A nutritionist’s guide to anti-inflammatory diets
If you’ve heard of ‘anti-inflammatory diets’ or that certain foods cause inflammation but aren’t sure if what you’ve read is true, this article is for you! Read on to find out what inflammation actually is and what you can do to reduce inflammation in your own body.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s immune system in action. When you experience an issue, such as physical trauma (like burns or a splinter), microbial issues (like the flu), autoimmune issues (Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease) or metabolic issues (high blood pressure, obesity), the body responds with inflammation. At first, white blood cells go to sites of infection or injury and release chemicals that can kill germs. They also produce protein messengers called cytokines, which send signals to the cells of the immune system to come and help. As a short-term response, it’s a good thing.
Inflammation is supposed to be a short-term reaction, but when it occurs over the long-term, called ‘meta-inflammation’, it can play a role in many of our modern-day issues, such as depression, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. It has also been linked to a wider range of illnesses, which is why it’s such a buzzword lately.
Triggers for inflammation
You’re likely to recognise a few of these causes of meta-inflammation, as they’re so prevalent in the busy lifestyles that we lead: stress, social isolation, poor diet, lack of movement, lack of sleep and a loss of bacterial diversity (this can be caused by overusing antibiotics and/or a lack of fibre).
Diet is really important, as various factors in the diet can lead to increased levels of inflammation. For instance, if our diet isn’t very healthy and we accumulate fat predominantly around our organs and waistline, it is ‘metabolically active’. That means it promotes inflammatory signals that can contribute to the likelihood of the above-mentioned diseases. Excess sugar can have the same effect.
Similarly, a lack of fibre in the diet - found in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds - can also lead to increased inflammation, as a healthy gut microbiome requires high levels of fibre in the diet.
Should you follow an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet is essentially a way of eating more than a strict, prescribed diet plan. Examples of anti-inflammatory diets include the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which both follow the same principles:
- plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- foods that contain healthy fats (mono- and poly-unsaturated fats), such as oily fish, nuts, olive and rapeseed oil
- limited foods that are highly processed and high in saturated fat, salt and/or sugar
- limited alcohol
Whilst the above principles are everything I’d recommend as a nutritionist, it is worth noting that taking them to the extreme can be unhelpful. For instance, carbohydrates like white bread and pasta are often demonised with anti-inflammatory diets you can find online, along with all the other fun foods that we like to eat! Absolute restriction can lead to disordered eating patterns, or an obsession with eating only ‘healthy’ foods, known as orthorexia. The key is overall balance - more nutritious foods, fewer foods high in salt, fat and sugar overall.
What about gluten and dairy?
There are also claims that certain nutrients, such as gluten, or whole food groups, such as dairy, can cause inflammation. However, nutrients and food groups should not be avoided unless you have been advised to do so by a doctor or registered dietitian, as individual responses vary greatly. That said, very few people actually have an allergy to gluten (this can be tested by your doctor) and dairy does not actually cause inflammation.
In various systematic reviews and meta-analyses, dairy has been shown to have no significant effect on inflammatory markers in the body and has actually been found to have a significant anti-inflammatory effect in certain populations. Part of the reason people blame dairy for inflammation is because of the saturated fat content of milk and other dairy products; however, the saturated fat content of cow’s milk is never high - even whole milk falls into the ‘medium’ category, whilst skimmed and semi-skimmed fall into the ‘low’ category.
Tips to reduce inflammation
Instead of following a restrictive diet claiming to heal you of all ills, here are some evidence-backed tips to reduce inflammation in a way that is sustainable and can be built upon over time:
- Think of what you can add to your meals and snacks, rather than what you should take away - a fruit, vegetable or high-fibre food (beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, oats, whole grains etc.) Aim for diversity and colour wherever you can.
- Include more foods with healthy fats, such as olive and rapeseed oil, oily fish like mackerel and salmon (tuna doesn’t count), avocados and chia, flax or hemp seeds.
- Watch your alcohol intake and reduce this if you know it’s a little high.
- Limit unhealthy foods like cake and frozen pizza - but don’t restrict them altogether! Just be aware of how often you eat them and in what quantities.
- Invest in your spice rack: as a general rule of thumb, a wide range of spices contain dense concentrations of phytochemicals and micronutrients, which provide a variety of antioxidants that have the potential to reduce inflammation.
- Consider ways to manage your stress daily, with something like walking, tai chi, meditation, yoga or chatting with friends.
- Prioritise sleep above ‘one more’ episode of whatever you’re into on Netflix and establish a good sleep routine.
If you struggle to make changes like this to your lifestyle or would prefer a one-to-one approach to know how to be healthier, then just let me know - we can work together to make the right changes in an order that makes sense and works for you. Consultation options are on my Nutritionist Resource profile.