Can what we eat really help protect our bodies?
Scientists are still learning exactly how chronic inflammation plays a role in some of the biggest killers in our society today - like stroke, heart disease, and diabetes (1, 2). While every detail isn't fully understood, people with inflammatory diseases are unwanted hosts to a battle of inflammatory processes.
In more ways than one, our meal choices may impact inflammation that could be causing us harm.
Inflammation Explained: The Good & The Bad
Not all inflammation is bad. It’s actually a response driven by our immune system to help protect our bodies.
Our immune system is our personal line of defense. When it detects infections, toxins, or injury, a cascade of inflammatory processes are triggered that helps to fight these threats as well as to remove and help repair damages that have occurred.
The inflammatory process can be so powerful at attacking threats that if it’s not controlled, it can start damaging healthy good parts of our body. Inflammatory diseases happen when there is prolonged inflammation that is left unchecked or has the wrong target (ie: autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis).
Bottom line: we need the right amount of inflammation to protect us, but too much can cause us harm.
How do we find the right balance? Many people can start by improving their diet and lifestyle choices.
Are There Foods That Reduce Inflammation?
In a perfect world, our immune system provides us with just the right amount of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses to keep us healthy and strong.
But we need to be fueling it with enough key nutrients for it to work properly.
They’re called essential for a reason. Getting enough of the vitamins and minerals deemed ‘essential micronutrients’ is one of the necessities to support our immunity. In particular, it seems our immune system needs the vitamins C, D, and E as well as zinc and vitamin A (beta carotene) to optimally function.
However, this doesn’t mean that getting more than what we need of these essential micronutrients is necessarily better. Many people have proposed using a surplus of these as supplements (ie: vitamin E and vitamin D) to treat a variety of infections and inflammatory diseases, but studies so far show there isn’t a clear benefit from getting more than our recommended intake (3).
Other nutrients may also help support the right balance of immunity, even if they aren’t considered ‘essential’. This includes other antioxidants, which are substances thought to limit cell damage, either by preventing or delaying cell destruction (4).
While many antioxidant foods are considered overall healthy for us for a variety of reasons, specifically supplementing with extra antioxidant products has unfortunately not been shown in studies to be effective at reducing inflammation or treating inflammatory conditions (5).
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids, in particular, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are often praised for their potential anti-inflammatory effects and for being in general good for us.
In fact, many studies support that high consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with a decreased risk for heart disease, high cholesterol, and cardiac death. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends people with high triglycerides use omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
More studies are needed to elucidate details on the benefits of omega-3’s (6).
It’s well established that whole grains are good for our health in all sorts of ways - including lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke, and obesity. Some researchers have proposed that part of these benefits may come from an anti-inflammatory influence and like many of the other categories listed here they have been shown to decrease some inflammatory markers (7, 8, 9).
Some people think that probiotics may also help minimize people’s inflammatory response to food. This positive response could potentially come from their effect on the natural bacteria in our gut.
While some studies suggest probiotics may have positive effects, particularly in conditions involving the gut, these benefits aren’t yet clear. This means there haven’t been enough studies to say for sure which probiotics are helpful, for what conditions they may be helpful, and the extent of their influence on inflammation and health (10).
These are substances found in plants that are thought by many to have a positive effect on our health potentially through an anti-inflammatory role. They include phenolic acids, polyphenols, and phytosterol compounds. While it’s not fully known how much phytochemicals themselves are contributing to health, diets high in plant-based products have substantial support for being really good for us (11).
Anti-Inflammatory Food List
These foods have super nutrients that help your health in many ways and may work to decrease inflammation in your body.
In fact, there is an entire diet devoted to fighting inflammation, called the anti-inflammatory diet, that is actually recommended by the arthritis foundation. However the extent to which this diet can directly influence inflammation is still controversial because so much about inflammation in the body, especially as it relates to diet is still not well enough understood.
Regardless, these same foods that are part of the anti-inflammatory diet are found in many healthy well-rounded diets, including the Mediterranean diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Canola Oils
- Chia Seeds
- Collard Greens
- Brussel Sprouts
- Whole Wheat
- Brown Rice
Nuts & Seeds
- Sweet Potatoes
- Bell Peppers
- Red Grapes
How to Reduce Inflammation in the Body
There is not yet a quick fix to solving all inappropriate inflammation in our bodies. The way chronic inflammation affects different diseases probably varies tremendously. This makes treating this variable and poorly defined condition even more challenging.
But there are basic lifestyle changes we can all make that to help support healthy well-balanced immunity.
Make Good Food Choices
It turns out that the anti-inflammatory food list above includes the same options often widely promoted for general health such as fruits and vegetables along with lean protein like fatty fish. A diet with these nutrient-rich foods can help to fight inflammation, as well as contribute to a healthy weight.
Avoiding foods that may not only be pro-inflammatory but are also low in nutrients and high in calories is the next step. These include unhealthy saturated and trans fats such as fried foods and fatty red meat, ultra processed foods as well as added sugars.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
How much inflammation is in the body is likely not just related to what specific food is eaten, but the consequence of our collective diet and other lifestyle choices. People who are overweight with nutrition-related chronic diseases like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes seem to have too much inflammation in their bodies.
This inflammatory response in people who are overweight and obese may be significantly improved by weight loss from a healthier diet and exercise. Maintaining a healthy weight is likely just as important for people diagnosed with inflammatory diseases.
Avoid Smoking & Other Toxins
Our immune system perceives smoking and other drugs as a threat, because well, they are. When these substances are regularly used, such as in people who smoke, it likely creates a chronic state of inflammation in the body.
Bottom line: Take an anti-inflammatory lifestyle approach by making good food choices, maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular exercise and minimizing any toxins in your body.