Thought to be the cause of many modern diseases, tackle inflammation and you’re way ahead, says nutritionist Kathleen Alleaume.
Whether it’s a splinter, ingrown toenail, joint pain or a sore throat, the body has a whole toolbox of defence mechanisms to heal itself. One of these is inflammation — it’s your immune system’s response to stimuli perceived to be harmful to your body.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation — the kind that protects your body from stress or harm — is perfectly normal for good health. This response improves blood flow, fights off anything foreign like bacteria or a virus, and then quietens back down.
On the other hand, chronic inflammation from long-term stress, injury or illness can cause long-lasting damage. Research now shows that chronic inflammation is at the root of many diseases, including obesity, heart disease, dementia and some cancers.
The good news is that scientists are beginning to understand that one of the best ways to quell inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in your kitchen. A recent study showed that eating a diet rich in “anti-inflammatory” foods can lower your risk of chronic disease, reduce cognitive decline, promote gut health and may add years to your life.
The anti-inflammatory diet
Anti-inflammatory foods aren’t anything special or obscure, and most nutritionists already encourage you to eat them regularly. They include plant foods like fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, a hefty amount of extra virgin olive oil and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, dairy and eggs. Red meat should be a rarity, particularly processed meats like bacon, sausages and ham.
Many popular diets already follow anti-inflammatory principles. The Mediterranean diet in particular has loads of science to back up its good health claims. A recent study showed that people who ate a handful of nuts more than three times each week were 30% less likely to develop heart disease and more than 50% less likely to develop diabetes. Why? The researchers pointed to the anti-inflammatory benefits of the nuts.
Other anti-inflammatory diets include the Nordic, Okinawa and DASH diets. These diets are typically high in fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and plant-based foods.
What to eat
Fish has always been a gold-star protein choice. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, which can quell inflammation, improve heart health and help lubricate tight joints in the body. Aim to eat fatty fish two to three times a week. If you’re not a fan of fish, try chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts, or ask your doctor about fish oil supplements.
Turmeric lattes aren’t just a fad — turmeric is full of anti-inflammatory powers. Its active ingredient, curcumin, has been scientifically proven to reduce joint pain and stiffness related to inflammation. Some early research suggests it even has promise in inhibiting cancer growth. Ginger and other fresh herbs and spices are also known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, too.
Snack on fresh fruit
Citrus fruits like oranges, blood oranges, mandarins, lemons and limes pack a potent vitamin C punch. Not only is vitamin C famous for keeping winter bugs at bay, it’s also essential for collagen formation and helps maintain the integrity of connective tissues in your joints. Berries and cherries also contain antioxidants with potent anti-inflammatory properties.
The cruciferous vegetable family contain sulforaphane, which can block destructive enzymes associated with inflammation, including the growth of cancer cells. Think Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, collards, turnips, radishes, rocket and watercress.
Beyond steaming, try roasting florets or “steaks” of cauliflower, add broccoli to a pesto mix, shave Brussels sprouts in salads or add kale to smoothies.
Switch to extra virgin
This staple of the Mediterranean diet contains oleocanthal, which has been shown to have similar effects to ibuprofen. Robust research shows that eating just 50g of extra virgin olive oil daily will provide approximately 10mg of oleocanthal, which is the natural equivalent to a low dose of ibuprofen for inflammation relief.
Whether it’s cashews, almonds, peanuts or macadamias, all nuts contain heart-healthy fats, fibre and protein, and are chock-full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help reduce inflammation.
Many of these compounds are found in nut skins, and are retained even when roasted. To reap the health benefits, aim for 30g (one handful) every day. Try them as your mid-morning snack, an addition to your salads or a crunchy complement to your stir-fries or curries.
Beans, lentils, peas and soy foods are an important part of a healthy diet. They have a unique package of protein, fibre and slow-digesting carbs, and are linked to reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. With around 9g of protein per half a cup, they’re a cheap and nutritious addition to salads, curries or veggie patties.
Grain foods like wheat, corn, oats, rye, barley and brown rice are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytonutrients. Grain-specific phytochemicals, such as oryzanol in rice, avenanthramides in oats and ferulic acid in corn and wheat, are known for their heart-protective benefits.
Foods that inflame
White bread, white pasta and pastries.
Bacon, sausages, ham and deep-fried food.
Rice crackers, chips and baked snack foods.
Sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices.
Processed seed and vegetable oils (soybean, palm and corn oil) and margarine.
Foods with “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list.
Excessive alcohol consumption.