Research shows that long-term inflammation can be harmful.
Some inflammation — usually short-term, or acute, inflammation— is necessary for your body to function, and it’s a response to infections or injuries.
But long-term, or chronic, inflammation can increase your risk of several health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia.
Foods can cause both acute and chronic inflammation, so an “anti-inflammatory diet” may seem tempting.
In this article, we’ll explore whether an “anti-inflammatory diet” really exists — and what the research says about foods that might help reduce unnecessary inflammation.
At ZOE, we know that all bodies are unique, so picking the right diet can be difficult.
With the ZOE at-home test, we can analyze your body’s blood sugar and blood fat responses, and discover which “good” and “bad” bugs are living in your gut. From this, we’ll provide you with nutrition advice tailored to your body.
To get started, take our free quiz.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s natural immune response to infections, illnesses, and injuries.
When your immune cells jump into action and flood the target area, you may see redness and swelling, and you may feel heat or pain. This type of inflammation fires up rapidly and usually goes away within hours or days. It’s a really important process.
However, scientists believe that long-term inflammation can contribute to the development of many health conditions.
In fact, research suggests that people with certain metabolic, neurological, gastrointestinal, and mental health disorders often have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.
Many lifestyle factors can be involved in inflammation. This includes your diet, activity levels, stress, and sleep.
The composition of your gut microbiome — the trillions of bacteria and other microbes living in your gut — also plays a role in your inflammatory responses.
Other factors, like exposure to environmental pollutants, heavy metals, chemicals, and harmful bacteria, may also play a role.
Diet and inflammation
Your diet is an important predictor of levels of inflammatory markers that circulate in your body.
For example, studies have associated higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, and fish with favorably lower levels of CRP, a type of inflammatory marker.
The research also links eating more saturated fat and processed meats with having higher CRP levels.
The Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) gauges the inflammatory potential of your diet, based on the results of many scientific studies. It scores your diet as a whole, not specific foods or nutrients.
A higher DII score indicates more potential for inflammation, while a lower score suggests the opposite.
Research has linked DII scores to many health conditions, including:
Interestingly, ZOE’s PREDICT program, the world’s largest in-depth nutritional research program, found that levels of inflammation vary widely from person to person, including identical twins — even when people eat the same foods.
So, if everyone is different, how can each of us reduce inflammation? Luckily, certain approaches can help.
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Foods that may reduce inflammation
The diet tips we give below aren’t intended to treat inflammation-based health conditions. If you have any of these conditions, speak with a healthcare professional for support and guidance.
First, no specific diet can reduce inflammation.
Eating to help prevent inflammation looks different for everyone.
Your body’s unique blood sugar responses, blood fat responses, and gut microbiome play a significant role in your inflammatory responses.
While some limited research suggests that certain foods — like garlic, ginger, and green tea — have anti-inflammatory effects, the overall evidence isn’t conclusive.
Ultimately, fitting specific foods into your diet isn’t an effective way to reduce inflammation.
Instead, try to build a balanced diet that incorporates a variety of plant foods. These contain polyphenols, which are great for fighting inflammation.
In addition to plant foods, diets rich in lean proteins and healthy fats also tend to have lower DII scores.
Lean proteins include meats like chicken and turkey, not processed types like sausages, bacon, and cured meats, which usually contain more saturated fats.
A balanced diet also includes whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. These foods contain fiber, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals.
Research has linked fiber with a lower risk of many health conditions, while certain polyphenols and vitamins can be powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants play a protective role in reducing levels of inflammatory markers.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are typically healthy forms of fat. You can find them in:
nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts)
seeds (pumpkin, chia, and sesame)
plant-based oils (olive, canola, peanut, soybean, corn, and sunflower)
Omega-3 fats are a type of polyunsaturated fat in nuts, seeds, and oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel. These foods may prevent and suppress long-term inflammation because of their anti-inflammatory properties.
Foods that tend to increase inflammation
Eating foods that are ultra-processed and high in total fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar tends to lead to higher DII scores.
These foods are more common Western diets, and some examples are fried foods, processed meats, candy, and sugar-sweetened drinks.
Research associates Western diets with increased levels of inflammation and body fat, and higher body mass index (BMI) scores, as well as disruptions in energy metabolism and immune function.
This disruption can drive the development of a number of health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease.
Short-term inflammation is the body’s natural defense against infections, illnesses, and injuries. But lots of chronic, or long-term, inflammation can be harmful.
Many factors can play a role in long-term inflammation, including your diet, sleep, stress, activity levels, and the composition of your gut microbiome.
Eating a wide range of plant-based foods can help you get a healthy amount of polyphenols, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
In addition to focusing on plant-based foods, adding lean sources of protein and healthy fats generally lowers the DII score of your diet.
Levels of inflammation vary widely from person to person, though people with more body fat and higher BMI scores may be more likely to have higher levels of inflammation after eating.
Ultimately, all bodies are unique, so reducing inflammation with nutrition will look different for each of us.
With the ZOE at-home test, we can analyze your body’s blood sugar and blood fat responses, and learn which “good” and “bad” bugs are living in your gut. From this, we’ll provide you with nutrition advice tailored to your body.
To get started, take our free quiz.
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