Inflammation. Everybody is talking about it because too much is thought to cause to disease. More than that, people really want to know how to reduce inflammation. Can you take a supplement? Well maybe, but what about food? What foods reduce inflammation? Odds are, they are in your kitchen right now. In this review, let's look at the foods that can both decrease AND increase the inflammatory process. Adding more of the right foods -and removing some of the bad foods – might not only improve your pain and health now but also help you live longer too. As always, there's no fluff here. Just science and rational thinking.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation often gets a bad rep but it's actually a good thing. The immune system uses the inflammation process to battle disease. When the body is injured, immune cells release chemicals which increase inflammation. This in turn, kills infections. For example, a fever is a sign the body is battling an infection.
The fever results in an elevated body temperature, which, kills disease-causing bacteria. As we beat off the bacteria, the fever / inflammatory process decreases and we feel better again. This is called an acute (short term) inflammation.
That's how it's supposed to work.
Sometimes though inflammatory chemicals rise and stay elevated even though we may not seem “sick.” This is called chronic (long term) inflammation. Sometimes diseases can cause this problem too. These conditions are called auto-immune diseases.
Oftentimes, autoimmune diseases don't have any signs until the disease later shows up. This may take years sometimes. Diseases like these cause a low-grade inflammation. Since doctors often don't test for sub-clinical inflammation and it may go unnoticed for decades.
If left unchecked, this long term rise in pro-inflammatory signals can lead to a variety of unhealthy situations.
Signs of Inflammation
I'm sure most of us have experienced symptoms of inflammation from time to time. Common symptoms include:
- Areas of the body are warm to the touch
- Areas of the body appear red /pink colored
- Joint stiffness
One of the reasons people use aspirin, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs is to reduce inflammation. While anti-inflammatory drugs have their use, like everything, they do have side effects (click to read review).
Diseases Linked To Chronic Inflammation
Here is a short list diseases can raise inflammation and/or be associated with inflammation.
|Type II diabetes||Heart disease||Gum disease|
|Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)|
Two other things which can elevate the inflammatory process are:
- Muscle soreness, following exercise
- Rhabdomyolysis (muscle fiber death) from too much exercise
High intensity exercise is quite popular, so also see the Interval Training review for more info.
How do doctors test for inflammation? One way is by testing for a compound called C-reactive protein (CRP). The test is called the “high sensitivity CRP” test (HS CRP).
CRP is a protein made in the liver and it's part of how the body deals with inflammation. C-reactive protein levels go up when we suffer from an inflammatory disease or trauma and the levels go back down again when we get better.
Many diseases also promote elevations in CRP too. In the case of a long-term disease or repeated daily insults (eating high fat diet etc.), CRP levels may stay elevated.
With respect to your heart disease risk, here's what CPR levels mean:
- Low risk : < 1 mg/L
- Moderate risk 1 mg/L to 3 mg/L
- High risk: > 3 mg/L
If you are “healthy,” your doctor probably doesn't routinely order the CRP test. For those who are not healthy or have health issues like heart disease or arthritis, it may be ordered. The only way to know is ask your doctor about it.
Foods That Raise Inflammation
It should come as no surprise that some of the most popular foods people eat can raise cellular inflammation. A short list of these foods includes:
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Cookies and baked goods
But why are these foods bad? Well, foods like these have some things in common. Lets look at those now
Saturated fats raise cellular inflammation. The more saturated fats we eat, the greater the propensity for an abnormal inflammatory reaction. For example, one small study even showed less morning stiffness and tender joints in arthritis when people ate more polyunsaturated fats and less saturated fats.
Trans fats are a byproduct of making saturated fats. In other words, as companies make processed, saturated fats, trans fats are made too. Trans fats have been listed on food labels for many years for good reason. They not only increase bad cholesterol (LDL) and total cholesterol, they also increase inflammation too. This is one of the ways they promote heart disease.
Trans fats also damage the endothelium – the inner lining of our blood vessels. This damage increases inflammation which in turn is related to blood vessel damage (hardening of the arteries/heart disease).
