Inflammation seems to be a word we hear everywhere these days, but what is it, and why should we care about it?
There are two types of inflammation—acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is a reaction that happens in the body in response to an injury, like a cut or scrape, or some kind of foreign invader, such as a bacteria, virus, chemical or allergen. When this happens, the immune system releases inflammatory cells and cytokines, which result in redness, pain and swelling, thus beginning the healing process. Once the injury is healed or the foreign invader is gone, acute inflammation stops. Chronic inflammation, the kind we need to worry about, is when slow, low-grade inflammation occurs in the body over a long period of time. This can happen for many different reasons. For example, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis cause the body to attack its own healthy cells, and untreated acute inflammation from an infection, injury or ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, say, can eventually become chronic.
Inflammation also occurs naturally in the body as we age, due to mitochondrial dysfunction or the buildup of free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells and lead to cancer). Lifestyle factors including diet, stress, alcohol, cigarette smoke, lack of sleep, excess fat cells, not getting enough exercise or getting too much overly strenuous exercise all contribute to higher levels of chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a leading cause of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, arthritis, and cancer. So clearly, then, its relevance can’t be understated.
For example, dietary and lifestyle factors can contribute to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. This cholesterol buildup triggers the immune system, which can cause an ongoing attack by white blood cells. This results in low-grade inflammation that is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Unfortunately, chronic inflammation is often “invisible,” meaning there are no signs or symptoms that it’s causing systemic damage throughout the body. One indicator is an elevated level of the biomarker C-reactive protein, which is measured through a blood test. The good news is, because diet is a modifiable factor with such a big impact, it’s possible to significantly reduce levels of inflammation by making simple changes to what you eat.
WHAT TO EAT TO REDUCE INFLAMMATION
In a nutshell, focus on eating whole, plant-based foods that are rich in healthy fats and phytonutrients, and limit saturated fat, trans fat, refined carbohydrates, sugar and ultra-processed foods. Anyone who has a chronic inflammatory disease would benefit from following an anti-inflammatory diet, but this eating pattern is healthy for everyone and is protective against developing chronic disease.
Vegetables & Fruit
Vegetables and fruit have tons of beneficial properties, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and polyphenols, which give them their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Eat the rainbow! This means consuming a variety of colours and types of fruit and vegetables to get the full spectrum of nutrients. Think red tomatoes, orange vegetables like carrots and squash, dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, blueberries, raspberries, beets and more. Build in one or more servings with every meal, and add them to snacks.
Fish, Seafood & Other Healthy Fats
Fatty fish like salmon, trout, arctic char, herring, mackerel, sardines and tuna are rich in omega-3, a fatty acid which has potent anti-inflammatory properties. If you’re not a fish eater, consider an omega-3 fish oil supplement that includes both EPA and DHA. Plant-based sources of poly- and monounsaturated fats, such as ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp hearts, walnuts and other nuts and nut butters, as well as avocados, also decrease inflammation. Add a source of healthy fat to each meal, and use canola or grapeseed oils for high-heat cooking and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) for low-heat cooking (EVOO is also rich in polyphenols and has antioxidant activity).
As far as protein goes, focus primarily on plant based proteins (legumes, soy, nuts and seeds), include plenty of fish and seafood, and small amounts of lean meat, eggs and low fat dairy. By including more plant-based sources, you not only displace those protein sources like beef, pork and lamb that are higher in saturated fat (and are therefore pro-inflammatory), but plantbased proteins have anti-inflammatory properties themselves. Soy has been shown to decrease inflammatory markers, plus it contains isoflavones that have antioxidant activity. Legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils are low on the glycemic index (a measure of how much a food causes blood sugar to spike), rich in fibre and also decrease inflammatory markers. Nuts and seeds contain anti-inflammatory fats.
