A table topped with bowls of food and fruits.

Eat Well, Be Well

A Closer Look at Chronic Inflammation and Food

It’s been researched over and over–some foods can make you feel better, and some worse. Better might mean good energy, less joint pain, a clearer head, more focus or more strength, or all of the above. One aspect of better/worse might be related to the amount of inflammation in the body.

We know that certain foods produce more and certain foods reduce inflammation. It’s not that far to leap to say how you feel in your skin might sometimes be related to what you ate. Let’s take a closer look at inflammation: what foods cause more and what foods cause less. Because eating different actually could make a difference in how good we feel.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural process, part of the body protecting itself, or helping to heal itself. Very useful for acute situations: a cut, a broken/sprained limb or other injury or infection. The body sends out chemical alarms and signals the immune system to go to a specific injury. Then, when the fire is out, the immune system calms down to normal balance. When the body continues to send out alarm bells for an acute injury for weeks, months or years, it is harmful and can lead to health issues. This is chronic inflammation.

We know environmental toxins and lifestyle (FOOD, sleep and stress) contribute to chronic inflammation. With lifestyle, specifically, drinking alcohol in excess, higher body mass (unless you have tons of muscle), too much or not enough exercise and lots of stress and smoking all add to the inflammatory load of the body. We also know that if out of control, chronic inflammation does contribute to diseases: Alzheimer’s, asthma, cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.

Lowering inflammation using food and nutrient building blocks has been well researched. It is known that vitamins A, C and D as well as Zinc, the spices turmeric, ginger and garlic and antioxidants can reduce inflammation.

Star Foods for Reducing Inflammation:

  • Berriesof all kinds contain antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are phytochemicals, and are anti-inflammatory.
  • Fatty fishlike salmon, sardines, etc. have active ingredients called EPA and DHA, which reduce inflammation. The body also uses fatty fish compounds to make resolvins and protectins which are also anti-inflammatory.
  • Broccolias well as cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts and kale are all in the cruciferous family and are all anti-inflammatory because they contain antioxidants. Broccoli contains the antioxidant sulforaphane which decreases inflammation via reducing cytokines which are pro-inflammatory.
  • Avocadois filled with monounsaturated fats, which contain carotenoids and tocopherols, both of which are linked to reducing inflammation.
  • Pepperssuch as bell and chili have lots of vitamin C and antioxidants. Bell peppers contain quercetin (a very powerful anti-inflammatory) and chili peppers contain sinapic and ferulic acid, both of which reduce inflammation.
  • Mushroomscontain phenols, which are anti-inflammatory.
  • Grapescontain resveratrol, a strong anti-inflammatory and specifically effective against heart disease.
  • Tomatoeshave lycopene, a strong antioxidant particularly beneficial for reducing pro-inflammatory chemicals related to cancer. Cooking tomatoes in olive oil helps the body to absorb greater lycopene.
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oilis one of the darlings of the Mediterranean Diet and significantly reduces inflammation. The active ingredient antioxidant is oleocanthal. Refined olive oil does not give the same benefit as extra virgin, so be careful to choose extra virgin olive oil for best anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Dark Chocolateis my favorite and naturally contains flavanols, which provide anti-inflammatory protection.
  • There are many others, especially foods with deep dark colors.

Harmful Foods That Increase Inflammation:

Some foods add to inflammation in the body. It’s good to avoid the following foods as much as possible. I’m not asking you to be perfect, just mindful and hopefully I am giving you the whys that will help you avoid them.

  • Fried foods/fast foodsthat are deep fried. Deep frying can increase the production of harmful compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which can up body inflammation. Frying may also increase the amount of trans fats in cooking oils, which also promotes inflammation. There is relatively new research suggesting that fried food influences the composition of the gut microbiome (all of the microorganisms in the large intestine that impact immunity).
  • Highly refined white carbssuch as white flour, white pasta, sugar, including high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be harmful.
    • Hands-down HFCS fructose causes inflammation. Wean yourself off any product that you’re eating that has it in the ingredient list. It’s bad for you.
    • Refined carbs lack fiber. Lack of fiber means it takes more food to feel full which promotes overeating. Lack of fiber also hurts blood sugar balance. And finally, lack of fiber negatively affects beneficial bacteria in your large intestine (microbiome). Higher fiber foods are just more nutritious and more anti- inflammatory.
  • Too Much Alcohol. Through research we know that increased alcohol consumption increases markers (c-reactive protein, CRP) of inflammation. More than two drinks per day had the highest CRP levels. Alcohol should be limited to two drinks per day for males and one for females or less.
  • Meats cooked at high temperaturesor cooking that makes the meat black. That black stuff is the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) – the same stuff that deep frying produces. Marinating meats in lemon juice or vinegar before grilling or roasting reduces the amount of AGEs by half. Slow cooking/grilling also helps.

Try the Mediterranean Diet

As you can see, in many cases, your diet and lifestyle drive inflammation, or worsen it or lessen it. Your choices do matter.

It’s always easiest to name the how to eat. So, as we’ve been doing for the last few months, we’re naming the Mediterranean Diet. It naturally promotes lower inflammation foods: lots and lots of colorful fruits and veggies listed above plus more, whole grains vs. refined grains, and less sugar/no sugar subs. There is plentiful research to suggest that people who do follow the tenets of the Mediterranean Diet enjoy lower levels of inflammation.

I hope this helps to explain why we are concerned about inflammation, why you should understand it, and HOW to manage it in your life. Enjoy all of those fall beautiful colorful fruits and veggies with Mediterranean-style meals this month.


Visit our blog at healthynestnutrition.com/blog for more healthy anti-inflammatory recipes and cooking ideas.

Sources: Harvard Health, Cleveland Clinic, Healthline