Science 101

The Truth About Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Can filling your plate with certain foods tamp down inflammation?


What do many chronic conditions and age-related diseases have in common? In a word: Inflammation.

Inflammation has become a buzzword synonymous with bad health. But it’s not always a bad thing. Acute, short-term inflammation is a vital part of the body’s natural healing process. If you twist your ankle, for example, blood vessels leading to the injured area dilate so that more blood can reach the tissue (the increased blood flow causes the telltale swelling). The body then sends a rush of white blood cells and inflammatory cytokines to repair and rebuild the damaged tissues. Low-grade, chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is the kind tied to scarier health conditions.

Scientists now believe that a chronic, low-grade inflammation develops as part of the aging process and have even come up with a term—inflammaging—to describe this process, which has been identified as a significant risk factor for mortality among the elderly. “As we age, immune cells become more pro-inflammatory,” says Katrin Andreasson, MD, a professor of neurology at Stanford University. “Macrophages lose their ability to gobble up bacteria, especially in the brain, where they destroy proteins including amyloids and tao that cause neurodegenerative diseases connected with aging.” As we age we also have fewer naive T-cells, the immune cells which morph into T-cells that fight aging.

Nearly 150 million Americans are living with at least one chronic condition linked to inflammation (some examples? Fibromyalgia, depression, diabetes); around 100 million of them have more than one, according to research from the RAND Foundation. Almost 30 million—that’s about 12 percent of Americans—are living with five or more. These numbers are expected to rise over the next 30 years, leading researchers to look for ways to counter the trend. Many of them are looking at what we put in our mouths.

Fighting Inflammation with Food

Google “anti-inflammatory foods” and almost a hundred million results pop up. Many of the links, even those that go to health authorities, bombard you withlists of supposed “superfoods” that can fight inflammation (as well as foods that supposedly feed the fire). But as is often the case when it comes to linking diet and disease, it’s more complicated than that.

Certain eating patterns seem to contribute to inflammation. The typical Western diet —high in refined carbohydrates, sodium, and transfatty acids — has been linked with higher levels of inflammatory markers that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). High fat diets also seem to accelerate inflammaging, notes Andreasson. Inflammaging happens to everyone, she says, but it happens more quickly among people who eat a high fat diet.

On the flip side, Mediterranean-style diets — ones that are rich in fiber, lean protein, monounsaturated fats, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids— seem to lower levels of inflammatory markers and even protect against CVD. Large-scale longitudinal observational studies suggest that diets low in refined carbohydrates, high in soluble fiber, high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, a higher omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and high in polyphenols, all have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.

Still, it’s hard to tag individual foods as “anti-inflammatory.” Plenty of foods have been found to reduce inflammation in lab and animal studies, and even some human trials. For example, a 2016 review of research on dark chocolate and inflammation in the journal Nutrients noted that several studies show that cocoa flavonoids, a compound in dark chocolate, decreased inflammation in mice, while research on the effect in humans is mixed. But there’s little data that proves certain foods can ward off inflammation if you eat enough of them. In fact, the latest study on dark chocolate brings up the question of what happens if you eat too much. Researchers found that consuming large amounts of 70-percent dark chocolate affects the activity of genes that regulate the immune response. However, the study was only in five individuals, and eating a significant amount of chocolate could also lead to weight gain, which is itself a risk factor for inflammation.

Take tumeric, too. The Instagram-darling spice has been researched for curcumin (the medically active compound in turmeric), finding that it has potential anti-inflammatory properties. But the first large-scale human trial, published in 2018 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found no evidence that curcumin, taken as a supplement, reduces inflammation in humans. Same goes for blueberries, as the fruit is believed to contain anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanidins. Context matters, though. Mediterranean diets are rich in seafood, yet studies of people who take fish oil supplements don’t show a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. So perhaps it’s not the fish itself that’s beneficial, it’s that seafood displaces red meat in the diet. Or it could be that compounds in the fish (some research suggests omega-3s, for example, may lower inflammation and slow a key process linked to aging ) do fight inflammation, but only when combined with other compounds or foods common in the diet.

The research so far suggests that rather focusing on adding individual foods to our plates, we should focus on following an all-around healthy diet that resembles the Mediterrean diet — heavy on whole grains, vegetables, heart-healthy fats and fish. Recent research links the diet to weight loss, and maintaining a healthy body weight on its own can lower markers for inflammation.

And while researchers can’t prove certain ingredients fight inflammation, or that other foods definitively cause it (at least not yet), there is evidence that limiting the foods below may lower your risk for diseases linked to inflammation.

Soda: File this under not-so-sweet news: A study of more than 120,000 women found that drinking more soda was linked to higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation, as well as high cholesterol, a marker for cardiovascular disease. Another study found that soda drinkers had increased levels of uric acid, which drives inflammation and insulin resistance.

Trans fats: Aka, the worst dietary fat there is. Trans fats raise your cholesterol and have been linked to inflammation. They’re mostly found in fried and processed foods (check the label for “partially hydrogenated oils”).

Refined carbs: One study found that a high intake of refined carbs like white bread, pasta, cookies, and baked goods decreased the body's ability to fight inflammation, and increased the risk for developing insulin resistance, a precursor to type-2 diabetes.

Red meat: Eating too much red meat, especially processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and salami increases your risk for cancer, chronic disease and early death, according to a new BMJ study that linked increased red meat consumption with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers.

Alcohol: Drinking too much, too often causes inflammation in the intestines, alters the balance of bacteria in your gut and may make the intestinal lining more permeable (making it easier for bad bugs to pass through into the bloodstream, where they may cause widespread inflammation).

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