When it comes to misunderstood health topics, inflammation tops the list. This normal response in your body protects you from anything that might harm you, and yet is also being studied as a possible root cause for all sorts of health issues, including heart disease and depression. Because of that, health experts have started to propose reducing inflammation in the body through diet.
If you're struggling with health issues and think inflammation is the cause, altering your diet could be a way to help that. There is still plenty of research that needs to be done, but some experts believe it can help.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body's natural response to protecting you from anything that might harm you. There are two types of inflammation, acute and chronic, but people often use the term interchangeably.
One way you can compare the two is to think of it as a fire: acute inflammation is like the small fire pit you build to roast marshmallows; chronic inflammation would be the huge wildfire that can spread and cause a lot of damage. The key with inflammation is that you want it to stay small and contained when it happens, not something that spreads all over your house and land, destroying your home and prized possessions in the process.
Chronic inflammation is the widespread, low-grade inflammation that is increasingly being studied and linked to many health problems such as heart disease, autoimmune conditions and even depression and anxiety. Inflammation can also be a culprit for less serious issues such as headaches, joint pain or low energy. One thing that many experts say is a driving force is your diet.
Many popular diets these days promise to help you lower inflammation levels in the body, including Whole 30, the, the Mediterranean Diet and the Paleo Diet. But do you have to go on a diet to reap the inflammation-fighting benefits of healthy food? Definitely not. The key is becoming more aware of which foods experts and science say are known to have anti-inflammatory effects and which ones may cause inflammation (and avoiding those when possible).
In fact, dietitian Brittany Modell advises clients to avoid doing diets, cleanses or detoxes since they're often short-term. "I personally do not believe in doing anything drastic in one's diet because it is often unsustainable, however, there are simple ways food can be used to reduce inflammation," Modell says.
How does diet contribute to inflammation?
It's no surprise that diet and nutrition affect inflammation levels since what you eat is so important for your overall health.
"There have been many studies conducted demonstrating the impact lifestyle, including diet and exercise, may have on chronic illness and inflammation," Modell says. "For example, metabolic syndrome, which is defined by three or more of the following conditions: hyperglycemia, hypertension, abdominal obesity, low levels of HDL cholesterol and hypertriglyceridemia (high triglycerides) is marked by chronic inflammation."
Since diet does play a role in chronic health conditions and inflammation levels, Modell says removing some inflammatory foods and adding in anti-inflammatory foods can significantly reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases.
Many different types of foods can potentially cause inflammation, but the biggest known offenders are refined carbohydrates (like white bread and pastries), fried foods, soda, processed meat (like hot dogs and sausages), and low-quality, highly processed fats like margarine and shortening.
These foods can cause inflammation since they are not as natural and more processed, which the body could interpret as a "foreign invader," triggering the inflammatory reaction.
How to get your inflammation levels checked
Some common symptoms of chronic inflammation include fatigue, rash and joint pain. If you've been experiencing symptoms and want to get your doctor to check your inflammation levels, you can ask them to run a C-reactive protein test. A CRP test is a blood test that shows inflammation markers in your blood.
If you would rather not see a doctor or can't find one that will run the CRP test for you, you can purchase an EverlyWell test for $99 that you can do at home. EverlyWell's test kit includes Vitamin D and a high sensitivity CRP test.
Anti-inflammatory foods to try
Whole foods (in various colors)
Incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet is one of the best ways to keep inflammation at bay. Don't forget to switch things up and "eat the rainbow" when selecting your produce to maximize their health and nutrition benefits.
"Whole foods with various colors such as dark green and cruciferous vegetables, dark purple or red fruits such as berries, onions, garlic, whole grains, oats, nuts, seeds and avocados are all shown to be part of a plant-based diet and help reduce inflammation in the body," Modell says.
Foods rich in antioxidants
Think eating healthy means giving up daily pleasures like coffee and chocolate? Think again. Both coffee and dark chocolate contain antioxidants that help fight inflammation.
"Many of these whole foods contain powerful antioxidant properties, such as polyphenols, which are aromatic compounds shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects," Modell says. "Polyphenols can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains, chocolate, olive oil, tea and coffee."
Healthier oils and fats
In addition to reducing trans fats (like those found in partially hydrogenated oils) it's also a good idea to be aware of other types of fat you're cooking with or find in your food.
Olive oil is one type of fat you can use on your food or in salad dressings that is a healthier option. Coconut oil is also a good choice since it's very heat stable and contains good-for-you MCT fats. You may want to consider consuming less omega-6 fats since they're linked to inflammation. Some examples of omega-6 fats include canola oil, soybean oil and rapeseed oil. These fats are often found in processed foods, fast foods and are often used at restaurants for cooking and frying.
Avoid processed foods
"A minimally processed plant-based diet has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body," Modell says. When it comes to processed foods, this means cutting back anything that comes in a package or box whenever you can. (Yes, even the packaged foods labeled "healthy.") Many products today are marketed to seem like they're health foods, when they are still highly processed and lacking nutrients you get from fresh food. Not to say that some packaged foods aren't better than others. The key is to try to eat foods with short ingredient lists, ideally one ingredient.
"Foods such as refined grains, high-fat cuts of beef, pork, lamb and veal, trans fats (look for foods with partially hydrogenated oils), sugary foods such as soda, sweetened drinks, high fructose corn syrup, desserts and sweets have been shown to be more inflammatory," Modell points out.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.