What foods cause or reduce inflammation?

The internet is full of stories claiming that certain foods cause, or reduce, inflammation in the body. Yes, diet can impact inflammation. But these stories often fail to address the bigger picture. To make any significant difference, it’s necessary to focus on long-term eating habits and an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s response to a problem. It’s a normal, important reaction that signals to the immune system that something is wrong, so it can then fight off infection or heal injuries. When you have influenza and run a fever, that’s inflammation. When you eat something bad and get diarrhea, that’s inflammation. Swelling after you twist your ankle? That’s inflammation, too. We need a little inflammation. We would die if we did not have inflammation.

Chronic inflammation, however, is another story. Chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs. Over time, it can lead to diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

What foods reduce inflammation?

I want to emphasize that people really need to focus on their pattern of eating — as opposed to eating a few particular foods — to reduce inflammation. There’s no miracle food out there that’s going to cure people with chronic inflammation. You need to have an anti-inflammatory lifestyle and diet.

That said, Mediterranean and plant-based diets, which are low in red meat and processed foods, can offer some protection against chronic inflammation. So can foods with antioxidants, such as nuts, olive oil, dark chocolate, beans, fruits and vegetables.

To make any significant difference, it’s necessary to focus on long-term eating habits and an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.

New research on time-restrictive eating and intermittent fasting shows timing may affect inflammation. Certain genes responsible for our inflammation are turned on and off at different times of the day. So if we eat at a time when those inflammation genes are turned on, that may potentially increase our risk of inflammation. Is eating at 1 a.m. going to have the same effect on inflammation as eating at 8 a.m.? I’d say they’re probably going to be some differences.

A lot of studies are looking at antioxidants and plant-based nutrients. The antioxidants prevent free radical species from damaging our DNA and causing oxidation, which is a form of inflammation.

What about dairy?

Studies haven't demonstrated milk clearly promotes inflammation, despite popular belief.

What about gluten?

Gluten — a protein in wheat, rye and barley — can lead to diagnosable inflammation in people with celiac disease, a condition associated with an autoimmune response to gluten. However, the connection between gluten and inflammation in people without celiac disease is less clear.

There is a condition known as gluten sensitivity. People with gluten sensitivity typically complain of gastrointestinal symptoms when exposed to gluten. Unlike celiac disease, biopsies of the small bowel from patients with gluten sensitivity do not show inflammatory changes.

Can supplements help reduce inflammation?

There are some that may be helpful. Turmeric and Omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil capsules, may offer some protection because they have anti-inflammatory properties. In terms of joint pain, capsaicin — the same chili pepper extract that makes foods spicy — may have anti-inflammatory properties.

If you have an inflammatory lifestyle, eating one anti-inflammatory food is not going to overcome that.

What foods can cause inflammation?

The standard American diet is pro-inflammatory because it’s rich in ultra-processed foods and red meat, and low in fruits and vegetables. All processed foods can cause inflammation. They can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation.

Avoid foods you couldn’t make at home, like corn chips. You can’t buy corn and go home and convert it into corn chips. There are a lot of chemicals and extra stuff that go into it. A quick way to recognize ultra-processed foods is to read the ingredients and see if you can pronounce what’s in it. The stuff you can’t pronounce is what can promote inflammation.

Also, fried foods, soaked in oil with Omega 6 fatty acids, can be pro-inflammatory. Sugar and soda may cause inflammation because of their effects on insulin.

How do I know if I need to reduce my inflammation?

Most people who need to reduce their inflammation probably already have a disease to go along with it. Identifying low levels of chronic inflammation is an area of ongoing research because we don’t yet know how to test for it and identify it in clinical practice. You can see things like redness, swelling and pain associated with inflammation, but you can’t detect it on a CT scan. There’s no one standard test I can do for a patient that says, "Oh, this is how much inflammation you have in your body right now."

What’s an anti-inflammatory lifestyle?

Getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Being keenly aware how the world can affect your mental health and having the courage to act on things, open up about your emotions and what’s going on in your head, and seek out counseling or meditating. It’s 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise, and not sitting for more than an hour at a time. It’s not smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

If you have an inflammatory lifestyle, eating one anti-inflammatory food is not going to overcome that.

Edwin McDonald, MD, is a gastroenterologist, researcher and trained chef. His blog, The Doc’s Kitchen, features articles about healthy, evidence-based eating.

author details Edwin McDonald

Edwin McDonald, MD

Edwin K. McDonald IV, MD, is dedicated to improving the health of individuals and communities through nutrition education.

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