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What is an anti-inflammatory diet? Benefits, food list + how to reduce inflammation – Women’s Health UK

7 minutes, 18 seconds Read

We’ve all suffered from inflammation in our bodies – think back to that cold you had a few weeks ago, or the injury you picked up when you overtrained at the gym. None of us are immune to inflammation, but our body’s response to inflammation changes as we age, and our diets also play a major part in fighting it.

It’s important to remember that inflammation – including redness, pain, and swelling – is a completely normal and healthy response to illness and injury. For example, if you cut your leg and it gets infected, the area will become red and swollen. The problem starts when inflammation becomes chronic – which is when your body’s immune system continues an inflammatory response, even when the threat has gone. Chronic inflammation has been linked to various health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, autoimmune conditions and even cancer.

So, can an anti-inflammatory diet help our bodies to fight these infections, or even long-term illnesses and diseases?

Well, research has shown that processed foods, red meat and saturated fats can increase the inflammation in our bodies. But, adding foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other anti-inflammatory compounds, can help to reduce inflammation, lower blood sugar levels and even help with weight management.

Here, then, is everything you need to know about an anti-inflammatory diet…

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

So, if you want to jump on board and follow this diet, what foods would you need to consider? ‘The diet is rich in healthy plant-based foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans (including soya), nuts and seeds, herbs and spices and water. This is because these foods reduce inflammation, keep the gut microbiome healthy and keep our immune system in check,’ Rohini Bajekal, nutritionist at Plant-Based Health Professionals tells Women’s Health.

If you recognise this diet, Bajekal adds that these foods form the centrepiece of several other healthy diets ‘including the Mediterranean, vegetarian and vegan diets, and plant-strong diets have been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.’

But, what’s the science behind an anti-inflammatory diet? Several studies have shown that following the diet is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. One study, in the Journal of Nutrition in 2018, found that those who followed an anti-inflammatory diet had significantly lower levels of CRP (an inflammation marker) compared to those with alternative diets.

Bajekal adds that the health of our gut, in particular the microbes that live within it, is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system – and therefore fighting inflammation: ‘A healthy diet, full of fibre-rich foods is the best way to promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria and increase bacterial diversity.’

The diet also aims to stabilise blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels are high, consistently, it can make us prone to conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

What foods should you eat on an anti-inflammatory diet?

fresh homegrown vegetables and fruits on kitchen table, summer harvest still life, table top view

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Fruits and Vegetables: Berries, leafy greens, tomatoes, and other brightly coloured fruits and veg are particularly rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Flavonoids, a large group of polyphenol compounds, are also found in plant foods.

‘Flavonoids have been found to reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections significantly. The dose required may be higher than that obtained in a typical diet, but the diet can be used to boost levels. High doses of flavonoids are found in green tea, berries and dark chocolate,’ adds Bajekal.

Vitamin C-rich foods: Oranges, Red cabbage, kiwis and broccoli are easy to add to our diet. But how important is Vitamin C? Bajekal says it’s an essential component of our diets and is important for the immune system – we should be aiming for 100–200mg a day – and not just from supplements.

Whole Grains: Opt for whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat pasta and bread, which can help lower inflammation.

Healthy Fats: Salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids. Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts can also help to reduce inflammation.

Lean Protein: Swap fattier proteins for leaner protein sources like poultry, tofu, beans, and legumes.

Herbs and Spices: Certain herbs and spices, including turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and chilli peppers have anti-inflammatory properties. These herbs and spices have the ‘highest concentrations of antioxidant compounds. Many show anti-infective properties, at least in the laboratory,’ adds the nutritionist. ‘Turmeric and its active component, Curcumin, have an array of health-promoting effects, such as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-infective properties.’

Nuts and Seeds: Rich in healthy fats, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, nuts and seeds like almonds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds can help to maintain healthy blood vessels and blood pressure.

Hydration: While you may be excited to try your new Stanley Quencher cup out, it will also be beneficial if you’re on this diet, as staying hydrated with water, herbal teas, and other non-sugary drinks can also help reduce inflammation.

There’s also good news if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, as Bajekal adds that research shows that they have ‘lower levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, less evidence of oxidative stress, healthier gut microbiome with higher levels of short-chain fatty acids, and are less likely to be overweight.’

Are eggs good for an anti-inflammatory diet?

farmer holding egg's basket by hens and duck

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While eggs are a great source of protein and vitamin D, nutritionist Caroline Mason says there is an ‘ongoing debate’ whether eggs can be good for an anti-inflammatory diet.

But it could be down to where your eggs come from, as this study showed that free-roaming chickens produce eggs which have higher levels of flavonoid, carotenoid antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, due to their diets, which are all linked to lower inflammation in the body.

However, Mason adds that she sees eggs occur on food intolerance tests all the time and advises: ‘For the sake of anti-inflammatory plan I would say cut them out for 2 weeks and then reintroduce them, but eggs are a fantastic complete protein.’

What foods should you be avoiding on the anti-inflammatory diet?

Processed foods: Snacks full of sugar, fast food, processed meats and anything that has a high content of additives will contain high levels of refined sugars or unhealthy fats (such as trans fats and omega-6 fats).

Refined carbohydrates: Unlike whole grains, when you eat refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, and pastries, they can cause spikes in blood sugar levels and promote inflammation.

Processed and red meats: Enjoy the odd bacon sarnie, a sausage with your English breakfast or a steak once in a while? These meats are advised against on the diet as they contain additives, preservatives or saturated fats.

      Other foods to cut out on the diet are fried foods, sugary drinks and even alcohol – especially when it’s drunk in excess.

      Why would someone need to follow an anti-inflammatory diet?

      The more inflammation we have in the body, the more likely we are to be vulnerable to chronic health conditions. ‘Usually, inflammation is a protective response against injury. However, when the body becomes overwhelmed, inflammation can lead to the damage of normal tissues resulting in chronic disease. Diet and lifestyle choices can either promote or prevent inflammation,’ explains Bajekal

      Chronic inflammation, particularly, is closely linked to type 2 diabetes, but this study, by JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that people who followed an anti-inflammatory diet had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

      The diet has even shown to be a good preventive measure, and Bajekal says you should look out for symptoms such as ‘bowel issues (including irritable bowel syndrome with symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea), brain fog, heartburn, depression and low energy levels,’ as they can all be signs of inflammation.

      Of course, you don’t just need to be fighting inflammation to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, as the diet has many health benefits. Following this plan, like any diet which includes lean protein, whole foods and vegetables can include: ‘Increased energy, improved gut health – clearer skin, better cognition, better sleep. On a whole health scale removing inflammation only enhances the body’s ability to rejuvenate,’ says Bajekal.

      The bottom line: Inflammation is the body’s natural and normal defense against infections, illnesses, and injuries. But chronic, or long-term, inflammation can be harmful. Eating a wide range of plant-based foods can help you get a healthy amount of polyphenols, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. But it’s important to remember that we’re all different, and all bodies will respond to inflammation (and the food we eat) differently. There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all.


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