Because of a legal loop hole, even foods listing “zero trans fats” might contain them.
Processed Carbs /Sugar
Sugar is critical for life. Our cells use sugar to make energy (ATP). But this doesn't mean eating more sugar is always better. While most understand diets high in refund carbs may eventually lead to insulin resistance (a sign of type II diabetes), at least one study has noted fructose (high fructose corn syrup) promotes inflammation in the cells, even at low levels.
Fructose in food (like fruits) does not do this because there is only a small amount of the sugar present. Most of the fructose we get in the diet is from processed foods.
Another downside to processed sugars is their connection to Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). These are molecules formed when sugar combines with protein and fat. The AGE compounds raise inflammation and also increase free radical damage (oxidative stress). They are linked to a variety of diseases also play a role in the aging process. (get it, AGE is a reference to aging).
Salt / Sodium
High salt diets are well known for their effects on elevating blood pressure. High sodium diets appear to alter immune cells (T cells/macrophages) which increase inflammation in the body
The flavor enhancer, monosodium glutamiate (MSG) has been shown to increase liver inflammation. Foods containing MSG include fast food, corn chips, potato chips and canned soups.
Protein is popular in the fitness world and many non fitness products now tout how much protein they contain. Protein from animal sources seems to raise inflammation while protein from plant-based foods seems to reduce it.
The Gut Health Connection
The human body is complicated and we are always learning new things. While the gut (large intestine) was largely ignored in the past, we now know that the billions of bacteria inside of it (the micro-biome) play a role in health and dis-ease.
Foods like those mentioned above might also alter bacteria in the gut (the gut flora) resulting in too many “bad bacteria” which produce chemicals that further ramp up inflammation.
This doesn't mean taking a probiotic supplement is the answer. I don't think probiotics supplements are the answer for the following 2 reasons:
- We don't fully understand what these bacteria do
- Most companies don't tell us the strain of bacteria they use
Also, I think there are less expensive ways to promote good gut health. That's where lifestyle comes in. For example, studies show show that both:
can alter gut health and promote more of the good bacteria.
Body Weight and Inflammation
While this review is about foods, it's worth noting greater body fat percentage and greater body mass index are associated with long term, chronic inflammation. As such, another way to reduce inflammation is by losing weight.
Foods That Reduce Inflammation
If you are used to eating a healthy diet you will be glad to hear the foods you enjoy are also tied to reduced cellular inflammation. In theory, this will help reduce the risk of disease. Some of the foods that do this include:
- Whole grains
- Foods that have color
What do these foods tend to have in common? Here are some of their key ingredients.
One study involving over 500 people found lower CRP levels ( a measure of inflammation) in those who ate the most fiber. The average fiber intake of those in the study was only 16 grams per day. That's less than the fiber RDA (28-30 g per day).
So, the more fiber we eat, the lower our long-term inflammation tends to be.
Why does fiber reduce inflammation? This is difficult to say because fiber-containing foods also contain many other compounds. For example, the mineral, magnesium has also been shown to reduce CRP levels. The RDA for magnesium is 400-420 mg a day for men and 310-320 mg/day for women. What foods have magnesium?Here's a short list
|1 / cup almonds (123 mg)||1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (84 mg)||1 cup spinach (24 mg)|
|3.5 oz dark chocolate (228 mg)||1 cup peas (48 mg)||1 cup broccoli (19 mg)|
|1/2 cup Brazil nuts (250 mg)||1 cup milk (27 mg)||1 cup Edamame (99 mg)|
As a rule, any food that has fiber and most green foods contain this magnesium.
Potassium, the often forgotten mineral, is fast becoming a heavy-hitter in the nutrition world. For example, there is good evidence that potassium can relax blood vessels. This is one of the ways potassium reduces blood pressure. Remember high blood pressure is also associated with higher inflammation. Other research has shown potassium-containing foods can reduce inflammation.
