Diet and inflammation

Inflammation occurs when our body tries to protect us from infection by foreign organisms including bacteria and viruses. It involves several processes in the body, including action by our white blood cells. The whole process is known as an immune response.


A short, sharp immune reaction is called an acute inflammatory response, such as a bee sting, while other immune responses can go on for some time and are known as chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is caused by a number of factors including just by carrying extra weight, pollution in the environment and also by consuming a poor diet.

Chronic inflammation is now known to diseases such as heart disease, cancers, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and even depression. Further, metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, display a strong inflammatory foundation, and inflammation is also linked to metabolic changes.

Inflammation can also lead to pain, such as when there is rheumatoid arthritis of the joints. When inflammation occurs in the body it can also lead to tiredness. An anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce both pain and tiredness.

Sometimes, the body sets up an immune response to what it perceives to be a foreign body whereas it is in fact its own cells; this is known as an auto-immune response. Many diseases including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Type 1 diabetes are thought to be due to an auto-immune response.

Whereas a poor diet can contribute to chronic inflammation, a good diet can also diminish inflammation and certain components of foods and beverages can have anti-inflammatory effects.  

Category  Anti-inflammatory diets and foods Diets and foods that can cause inflammation
Diet style A Mediterranean type diet which includes: olive oil*, fish, nuts, a little red wine*, wholegrains, tomatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables*. A fast-food diet/highly processed diet.
Types of fats Omega 3 oils such as from oily fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines) or take a supplement. Keep to a low-fat diet generally. A diet high in saturated fats, trans fats (not now used much in the UK). A general high fat diet increases inflammation.
Types of carbs and sugars                                                                    A low glycaemic index/load diet (slow-release carbs) such as wholegrain foods (three helpings a day is recommended), minimally processed carbs are best. Sugary foods, refined carbs (white bread, rice etc), sugary drinks. A low fibre diet.
Calories Diets that encourage weight loss if carrying extra weight. Diets that encourage excess weight gain. Being the right weight for height.
Vegetables* All are good but green leafy veg in particular. Over processed veg or veg with added full-fat mayonnaise, butter etc.
Fruit* All are good but colourful berries and oranges in particular. Over processed fruit/ fruit with added sugar/syrups.
Vitamin D Diets that provide plenty of vitamin D, e.g. eggs, oily fish, fortified lower sat fat margarine’s and spreads. A low vitamin D diet, especially if not getting much sun.
Supplements Should not be needed if the diet is adequate (except for vitamin D). Taking anti-oxidants can actually cause oxidation in some cases.
Protein sources A diet based on more plant-based proteins such as beans, soya, lentils, etc. Fatty meat, too much red meat (pork beef and lamb), processed meat such as sausage and ham.
Chocolate and snacks Dark chocolate*, not too much. Nuts and seeds. Sweets and chocolates, crisps, salted or coated nuts and seeds.
Hot beverages Tea, especially green, coffee, cocoa. Hot chocolate, sweetened fatty beverages, e.g. coffees with extra cream and syrups.
Alcohol - Excessive alcohol.
Herbs and spices Use spices in cooking, especially turmeric and other colourful spices. Avoid excessive use of salt.

*These foods contain substances called polyphenols; a natural substance produced by plants to protect themselves from bugs. They help reduce inflammation when ingested.

A note on a healthy gut

The gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. A healthy, balanced microbiome plays a very important role in health by helping control digestion and is now believed to reduce inflammation along with many other aspects of health. A healthy microbiome is one where the pathological organisms are kept in check by the so-called ‘good’ ones.

Taking a daily live probiotic will help along with foods that feed the good bacteria (prebiotics) such as veg from the onion family, oats, sauerkraut and other fermented veg and drinks such as kefir and kombucha.

You can also take a pro and pre-biotic as a supplement. Interestingly, the best diet for supporting a healthy gut microbiome is also the same the one for a healthy immune system.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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