We read and hear frequently that foods with anti-inflammatory properties are good for us. So, if anti-inflammatory is ‘good’, is inflammation ‘bad’?
The short answer, no.
Inflammation is essential, a completely normal biological process and a natural part of our body’s defense system.
When injured or infected, a complex response takes place in your body where chemical messengers are sent out to kill off pathogens, clear out cellular debris, and enable healing.
Once healed, the inflammatory response can be dialled down. But what happens when the inflammatory response is activated long-term?
Low-grade, chronic inflammation has been implicated in a wide range of conditions, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Lifestyle factors including chronic stress, medication, smoking and body weight contribute to levels of inflammation, as does what we eat and drink.
Diet and inflammation
What we consume can have considerable influence on the inflammatory response. Here we take a brief look at foods that may either encourage or discourage inflammatory activity, so we can get an idea of how to support the body in keeping inflammation at a healthy level.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
Humans consume sources of polyunsaturated fats everyday, including the essential fatty acids omega-6 and omega-3. While omega-6 fatty acids are considered essential for health, we typically eat far too much and when consumed in excess, it may promote inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are considered anti-inflammatory.
Consuming foods with omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids at about a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio is considered beneficial. However, the Western diet sits at a ratio of about 16-20:1. (Yikes!) This is largely due to high intakes of ultra-processed, packaged and junk foods, including cheap oils and processed meats.
Reduce omega-6 fatty acid intake by consuming mostly minimally or unprocessed foods, and balancing it out with increased omega-3 fatty acid intake from real, whole foods such as oily fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds.
In summary: get your dose of essential omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids from whole foods – ideally organic, unprocessed and non-GMO whenever possible – in a 2:1 ratio.
Refined and whole food sources of carbohydrates
Highly processed sources of carbohydrates and free sugars are high in glycaemic load (the impact of a carbohydrate quality and quantity on blood glucose levels). To contend with the onslaught of quickly absorbed sugars, the body increases insulin production which is followed by a plummet in blood glucose levels, encouraging low-grade inflammation.
These foods also negatively impact the health of the gut microbiome, and contribute to excess weight and to the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) in the body – all attributed to chronic inflammation.
Free sugar and refined carbohydrates, specifically, have been studied with respect to inflammation. For example:
- A small randomised control trial where 29 healthy controls consuming as little as 40g of added sugar from soft drinks per day (equivalent of 1x 375ml can) experienced significant increases in inflammatory markers, with additional negative impacts in relation to body size, insulin resistance and LDL cholesterol markers.
- An increased intake of refined carbohydrates (which displaces other more healthful foods) has been shown to increase risk for mortality from an inflammatory disease in older people.
On the other hand, whole food sources carbohydrates, such as vegetables, nuts, legumes, some fruits, and any food high in fibre, assist in mitigating inflammation by slowing the release of energy – maintaining healthy blood glucose levels – and offering an array of beneficial nutrients.
In summary: choose a whole food source of carbohydrate, such as vegetables, fruit, and legumes, and limit added, free sugars and the stuff that has been highly processed or considered junk food, such as industrially made white bread, cakes, pastries, sugary drinks and most breakfast cereals.
What to eat: a diet mostly comprised of whole foods
When deciding what to eat, consider your overall dietary pattern rather than only consuming more of one particular ingredient, hoping it alone will mitigate the excessive consumption of the not-so-good stuff. It is essential to keep in mind that a healthful diet – that contributes to a healthy body and mind – is a sum of many parts. Therefore, always consider what you eat in context and your diet as a whole.
Research indicates that eating similarly to the Mediterranean diet can help keep inflammation levels in check, while supporting the immune system to operate at its best. Conversely, consistently consuming highly processed foods, including certain refined oils, confectionery, processed meats and deep-fried stuff will contribute to low-grade and chronic inflammation.
Therefore, limit intake of:
- Added and free sugars
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Refined carbohydrate-rich foods
- Processed foods and ultra-processed foods, such as confectionery, refined oils, processed meats and deep-fried stuff.
Instead, enjoy the following:
- Brightly coloured whole veg and fruit
- Omega-3 rich oils from oily fish, walnuts, flaxseed, chia and hemp seed
- Leafy greens, such as spinach, rocket and kale
- Spices and herbs, such as ginger, turmeric, rosemary and parsley
- High fibre foods, such as whole veg, fruit, legumes and seeds
- Good quality oils, such as extra virgin olive oil.
Other important factors to help manage persistent inflammation include drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise and good quality sleep, and undertaking some de-stressing activities to manage chronic stress.
We need inflammation
Inflammatory reactions in the body are NORMAL and necessary. Our bodies are designed to contend with some inflammation – we just don’t want to be inflamed all the time and without a counter-response.
Let us remember that our body will do everything to keep us happy, and it works hard – all day, every day – to do so. Give it a helping hand: discourage the constant barrage of inflammation by eating mostly real, whole foods, including an abundance and variety of vegetables, and go easy free, added sugars and processed and ultra-processed foods.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)