The RDA for potassium about 4700 mg per day (4.7g) although women who are breastfeeding need a bit more. Most Americans do not get this much of the mineral. What foods have potassium? If you ask most people, they will say bananas. While this is true, a baked potato has almost twice as much potassium.
Potassium In Foods
Here's a short list of potassium rich foods
|1 banana (425 mg)||1 cup spinach (420 mg)||1 baked potato (926 mg)|
|1/2 cut broccoli (230 mg)||1 tomato (290)||8 oz milk (350 mg)|
|1 sweet potato (450 mg)||1 cup cantaloupe (430mg)||1 cup yogurt (260 mg)|
|1 cup kidney beans (2587 mg)||1 cup chickpeas (1750 mg)||1 cup lima beans (950 mg)|
Notice the trend: fruits, veggies and beans. Also notice how potassium packed beans are! I often toss Lima beans into my smoothie to boost the potassium content.
Potassium is so important that you will see it listed on the new version of the Nutrition Facts labels in the US.
Eat The Right Kinds of Fats
It's no secret to most that we tend to eat too many omega 6 fats and not enough omega 3 fats. Omega 6 fats are not bad but they need to be in balance with omega 3 fats. Eating too much omega 6 fats disrupts this balance and promotes inflammation.
Foods containing omega 6 fats tend to be the same as those which are high in saturated fats, trans fats and salt.
There are 2 main omega 3s that are often discussed:
- Fish oils (EPA and DHA)
- alpha linolenic acid (ALA)
EPA and DHA are only found in fish while alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is found in nuts. Both ALA as well as fish oils have many benefits and both also reduce the pro-inflamatory process.
For example, one study noted fish oil reduced arthritis pain pretty much equal to ibuprofen. Studies also show giving people ALA reduces inflammation. Other research suggests it can reduce blood pressure too.
Eat The Colors
Why do fruits and vegetables look colorful? Basically, the colors are the antioxidants. The antioxidant colors in fruits, veggies, beans etc. protect the plants from diseases. When we eat those foods, those colors then protect us too.
For example, in the book How Not To Die, it's pointed out that anthocyanins – the purple pigment in blueberries – have been shown to reduce inflammation. Other research has even shown diabetics eating less than 1 oz of blueberries had less inflammation, less oxidative stress and smarter immune systems. This just one example of the healthy benefits of food colors.
So what does this mean? The more colorful foods we eat, the stronger and smarter our immune system becomes.
All this said, while I love colorful foods, remember this is different than artificially adding dyes to foods to make them look and taste better. For example cherry flavored soda that looks and tastes like cherries because artificial dyes and “natural flavoring.”
Sprinkle On The Spices
I'd bet turmeric (Curcuma longa) is the most popular spice in America – and for good reason. There is a mountain of evidence this yellow spice is healthy. Curcumin, one of the compounds in turmeric, has anti-inflammation properties. The absorption of turmeric (and curcumin) is increased if we combine it with some fat or if we add pepper. This is why some supplements also contain black pepper.
Other anti-inflammatory spices include:
The list goes on. Bottom line. Don't be afraid to add spices to the foods you eat. I often add turmeric and -yes – black pepper to smoothies. It gives the smoothie a nice kick.
Summing Up: Reducing Inflammation Naturally
This review had a lot of information so let me just cut to the chase. How do you naturally lower inflammation? Based on the evidence, the path to reduce it encompass the following big picture items:
- Eat more fiber-containing foods
- Eat more fruits and vegetables and beans
- Use spices
- Don't over exercise
- Lose weight if needed
- Don't smoke/ stop smoking
- Focus on plant proteins rather than animal proteins
While it's easy to look at individual nutrients and say take this supplement, I don't think that's the answer. To really reduce cellular inflammation – and the diseases associated with it – I think we need to take a more wholeistic approach. In other words, let's focus on good foods and lifestyle habits and less on taking individual nutrients. In the long run, this will save you money and most importantly, it really is what the research shows.
If you want to learn more, here's some of my favorite books: