Latest Science

Why Dietary Inflammation Matters to You and Your Health

Inflammation is a primary response from our immune system against injury and infection. Yet inflammation is the underlying cause of most chronic diseases. How did something that evolved as our friend turn against us, and what can we do about it?
by
Isabelle Sadler
updated
October 5, 2022
19
references

Think back to the last time you got stung by an insect. Do you remember feeling pain in the affected area? How about the redness and swelling? Along with the sheer annoyance of getting stung of course!  

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 the acute inflammatory response, 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 the root cause of most chronic diseases 2. How does that work?

When the inflammatory response extends beyond acute inflammation and continues for a long time, it can seriously damage our health.

What's food got to do with it?

The food we eat everyday, along with stress, smoking, being sedentary, and sleep deprived, are potent sources of this long-term inflammation 3 4 5

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 contributes 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. 

The foods most capable of setting these inflammatory fires alight are processed foods containing high levels of fat, salt, and sugar, and animal products like processed and red meat 2 11 12 13 14

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.  

Polyphenols 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.

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. 

Getting enough fiber in your diet is also 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. 

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. 

References 

1. Chen, L. et al. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget 9, 7204–7218 (2018).

2. Furman, D. et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat. Med. 25, 1822–1832 (2019).

3. Christ, A. & Latz, E. The Western lifestyle has lasting effects on metaflammation. Nat. Rev. Immunol. 19, 267–268 (2019).

4. Elisia, I. et al. The effect of smoking on chronic inflammation, immune function and blood cell composition. Sci. Rep. 10, 19480 (2020).

5. Liu, Y.-Z., Wang, Y.-X. & Jiang, C.-L. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11, 316 (2017).

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).

7. Margină, D. et al. Chronic Inflammation in the Context of Everyday Life: Dietary Changes as Mitigating Factors. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public. Health 17, 4135 (2020).

8. Newcombe, E. A. et al. Inflammation: the link between comorbidities, genetics, and Alzheimer’s disease. J. Neuroinflammation 15, 276 (2018).

9. Murata, M. Inflammation and cancer. Environ. Health Prev. Med. 23, 50 (2018).

10. Lee, C.-H. & Giuliani, F. The Role of Inflammation in Depression and Fatigue. Front. Immunol. 10, 1696 (2019).

11. Emerson, S. R. et al. Magnitude and Timing of the Postprandial Inflammatory Response to a High-Fat Meal in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Adv. Nutr. Int. Rev. J. 8, 213–225 (2017).

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).

13. Ley, S. H. et al. Associations between red meat intake and biomarkers of inflammation and glucose metabolism in women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 99, 352–360 (2014).

14. Montonen, J. et al. Consumption of red meat and whole-grain bread in relation to biomarkers of obesity, inflammation, glucose metabolism and oxidative stress. Eur. J. Nutr. 52, 337–345 (2013).

15. Tamma, S. M., Shorter, B., Toh, K.-L., Moldwin, R. & Gordon, B. Influence of polyunsaturated fatty acids on urologic inflammation. Int. Urol. Nephrol. 47, 1753–1761 (2015).

16. Esmaillzadeh, A. & Azadbakht, L. Home use of vegetable oils, markers of systemic inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction among women. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 88, 913–921 (2008).

17. Hussain, T. et al. Oxidative Stress and Inflammation: What Polyphenols Can Do for Us? Oxid. Med. Cell. Longev. 2016, 1–9 (2016).

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).

19. Menzel, J. et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of the associations of vegan and vegetarian diets with inflammatory biomarkers. Sci. Rep. 10, 21736 (2020).

About the author
Isabelle Sadler
Isabelle majored in Human Biology at the University of Birmingham in England, and she leads scientific copywriting for the Mora team.

Accomplish your most important health goals.

Join physician-led support groups and feel healthier, happier, and lighter in as little as 10 days.
Become a Patient

Become a patient

Please enter your contact details and begin your journey to a healthier life
Thank you for taking the first step towards your goals!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.