Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Have you heard of the anti-inflammatory diet? First off, inflammation is such a scary word! When I hear this word, I think of flames, burning, aches and pains. Some ''nutrition gurus" report that some foods create inflammation and other reduce inflammation in our body. In this article, we will talk about what inflammation is and if nutrition has a significant impact on reducing inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s defense mechanism against pretty much anything (1)! There are two types of inflammation:
Acute inflammation is the immune system’s immediate response to an aggression which can be physical, the response to germs or the effect of chemicals (2). We’re all familiar with the inflammation we get after we get an injury; the area gets red and inflamed! This type of inflammation is something that is pretty obvious, is accompanied by pain and only lasts as long as the injury needs to heal (1).
Chronic inflammation is long term inflammation that we do not necessarily feel and develops over months to years (2). It can be due to many things such as long term infections, continued exposure to irritants, autoimmune disorders, repeated episodes of acute inflammation or due to effects of inflammatory agents associated with age, obesity, diet, smoking, stress and lack of sleep (see my article about sleep and nutrition) (1). This is the type of inflammation that we will be going over in this article!
What are the markers for inflammation?
Inflammation is rarely tested for on its own but can be tested as a subset of another injury or disease (1). Acute inflammation accompanies any situation in which your immune system is active such as a cold or an injury but the inflammation goes away when you get better (2). Chronic inflammation is usually found in chronic diseases and doctors can conduct tests to look at the different measures of inflammation such as C-reactive protein or fibrinogen but these can also indicate acute inflammation (1). Pro-inflammatory cytokines can also be tested as markers of chronic inflammation (TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, IL-6 and IL-8) but this method of testing is expensive and unstandardized (1). It is very difficult to know if you have chronic inflammation as you do not feel it.
What is the impact of inflammation on the body?
Acute inflammation is caused by the reaction of the immune system, it sends out inflammatory mediators, that tell the immune system to heal it (2). This causes increased blood flow which is why the area becomes inflamed (2)! This type of inflammation is usually beneficial and allows our body to heal. Chronic inflammation is a constant activation of our immune system that has negative effects on the body, through many mechanisms and is linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and obesity (1).
What is the inflammatory diet? Who is it made for?
There are many “anti-inflammatory” diets out there which range from simple food recommendations to extremely restrictive diets (like the autoimmune protocol diet). The supporters of this diet advertise it to people who suffer from different disease and as a preventative measure. Some go as far as promising that this diet will reduce toxins in the body. No evidences support this claim. Furthermore the restrictive aspect of this diet may cause more harm than good (check our my article on why you should never diet again to understand why restrictive diets can be harmful)
Can food really increase or decrease inflammation?
It is important to understand that inflammation is a very complex mechanism and it unfortunately cannot be “fixed” by us just changing our diets (3). There are elements in our diets that we can focus on to reduce the inflammation in our bodies.
First off, here are certain foods that could increase inflammation:
Saturated fats (4): saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and include animal fats such as fatty cuts of meat, butter and lard as well as certain plant based fats like coconut and palm oil.
Omega-6 fats (4, 5): omega-6 fatty acids are precursors to inflammatory elements called eicosanoids which can increase pro-inflammatory cytokines (5). Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in organ meats, egg yolks, soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil (5).
Trans fat (4): trans fats in processed foods are linked to heart disease and inflammation and are actually in the process of being banned in Canada (6)! Manufacturers will have until September 2020 to phase out products containing trans fats in stores (6).
Foods with a High Glycemic index (5): I will not go into the whole concept of the glycemic index (we need a whole other article for that!) but essentially these foods cause a spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels which can be linked to inflammation (5). These foods include foods that are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and foods with little fibre.
This list of foods are not things that you should never eat! These foods can definitely be a part of a balanced diet, in moderation.
Here are some foods that can have anti-inflammatory effects:
Omega-3 fatty acids (4): omega-3s compete against the pro-inflammatory omega-6s (5). Omega-3 is found in fatty fish such as salmon, trout, herring, sardines (for those who like them) or mackerel! Plant based sources of omega-3 have a different structure which may reduce the anti-inflammatory effects, these include ground flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds and hemp hearts.
Polyphenols (5): polyphenols give much of the colour to our foods, they are found in fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, chocolate and more. Polyphenols all have different effects on inflammation but are known for their antioxidant effects which may decrease the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and the pathways for inflammation signals (4).
Probiotic and Prebiotic foods (4): there have been links between the health of our gut microbiome and our inflammatory status (4). Probiotic foods include fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha or kimchi and prebiotic foods include asparagus, garlic, leeks, onion, asparagus and bananas. For more information about our gut microbiome, check our this article.
Vitamin C (4): vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help reduce inflammation elements (4). Sources of vitamin C include citrus fruit (obviously) but most other fruits and vegetables also contain vitamin C such as peppers, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, broccoli or melon.
Vitamin E (4): this antioxidant vitamin has also been shown to reduce inflammation (4). Sources of vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, avocado, peanuts, spinach, tuna and salmon (9).
What about supplements?
Supplements such as omega-3, polyphenols or vitamins can be an option; however, please speak with your registered dietitian or doctor before starting any supplements! Also, some supplements are not bioavaible (i.e. they end up in your pee!). If you want to make sure you are not wasting your money - reach out so I can make a personalized recommendation.
If a food creates inflammation – does it mean you are intolerant?
No! Intolerance to foods is not mitigated through the immune system so intolerance does not create inflammation. Food allergies on the other hand do create inflammation because they involve an immune response. Again, talk to a registered dietitian or your doctor if you think you have an intolerance or allergy.
Here are some easy tips to make your diet be more anti-inflammatory:
Cook from scratch! This allows you to reduce your consumption of processed foods and increase fresh nutrient dense foods. Check out the recipes on my blog for ideas
Use fat sources low in saturated and omega-6 fats such as olive oil.
Try to eat nuts and seeds as a snack or as part of your meals to reduce glycemic impact.
Aim for 1-2 portions of fatty fish per week (10).
Try to eat as many colourful foods as you can to increase your polyphenol intake.
Conclusion - Is this worth it?
If you are worried about inflammation, making small changes to reduce pro-inflammatory and increase anti-inflammatory foods can have beneficial effects on your health! These foods are overall great for your health and there is no harm in trying this. However, I support a non-diet approach to living your healthiest life and therefore do not think a restrictive anti-inflammatory diet is necessary (or beneficial!!).
If you need any guidance on integrating new foods in your diet or have specific nutrition question, do not hesitate to reach out :)
Thank you for reading-
Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Thank you Céleste Bouchaud for article!
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10. WHO | 5. Population nutrient intake goals for preventing diet-related chronic diseases [Internet]. WHO. [cited 2019 Nov 29]. Available from: https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/5_population_nutrient/en/index13.html