How to Fight Inflammation With Food

Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, LD

Inflammation is one of those words that you may have heard many times but aren’t quite sure what it really means. Often, it’s a word we vaguely understand but struggle to define or explain to others. Understanding what inflammation is, how it occurs in the body, and how we can reduce it through diet and lifestyle is a powerful strategy for improving our health, feeling more energetic, and aging as gracefully as possible.

What is inflammation?

In normal circumstances, inflammation is a good thing—it allows our bodies to fight infection and heal injuries. Inflammation is a natural, physical process that occurs when immune cells travel to the site of a wound or injury in order to start the healing process. This type of inflammation lasts for a short while, only long enough to solve the issue. However, inflammation can become problematic when it goes on for too long. This is called “chronic” or “low-grade” inflammation and usually happens when we are repeatedly exposed to stress, environmental toxins, or an unhealthy lifestyle.

Why does it matter? 

When inflammation is chronic, it places the body under constant stress. We know from years of scientific research that the presence of chronic, low-grade inflammation increases our risk for developing numerous chronic diseases. Type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, some types of cancer, arthritis, and even Alzheimer’s disease have been linked to chronic inflammation. These are some of the most common health conditions faced in our society, with heart disease being the number one cause of death worldwide. Recognizing the importance of inflammation and taking steps to prevent or reduce it can be a helpful strategy for preventing and managing these types of diseases.

What causes chronic inflammation?

Inflammation is a complex process with many causes. Lifestyle factors, including inadequate physical activity, poor sleep, chronic stress, and an unhealthy diet, can all contribute to chronic inflammation. Exposure to environmental toxins, such as air pollution, cigarette smoke, and chemicals like BPA that are often found in plastic, also increase chronic inflammation. 

While you may have heard that specific foods are inflammatory, our overall diet has a much larger impact on inflammation than any one food. For example, Western-style diets have consistently been linked to chronic inflammation. This type of eating pattern is very common in the United States and other developed countries and is typically high in fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, high-fat dairy, desserts, refined breads and grains, and animal fats, like butter and lard. Because these less nutritious foods make up such a large proportion of the diet, Western diets are low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, nuts, seeds, and omega-3 fats.

So, how does the food we eat lead to inflammation? It likely has something to do with our gut. Consistently eating too many of the poor-quality foods listed above can harm our gut health and the beneficial bacteria that live there, weakening the protective lining of the intestines and making it easier for harmful bacteria to enter our bloodstream. The good bacteria become outnumbered by harmful bacteria. On the other hand, fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, strengthen the lining of our gut and increase the amount of good bacteria that live there, reducing inflammation.

Another concern about Western-style diets is their high omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Omega-6 fats are found in many cooking oils, animal products, nuts, and seeds, and can increase inflammation in the body when they aren’t balanced out by omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats fight inflammation, with good sources being foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Western diets are typically too high in omega-6 fats and too low in omega-3 fats, a combination that is thought to increase inflammation. Since omega-6 fats are present in so many foods, it isn’t practical to completely avoid them—and surprisingly, the body does need some omega-6 fats for optimal health. Instead, health experts recommend that we focus on eating more foods high in omega-3. 

As with eating too few omega-3 fats, not eating enough whole plant-based foods also increases our risk for chronic inflammation. This is because plant-based foods are among the best sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, natural compounds found in plants that reduce inflammation and protect against damage to the body’s cells. Whole and minimally processed plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices, are all high in antioxidants and phytochemicals and are an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet. 

Stephanie Wells, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian working in cancer research. She has a passion for plant-based nutrition and has been published in numerous scientific journals.

Post Author: admin