Inflammation is one of those “buzz” words. It is usually seen as a “villain” and is blamed for certain health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But, first we must ask, what exactly is inflammation? Is all inflammation created equal? Can the food we eat affect inflammation? How can we eat to promote health and avoid chronic inflammation? And, what can you do to stay as healthy as possible? Let’s begin at the beginning.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a hero in that it is the body’s mechanism for damage control. Cells that specialize in fighting foreign invaders (e.g., viruses, pollen, chemicals, etc.) are called to duty. This initiates a cascade of chemical processes that sets off an alarm for additional cellular troops to join the battle. Working together, these cells initiate the healing process in response to injury or exposure to a harmful substance.5
Is all inflammation created equal?
Inflammation is the body’s normal defense mechanism in response to a stressor. Inflammation acts as the hero in response to situations that are familiar to most of us, like when healing from a cut, a sprained ankle, a bee sting, and so on. These specialized fighting cells can also be lifesavers in more extreme cases, such as when serious infections or illness threaten our health.1 Inflammation produces free radicals – these free radicals are unstable molecules that will find their stability by borrowing electrons from healthy tissue to become a stable molecule. Typically, this type of inflammation produces free radicals in an amount that the body can manage. It promotes healing and recovery, and the inflammation can turn off once this process is complete.
However, in some cases inflammation misses the turn off signal, becoming overactive and producing too many free radicals for the healthy tissue to resolve, which causes damage to the body.4,5,6 This ongoing or chronic inflammation could be characterized as the villain, as the immune system to overloads and attacks the body’s healthy cells, sort of like “friendly fire.”1 As a result, havoc occurs and the body starts producing reactive free radicals that promote cell damage.5 Underlying chronic inflammation may play a role in the development of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.1,3,5
Can what we eat affect inflammation?
The food that we eat can be one of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation.2,3 Some foods that play an anti-inflammatory role include fruits (e.g. tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cherries), nuts (e.g. almonds pistachios, walnuts), olive oil, leafy greens (e.g. spinach, kale, collards), fatty-fish (e.g. tuna, salmon, other cold water fish), and herbs and spices (e.g. cloves, ginger, turmeric).2 Some of these choices are effective because they fight free radicals due to their antioxidant content. Consistently choosing healthy foods, such as those with antioxidants, is one of the best ways to help the body fight off free radicals produced by inflammation and prevent the chronic diseases mentioned above.4,6
Antioxidants are nutrients (e.g., beta carotene and Vitamin C and E) that help prevent or delay damage from free radicals by sharing an electron to stabilize the free radical, as depicted in the “Antioxidants” diagram below.1,4
Often, people with inflammatory diseases have reduced levels of antioxidants within their bodies due to insufficient dietary intake and/or due to increased demand to fight free radicals.4
So, your next logical question may be…
How can we eat to promote health and avoid chronic inflammation?
The strongest antioxidants that specialize in free radical fighting and boosting the immune system include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium, which are nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, and whole grains.1 It is best to choose real food over antioxidant supplements or products that “add antioxidants” to them. Make sure to always talk to your doctor or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) before starting any supplement. In terms of whole foods, vitamin C and beta carotene are found mainly in fruits and vegetables, whereas vitamin E is generally found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vegetable oils. Similar to vitamin E, selenium is found in nuts, seeds, whole grain, and beans, as well as fish, such as tuna. It is important to note that eating grains in their most “whole” form, such as oats, quinoa, barley, and whole wheat grains are where you get the most nutrient bang for your buck!
What can you do?
Following these 5 tips most of the time will help you stay on the road to health and fight against inflammation along your way.
- Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables: try to make at least half your plate fruits and vegetables.2,3,5
- Include plant-based sources of protein, such as legumes, beans, nuts and seeds.2,3,5,6
- Choose whole grains (oats, barley, wheat, etc.). 1
- Avoid foods made mostly of added sugar. When consumed in large quantities over time, they can have an inflammatory effect.2,3,5
- Pick heart-healthy fats (fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds) instead of inflammatory fats (red meat high in saturated fat, processed meats, fried foods, trans fats found in baked goods, and some other fats, etc.).2,3,5
It may seem complicated, but keep it simple. Set your goal to make one change at a time to maintain a healthy diet and boost your overall health!
- Galland, L. (2010). Diet and Inflammation. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25(6), 634–640. https://doi.org/10.1177/0884533610385703
- Greer, A. (2012). An anti-inflammatory diet: the next frontier in preventive medicine: although a healthy diet has long been encouraged for many reasons, research now shows a correlation between the foods we eat and biomarkers of inflammation. JAAPA-Journal of the American Academy of Physicians Assistants, 25(2), 38-47. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.proxy.library.oregonstate.edu
- Harvard Health Publications (2015). Foods that fight inflammation. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation
- Mangge, H., Becker, K., Fuchs, D., & Gostner, J. M. (2014). Antioxidants, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. World Journal of Cardiology, 6(6), 462–477. https://doi.org/10.4330/wjc.v6.i6.462
- Moore, M. (2014). Inflammation and Diet. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/wellness/preventing-illness/inflammation-and-diet
- Paturel, A. The Arthritis Diet | Anti Inflammatory Diet | Arthritis Diet. Retrieved February 2, 2017, from http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/anti-inflammatory/the-arthritis-diet.php