Food and inflammation

Inflammation continues to be a buzzword but what does it actually mean? Do certain foods cause inflammation and is there an anti-inflammatory diet we should all be trying to follow?

Turmeric on table

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is your body's way of protecting itself from infection, illness and injury. There are two types – good and bad.

Acute inflammation is the ‘good’ type and is the body’s normal response to microbes, tissue damage or metabolic stress. It happens when something harmful or irritating affects our body (e.g. you get a cut, burn or bruise) 1. When the inflammatory response is short-term, it serves a useful purpose by kick-starting our body’s defence system, protecting against further damage and helping us to recover.

Chronic inflammation is the ‘bad’ type and happens when the inflammation process goes on for too long, or if there is too much of it. This type is linked with a range of diseases, including heart disease, where it plays a major role in the development of atherosclerosis. This is when plaque builds up in your artery walls and over time can cause a heart attack or stroke 2,3. It is most commonly identified by high levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, which remain elevated over long periods of time.

When it comes to chronic inflammation, there is evidence to show that your diet, weight around your stomach, stress levels, smoking status, activity levels and amount of sleep can affect your overall health and risk of developing chronic disease.

Foods that cause inflammation

There are certain foods which, if eaten in abundance may, 'switch on' inflammatory processes within the body. Some of these foods have already been associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This isn’t surprising given that inflammation underlies the development of these diseases.

Foods that contribute to inflammation tend to be highly processed nutrient-poor foods 4,5:

  • Low-fibre, refined carbohydrates like white bread, crackers, donuts, cakes and pastries
  • Sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and fruit juices
  • Processed convenience and junk foods like confectionary, snack bars, potato chips, ice cream, microwave popcorn, biscuits and other sugary/salty snacks
  • Other foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fats like takeaways and deep fried foods.

Do any foods help to fight inflammation?

Over the last 10 years, there has been more and more research showing that eating certain foods reduces inflammatory markers. Therefore it may help to reduce the risk of inflammation and the severity of inflammation when it occurs with various diseases and conditions 6.

There are a range of different eating patterns that are anti-inflammatory and overall we know that they are based around foods that are whole, less processed, high in fibre, low in saturated fat, include omega-3 fats (especially from fish) and are rich in phyto-nutrients (found in plant foods). 

Some research shows that a traditional Mediterranean-style diet focused around fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil and fish is one way of achieving an anti-inflammatory diet. This is consistent with our existing advice on the Mediterranean diet because it decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, both in healthy people and those who already have heart disease 5,6.

We encourage basing your diet around the following whole and less processed anti-inflammatory foods 4,5,6,7:

  • Vegetables and fruit of a wide variety and range of colours. In particular, there is evidence for the anti-inflammatory benefits of leafy greens (i.e. broccoli, silverbeet, spinach, cabbage, bok choy), tomatoes and berries because they are high in antioxidants like Vitamin C 8.
    Leafy green vegetables
     
  • Legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas
    Types of legumes
     
  • Grain foods like oats, barley, brown rice, wholegrain bread, quinoa, buckwheat and millet 
    Healthy grains in bowls
     
  • Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon, as well as other good sources of omega-3 fats like chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts
    Healthy oily fish
     
  • Nuts, seeds and healthy oils like olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil.
    Nuts, seeds and oils

There is some research to show that drinking tea (e.g. black or green tea) and cooking with ginger, garlic and turmeric may be anti-inflammatory 5,9. Researchers are also investigating the inflammatory response of different food combinations. An example is with turmeric, where if eaten on its own, its actions in the body are limited. However if turmeric is consumed with black pepper (which contains the alkaloid piperine) the rate of absorption is greatly increased, amplifying its actions in the body 9.  

Although the research continues to emerge in this space, if you base your diet around anti-inflammatory foods, keep active and manage your stress, you are making great progress towards reducing your risk of chronic inflammation and subsequent illness. 

The good news is that most heart-healthy foods are also anti-inflammatory and you don’t need to follow a special diet to eat these foods. There are also plenty of affordable options to suit all food budgets (e.g. frozen berries, canned chickpeas, frozen spinach and canned salmon).

Visit our Healthy Recipes for more inspiration. You can start with these great ideas:  

Fish burgers

Vege bean burgers

Tuna cauliflower mac and cheese

Sardines, spinach and tomato on toast

Roasted broccoli salad

Cabbage and fresh corn stir-fry

Falafel

Whether you’ve had a heart event or wanting to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, there is no one single food that you should eat to make a big difference, it’s your overall diet. As you can see, there are plenty of different and affordable foods we can eat to help fight inflammation and support optimal heart health. 

Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Read more about healthy eating

[1] Ricciotti E, Fitzgerald GA. Prostaglandins and inflammation. Arteriosclerosis Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. 2011;31(5):986-1000

[2] Calder PC, Ahluwalia N, Albers R, et al. A Consideration of Biomarkers to be Used for Evaluation of Inflammation in Human Nutritional Studies. British Journal of Nutrition. 2013;109(S1):S1-S34

[3] Calder PC, Albers R, Antoine J-M, et al. Inflammatory disease processes and interactions with nutrition. British Journal Nutrition. 2009;101 Suppl:S1-S45

[4] O’Keefe JH, Neil M, Gheewala MS, O’Keefe JO. Dietary Strategies for Improving Post-Prandial Glucose, Lipids, Inflammation, and Cardiovascular Health. Journal American College Cardiology. 2008;51(3)

[5] Galland L. Diet and inflammation. Nutrition in Clinical Practise. 2010;25(6):634-40

[6] Estruch R. Anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet: the experience of the PREDIMED study. Proceedings of Nutrition Society. 2010;69(3):333-40

[7] Myles IA. Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Nutrition Journal. 2014;13:61

[8] Wannamethee SG, Lowe GD, Rumley A, Bruckdorfer KR, Whincup PH. Associations of vitamin C status, fruit and vegetable intakes, and markers of inflammation and hemostasis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;83(3):567-574

[9] Panahi Y, Hosseini MS, Khalili N, Naimi E, Majeed M, Sahebkar A. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of curcuminoid-piperine combination in subjects with metabolic syndrome: A randomized controlled trial and an updated meta-analysis. Clinical Nutrition. 2015;34(6):1101-1108