Inflammation is a natural process and is part of our immune system, helping to heal injury and protect us from infection. Unfortunately inflammation can sometimes get out of control. Modern living appears to encourage chronic low-grade inflammation. For example, when the body is under stress, from poor diet, excess weight, pollution or even simply through ageing, inflammation can be triggered.
Once inflammation is triggered, it can become a chronic problem. Professor William Meggs, chief of toxicology at East Carolina University explains: “Once inflammation begins, it sets off a series of physiologic reactions that cause additional inflammation and the body’s reactions become more and more difficult to turn off” (1).
Conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, periodontal disease, premature ageing, inflammatory skin conditions and allergic reactions are all examples of chronic low grade inflammation. Achieving optimal health means taking measures to control your inflammation risk. Below are some simple dietary guidelines for controlling and reducing levels of inflammation.
1. Aim for 9 servings of fruit and vegetables daily.
Phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables have both anti-inflammatory and antiallergic agents. Studies have found that increased fruit and vegetable intake lowers markers of inflammation and oxidative stress (2). Aim each week to eat at least one of these top inflammation-fighting foods from each of the following categories:
Bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, watercress
Leafy green vegetables:
Collards, chard, lettuce, mustard greens, spinach
Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, navy beans, peas, pinto beans, soybeans
Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
Apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, mango, pumpkin, sweet potato
2. Increase levels of omega 3.
The best sources of omega-3 are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, sturgeon, anchovy, herring, trout, sardines and mullet. Better still, choose those with lower levels of mercury contamination such as sardines, salmon and North Atlantic mackerel. Fish oil suppresses anti-inflammatory cytokines, reducing inflammation (3). Alternatively, fish oil supplements can be added to your diet. If you are vegetarian, you should include a tablespoon of good quality flaxseed oil daily.
3. Decrease levels of omega 6.
While omega-3 has anti-inflammatory effects, omega-6 is usually pro-inflammatory. A good balance between the two is essential for optimal health. Unfortunately the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the modern diet tends to be too high. In the UK, our ratio of omega 6 to 3 is around 20:1 whereas the ideal ratio of omega 6 to 3 is thought to be nearer to 4:1 (4). Limiting processed and fried foods containing vegetable oils and reducing foods high in arachidonic acid, such as red meat, may help to reduce levels of undesirable inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
4. Add olive oil to your diet.
Olive oil improves cholesterol levels and contains powerful antioxidants. This oil plays a huge part in the Mediterranean diet, which is linked to longer life expectancy and lower rates of cardiovascular disease. A recent study found that adding just 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil daily for one week reduced levels of LDL cholesterol (5). Try using olive oil as a salad dressing, or substituting the oil for your usual margarine.
5. Watch your AGE.
Highly processed foods and meats cooked at high temperatures are likely to have high levels of Advanced Glycation End products. AGE products increase inflammation, and are caused by prolonged processing such as heating and sterilising. Fortunately there are several ways to reduce AGE products. Cooking using a lower temperature, using moist heat, and adding acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar will help (6). If you are making a stir-fry, the best way to reduce AGE products is to include plenty of vegetables with a small amount of protein. You can also try steaming fish and seafood, simmering chicken in a sauce and braising red meat in liquid.
1. Meggs WJ (2003) The Inflammation Cure. New York: McGraw Hill.
2. Root et al (2012) Combined Fruit and Vegetable Intake Is Correlated with Improved Inflammatory and Oxidant Status from a Cross-Sectional Study in a Community Setting Nutrients 4(1): 29–41.
3. Calder PC (2002) Dietary modification of inflammation with lipids. Proc Nutr Soc Aug;61(3):345-58.
4. Erasmus U (1993) Fats the Heal, Fats That Kill. Canada: Alive Books.
5. Stark AH (2002) Olive oil as a functional food: epidemiology and nutritional approaches. Nutr Rev 60(6):170-176.
6. Urribarri J et al (2010) Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. J Am Diet Assoc. Jun;110(6):911-16.e12.