You may have heard the terms “inflammatory” and “anti-inflammatory” tossed around when talking about certain foods. The topic of inflammation is becoming increasingly more important when it comes to health and diets. However, unless you have a degree in something health-related, it might be difficult to understand what exactly inflammation is and why you should care.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s response to foreign substances; it plays an important role in our immune system. After something foreign enters our body (e.g., harmful bacteria), our immune system responds by sending white blood cells and chemical messengers to attack and remove the substance. Inflammation can be thought of as a cascade. It allows more blood and immune defenders to get to the foreign substance in a shorter amount of time. It also is a self-perpetuating process, meaning a tiny inflammation can start a cascade that leads to high levels of inflammation.
Is Inflammation Bad?
We commonly hear of inflammation as something you want to prevent and stop. The truth is, a little bit of inflammation is necessary to keep our bodies healthy. For example: If you cut your finger, inflammation will help make the bleeding stop. The problems start coming when your body has too much inflammation, or if it mistakes your own body’s cells as foreign invaders and starts attacking them (as in the case of autoimmune disorders). Some diseases associated with too much inflammation include rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
Our immune system has molecules that work in “pro-inflammatory” and “anti-inflammatory” ways. The goal is to have these two systems to be at a perfect balance. The average Western diet is high in fat, calories, and processed foods, which help to promote high levels of inflammation. This is a problem, because high levels of inflammation have been thought of as a risk factor for the top killer of Americans: heart disease. By balancing our levels of inflammation, we can help to reduce our risk for many diseases.
The good news is that diet can play a big role in controlling inflammation. Most of the foods considered to be “anti-inflammatory” are foods that generally promote overall healthy eating, regardless of your health goal. Anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Dark leafy greens contain of Vitamin E, which may protect against “pro-inflammatory” molecules.
- Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and help to balance out pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats.
- Bell Peppers contain capsaicin, which has also been linked to being “anti-inflammatory”.
- Tomatoes have lycopene, which has numerous health benefits (one of which is to help reduce inflammation).
- Whole grains have fiber, which may help to reduce the amount of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation).
- All fruits and vegetables. The more colorful the fruit or veggie, the more nutrients and antioxidants it has.
- Certain spices like turmeric and ginger.
Avoiding processed foods, refined carbohydrates, trans and saturated fats will help to shift our body’s inflammation levels more towards the “anti-inflammatory” end. Some non-diet ways to help reduce inflammation include:
- Meditation and stress reduction
- Identifying potential allergens
- Getting enough sleep
- Maintaining a healthy weight