Think back to the last time you got stung by an insect. No doubt you felt pain in the affected area, along with a degree of redness and swelling, probably accompanied by the sheer annoyance of getting stung!
As painful as a sting can be, this is acute inflammation, doing its job to protect and heal you from injury and infection.
Any time you get a bite, cut, scrape, infection, or even break a bone you get one or more of the tell-tale signs of inflammation: redness, pain, swelling, warmth, and loss of function. Within seconds, blood flow is raised and immune cells and their chemicals rush to the area like an army ready to fight infection 1.
Without this acute inflammation, the body would do a pretty shabby job at responding to external threats and healing itself. It’s a primary, and very important, response from the immune system. We need it to stay alive.
Yet inflammation is also the root cause of most chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease 2.
How does that work?
When the inflammatory response extends beyond acute inflammation and continues for a long time, this is when it can seriously damage our health and increase our risk of illness and disease.
What's the link between food and inflammation?
When we eat a meal, we typically eat a mix of carbs, protein, and fat which causes a spike in our blood sugar and fat levels. In response, our bodies use their natural response mechanisms to bring these levels back down to normal. This is a healthy response, and we thank the body for this, thanks body!
Unfortunately for us, the response isn’t always this healthy. Typical of the western diet many of us consume, foods with too much fat, sugar, and processed junk overwhelm our body's natural response mechanisms leading to unfavorable metabolic events. This includes an increase in inflammatory biomarkers, such as IL-6 and GlycA, triggering dietary inflammation 6.
When we eat these foods too often, day after day, month after month, year after year, we continuously cause shocks to the body with spikes in metabolites. It’s like getting constantly stung by insects, in response the body consistently releases inflammatory chemicals and creates little fires of inflammation in the blood. And when these little fires persist, we end up with a constant slow burning in the background that we call chronic, low-grade inflammation, which mediates many of the ways our diet can contribute to disease.
Over time, this type of inflammation damages cells, tissues, and organs, which can lead to DNA damage and tissue damage. Because of this, chronic inflammation is linked to almost all chronic conditions, including obesity, heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes 7, Alzheimer’s disease 8, cancer 9, and depression 10. These conditions are all characterized by inflammation.
Not only are these foods pro-inflammatory, they are also low or devoid of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that would normally counteract the inflammation. For example, consumption of processed hydrogenated vegetable oils may result in an imbalance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which scientists believe may promote inflammation 15 16.
These foods also disturb the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut, leading to gut dysbiosis and ‘leaky gut’, both of which increase inflammation in the body 3.
Fighting dietary inflammation
Whilst some foods can cause inflammation, others protect us from it. Whole plant foods combat inflammation because they’re jam-packed with firefighting anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds, like polyphenols.
This leads us to the eight easy things we can do to fight inflammation, and protect the body from disease:
1) Limit the processed foods
As discussed above, processed foods can cause serious inflammation in the body so are best to be avoided where possible.
It's hard when we seem to be bombarded with processed foods and their clever advertising campaigns wherever we go, so a good way to start is leaving them out of your weekly food shop— if they're not at home you can't eat them, this is how I avoid them! Opt for snacks like fruits and nuts which we discuss below.
2) Swap animal protein for plant protein
Animal protein, in particular red and processed meat, are known inflammatory foods to avoid 13 14. Swapping these out for plant proteins like tofu and lentils is a win-win for your health, you cut out the inflammatory foods whilst simultaneously increasing your anti-inflammatory foods.
3) Eat an extra portion of fruit a day (preferably berries)
Many plant foods, including fruits, are a great source of anti-inflammatory compounds. Adding a portion of fruit a day is an easy way to increase these and support your health.
Plant foods contain polyphenols that act quickly to put out the fires of inflammation created by other food components. They work by scavenging harmful toxins known as free radicals, that are produced when the body breaks down food, and cause inflammation if not held in check by our defenses 17.
Whilst all whole plant foods have some anti-inflammatory effects, some are better than others as they contain more of these polyphenols and other antioxidants. These include berries and leafy green vegetables.
4) Make sure you're eating plenty of dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens are packed with anti-inflammatory compounds. Make sure to add them as the base of salads, into your sandwiches, or wilt them into curries and stews.
5) Eat more nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are also an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet. They are a source of polyphenols, and omega 3s, meaning they help to reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals in the body 18. And yes, whilst nuts are high in fat, they’re a healthy source because of their polyunsaturated fat compared to saturated content, and their anti-inflammatory properties.
6) Get more fiber
This one is easy if you follow the above tips, because all those fabulous plant foods are full of fiber!
Getting enough fiber in your diet is key to reducing inflammation. Again, look to whole plant foods for a great—and the only— source! Animal foods are completely devoid of fiber, as are many processed foods.
7) Increase your movement
Most of us know that being active is good for our health. Researchers believe one reason for this is the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise— with each bout of exercise we do resulting in an anti-inflammatory environment in the body.
And you don't have to run, jump, or swim for hours to get these effects. Researchers from the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine recently found that as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce inflammation in the body. A brisk 20-30 minute walk is all you need to get reap the rewards! Besides, the best type of movement is the activity you enjoy, not something you do because you feel you have to.
8) Get enough sunlight
The sun has natural anti-inflammatory properties because of the natural vitamin D. The best thing to do is get sunlight first thing in the morning, for as little as 5 minutes, to get your daily dose of vitamin D and anti-inflammatory goodness.
Adequate, sensible sunlight exposure has been linked to a reduction in chronic inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, heart disease, and deadly cancers.
The bottom line
As always, I stress that the overall dietary pattern is most important. Populations that consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fibers have lower incidences of inflammatory diseases compared to Western populations 7. A meta-analysis, published in the scientific journal Nature, combined the results of several studies and found that levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a major marker for inflammation, were lower in the blood of vegans and vegetarians compared to omnivores 19.
If you center your diet around whole plant foods and minimize the processed stuff, chances are you’ll be fighting inflammation more than you’re causing it.
And if we can fight inflammation, we can fight disease.
6. Mazidi, M. et al. Meal-induced inflammation: postprandial insights from the Personalised REsponses to DIetary Composition Trial (PREDICT) study in 1000 participants. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 114, 1028–1038 (2021).
12. Deopurkar, R. et al. Differential Effects of Cream, Glucose, and Orange Juice on Inflammation, Endotoxin, and the Expression of Toll-Like Receptor-4 and Suppressor of Cytokine Signaling-3. Diabetes Care 33, 991–997 (2010).
18. Neale, E. P., Tapsell, L. C., Guan, V. & Batterham, M. J. The effect of nut consumption on markers of inflammation and endothelial function: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ Open 7, e016863 (2017).