Whole Grains & Complex Carbohydrates
Whole grains are considered complex carbohydrates, which tend to be higher in fibre and lower on the glycemic index. This means they can help keep blood sugars more stable. Whole grains are those that contain all three parts of the kernel like steel-cut oats, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat groats, barley and quinoa. White flour is more refined, so when choosing bread products, choose whole grain (read the ingredient list to be sure it says “whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ”).
Staying well hydrated can help decrease inflammation. Aim to drink 8 to 12 cups of fluid per day, primarily water, herbal tea or other sugar-free beverages.
Other Nutrients with Anti-inflammatory Effects
Dark chocolate, green tea, turmeric and ginger all have anti-inflammatory properties. If you drink alcohol, choose red wine, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol. Coenzyme Q10 and magnesium may also decrease inflammation.
WHAT TO AVOID IN YOUR DIET
Ultra-Processed & Fried Foods
Processed foods (like hotdogs, chicken nuggets, snacks like cookies or sugary breakfast cereals) and fried foods (like french fries and chicken wings) are generally high in saturated and/or trans fats, salt and sugar, which are all pro-inflammatory. While most minimally processed foods are perfectly fine (like canned beans or frozen veggies), aim to cook more of your own meals from scratch using whole ingredients; think foods that are as close as possible to the form they exist in in nature.
Saturated & Trans Fats
Cut back on saturated fat by eating less red meat like beef, pork and lamb, and high-fat meats like salami and sausage, as well as less butter, cream, cheese, ice cream, pastries and other baked goods, and foods made with palm kernel oil. Trans fats, the worst kind for our health and for inflammation, are found in commercially baked and fried foods made with vegetable shortening and hard stick margarine and shortening. Avoid all foods that list “partially hydrogenated oils” on the label, as that means they contain trans fats.
Refined Carbohydrates & Sugar
Frequently eating refined carbohydrates (like white bread, donuts, desserts, muffins, snacks like pretzels and potato chips) and sugar (especially sugary drinks like juice, pop, iced tea, sports drinks, chocolate milk and flavoured lattes) can result in chronic high blood sugar, which increases the production of free radicals and cytokines and increases inflammation. However, completely restricting any food from your diet can set you up to crave that food and feel out of control when you find yourself around it. Instead, cut back slowly, and enjoy refined carbohydrates and sugar in moderation.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY EATING HABITS
What’s as important as what one eats is how one eats. Eating balanced meals that contain vegetables and/or fruit, protein, whole grains or starchy vegetables and healthy fats at regular intervals throughout the day is beneficial in keeping blood sugars stable, which in turn lowers inflammation. An anti-inflammatory eating pattern also focuses on eating slowly, mindfully and eating until comfortable fullness.
ANTI-INFLAMMATORY EATING CHECKLIST
While there’s no standard definition of what an anti-inflammatory diet consists of, the following guidelines offer a place to start. Use this checklist during meal planning for the week to help you include more of the foods that provide huge health benefits. Work with a registered dietitian for support with individualizing and implementing dietary changes like these.
❒ Six to 10 servings of non-starchy vegetables and colourful fruit per day
❒ Six 1/2-cup servings of whole grains (oats, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat groats, barley and quinoa) or starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, corn and peas) per day
❒ Small amounts of healthy fats with each meal (fatty fish, 2 tbsp nuts and nut butters, 1/4 avocado, 1 tbsp olive oil)
❒ One to two servings of soy protein per day (like 1 cup unsweetened soy beverage, 1/4 cup soy nuts, 1/2 cup tempeh or tofu, 1/2 cup cooked edamame beans)
❒ One to two servings of legumes per day (1/2 cup beans, lentils, chickpeas or 1/4 cup hummus)
❒ 1/4 cup nuts or seeds per day
❒ At least two to three servings of fatty fish per week, or supplement with omega-3
❒ Limit red meat to two to three times per week or less
❒ Limit processed and fried foods, saturated and trans fats, refined carbs and sugar
❒ Include foods like dark chocolate, tea, red wine, turmeric and ginger that are anti-inflammatory