Can food fight inflammation?

Inflammation: it’s a word we hear a lot in the news, and not just when we’re talking about arthritis or injuries. More research is finding that chronic, low-grade inflammation (or systemic inflammation) in the body may be a contributing factor for serious conditions like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It can affect your body’s ability to heal, and even promote aging. The problem is that this inflammation often goes unnoticed — until it’s too late. The good news is that researchers are now taking a serious look at this hidden cause of trouble.

At the same time, we’re more aware of how our lifestyle choices impact our health, and we’re on the lookout for preventative measures we can take to ensure longer, healthier lives. Nutrition has stepped into the spotlight as one of the ways to ward off disease and treat certain ailments. Many experts now believe that what we eat can either fight the effects of inflammation — or make it worse.

Here’s a look at the food we currently know to cause health or harm:

Pro-inflammatory foods

Along with raising your risk for serious illnesses, these foods can also increase inflammation and the pain associated with it. In addition to dropping other vices like smoking and excessive drinking, experts recommend avoiding these foods:

High-fat meats and red meats — saturated fats (which are animal-based) and a fatty acid called arachidonic acid are the culprits here. A little of each is good for your health, but too much will have a detrimental effect. When you choose red meat, opt for lower-fat cuts and look for grass-fed sources rather than grain-fed ones. (Of course, portion control is also key.)

Full-fat dairy — some sources argue that dairy in general can contribute to inflammation, but it’s the high-fat sources like ice cream and certain kind of cheeses that are the worst. Like high-fat meats, it’s the saturated fats and arachidonic acid you’ll want to limit.

Unhealthy fats — avoid foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats. Omega-6 fatty acids are also thought to contribute to inflammation, and they can be found in corn oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil.

Foods high in refined sugars and starches — sugary cereals, soft drinks, pastries and desserts are harmful to more than just the waistline. Foods high in processed sugars and refined flours should be given a pass because they can cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar and contribute to type-2 diabetes.

Processed meats — in addition to their other unhealthy ingredients, processed foods may contain nitrites which are also known associates of inflammation and chronic disease.

Fast foods and junk food — there’s no way around it: bad fats and plenty of sugar and starches make junk foods a no-no regardless of what diet you follow. Save them for the occasional treat, and offset them with healthier choices.

Nightshade family plants — usually everyone extols the virtues of vegetables, but some experts caution that vegetables from the nightshade family of plants — like potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes — can make inflammation worse because they contain solanine, a chemical alkaloid. However, much of the evidence in this area is anecdotal and more research is still needed to settle this controversy.

Anti-inflammatory foods

Experts are quick to point out that there isn’t a single superfood to cure all ills, but rather it’s our everyday food choices that can make a big difference. Proponents of the anti-inflammatory diet recommend these foods:

Salmon and cold-water fish — they get the nod for those anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids. If fish doesn’t tempt your taste buds, try a fish oil supplement instead.

Nuts and seeds — they contain good fats like Omega-3 and Omega-9 fatty acids that are essential to a healthy diet. Throw them on a salad, toss them in trail mix or make homemade granola bars.

Healthy oils — they’re another source of “good fat”. Olive oil in particular has been shown to reduce pain and the risk of heart disease. Other good oils include walnut oil and grape seed oil.

Lean meats — in addition to fish, lean poultry and seafood should regularly grace your table (in reasonable amounts, of course).

Legumes — the plant-based proteins found in lentils, chick peas and beans are good for your health and should be a regular part of your diet in place of meat at least two or more times a week. (They’re also high in fibre too). Soy protein may also help reduce inflammation, so try some soybeans, tofu and soy milk.

Whole grains — dietary fibre makes the difference. Experts note that our breads, cereals and pasta should be 100 per cent whole grain rather than harmful refined flours. They take longer to digest, making you feel fuller longer and avoiding blood sugar spikes.

Brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables — the more fruits and vegetables in your diet, the better because of the nutrients and fibre they provide. Go for colour — the pigments that make vegetables and fruits so bright contain phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory properties. Dark, leafy greens also pack a healthy punch.

Fruits like blueberries, cherries and strawberries are packed with phytochemicals and anti-oxidants. Also, enjoy that apple peel too — like red grapes, red onions and broccoli, it’s packed with quercetin, another anti-inflammatory phytochemical.

Anti-inflammatory seasonings and spices — tumeric, ginger, black pepper, basil, garlic, cinnamon, rosemary and red pepper are packed with anti-oxidants and phytochemicals, and they add flavour without piling on calories or salt. (See Spices of life for more tasty choices.)

Green tea — green tea contains a type of flavonoid called catechins which fight inflammation and improve blood vessel functioning. Try drinking it hot (with lemon and honey), or iced with a shot of your favourite fruit juice. (For more details, see A cup of tea for your health.)

Chances are you’ve seen a list like this before. These foods are all widely touted as having health benefits of one kind or another, so naturally they appear in everyone’s top picks. They’re also part of the widely-known Mediterranean and DASH diets, and they’re the foods dietitians recommend the most.

Will it help arthritis and other illnesses?

So is this diet a cure-all? Not so fast… while these foods are believed to fight chronic inflammation and help with inflammatory conditions too, there’s more to the story.

Take arthritis, for example. If you’ve been diagnosed with one of the illnesses that fall under this umbrella, you’ve likely been told by others to eat this food or avoid that food to help fight symptoms. There may be some fact behind these assumptions, but it’s not always easy to tell.

Unfortunately, scientists are still debating the role diet plays in inflammatory conditions. According to the Arthritis Society, no single food has been shown to cure arthritis or alleviate symptoms. There isn’t enough research in this area to provide concrete proof, and there are other factors to consider. For instance, it’s possible that periods of remission happen to coincide with eating or eliminating certain foods, and there’s always the power of the placebo effect.

Food allergies can also trigger symptoms. After all, allergies are an immune response, and inflammation is one way that the immune system responds to threats. Something you eat could make your joints flare up (or your skin or other organs). However, people have different allergies and present with different symptoms, so it’s difficult to pin down cause-and-effect relationships. Avoiding wheat or dairy may work for one person, but not another.

In short, no one diet plan is right for people with arthritis or other conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. There are simply too many variables at work. However, experts do recommend that people with inflammatory conditions pay more attention to what they eat, and make even more of an effort to choose wisely.

So what’s the bottom line?

There’s a lot about food and illness that we still don’t understand. Scientists are just beginning to investigate the links between inflammation and auto-immunity, so more news and research will be forthcoming in the next few years. Natural and alternative health practitioners have been recommending diet plans and supplements as a way to heal the body, but the scientific research isn’t quite there yet.

For now, it doesn’t seem to matter what you call the diet: avoiding high-fat and processed foods and eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet with plenty of plant-based foods is still the way to go. If you have food allergies or intolerances, you should avoid those foods regardless because they’re triggering some kind of negative response from your body.

For more detailed advice on healthy diet choices, check out Six keys to healthy eating and Top foods your heart will love.

Sources:, The Arthritis Society, The Center for Food Allergies, Institute for Integrative Healthcare Studies, The

Photo © Ina Peters

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