweets are also a major issue,” Fuhrman says. “The hyperglycemia that results from eating added sugars and refined carbohydrates triggers inflammation. Eating commercial baked goods with white flour, sugar, honey, maple syrup, and other highly concentrated sweeteners should be avoided in order to prevent diseases of aging,” he cautions. “These foods are also linked to higher rates of depression.” Excessive alcohol intake can also increase inflammation.
Of course, as with any buzzy health term, Komosinsky cautions against anything promoted as an “anti-inflammatory miracle.” “Some foods have the ability to suppress inflammation,” she adds, “but it is unclear how often and how much is needed for this benefit.”
Can You Reverse Inflammation?
If your current diet or lifestyle doesn’t pass the inflammation test, don’t fret. Fuhrman assures that the body can bounce back. “Although damage from an unhealthful diet does accumulate over time, the human body has a great capacity for healing,” he says. “As long as you are still alive, it’s never too late to reduce inflammation and improve your health. Bottom line: Eat a diet that is nutrient-dense, rich in plants, and low in processed foods and animal products.”
Of course, diet isn’t the only factor in reducing chronic inflammation. “Also important is maintaining a healthy weight, getting adequate sleep, and engaging in regular physical activity,” Komosinsky says. And don’t feel bad if you have the occasional treat, she says. “Healthy eating isn’t about being perfect. If you focus on making good choices, an occasional treat shouldn’t cause harm.”
Anti-inflammation shopping list
- Olive oil
- Green, leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, and collard greens)
- Nuts (walnuts, almonds)
- Fatty Fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines)
- Fruits (strawberries, blueberries, cherries)
- Whole grains and raw oats
- Green tea