The anti-inflammatory diet: Is it worth the hype?

If you’ve been to the cookbook section of a bookstore, or glanced through a healthy eating magazine lately, you’ve probably noticed they’re brimming with anti-inflammatory diet recipes.

It’s true that the foods we eat can have a profound effect on our body’s inflammation. But before you spend a fortune on turmeric lattés, it’s important to separate the inflammatory facts from fiction.

What is inflammation?

There are two ways to think about inflammation in the body. One type of inflammation helps protect our body – think of the swelling, pain and redness you experience when your body is healing a wound or fighting infection.

But when inflammation becomes a chronic issue, the immune system becomes overwhelmed and can’t repair damaged cells or rid harmful toxins. Over time, this type of inflammation contributes to excessive cell damage and the development of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Diet and inflammation

What we eat plays a central role in regulating inflammation. In fact, scientists have developed a classification system called the Dietary Inflammatory Index that uses growing research to rate foods as pro- or anti-inflammatory. For example, saturated fats and trans fats are classified as pro-inflammatory, whereas nutrients found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, spices and seasonings are classified as anti-inflammatory.

It’s no surprise that the typical Western-style diet (often heavy in red and processed meats, refined starches, added sugars and unhealthy fats) is linked to higher inflammation. This type of diet can also contribute to weight gain, which likewise increases inflammation and risk of chronic disease.

Using food to fight inflammation

While it’s clear that specific nutrients can impact the immune system, it’s not yet clear exactly how. So your best bet to keep inflammation at bay is to strive for a healthy eating pattern that includes these top inflammation fighters:

1) Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and polyphenols that have potent anti-inflammatory effects. Research shows that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have significantly lower levels of blood inflammatory biomarkers and lower oxidative stress.

2) Fibre

High-fibre diets have been shown to reduce inflammation. In fact, studies show that  consuming whole grain foods such as oats, barley and brown rice may help decrease inflammation. Another great way to boost the fibre in your diet is to include beans and lentils regularly.

3) Fish

Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, trout and sardines are loaded with strong anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, called ALA (alpha linolenic acid), also boast anti-inflammatory benefits. Sources include chia seeds, ground flax, flax oil, hemp seeds, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil and soybeans.

4) Heart-healthy oils

Monounsaturated fats, including olive, safflower, sunflower, canola and avocado oils, are rich sources of anti-inflammatory compounds. Other sources include avocado, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and peanuts.

5) Herbs and spices

Herbs and spices not only pack a tasty punch, they’re also a rich source of polyphenols that help knock out inflammation. Noteworthy examples include ginger, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, parsley, mint, oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme. But keep in mind, although some herbs and spices are sold as concentrated supplements, it’s always best to get these nutrients from food as opposed to taking them in a pill.

The takeaway

There’s no perfect meal or magical ingredient that will squash inflammation for good. The trick is to eat a balanced, healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fibre, fish and unsaturated fat. That also means limiting alcohol, refined grains, added sugars, processed red meat and saturated fats. Oh, and don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep, stay active and maintain a healthy bodyweight!

If you’re looking for a more specific approach, consider the Mediterranean diet. It emphasizes foods like fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and healthy oils and has been shown to reduce pro-inflammatory biomarkers and reverse metabolic syndrome.

So, take the money you saved on turmeric lattés and celebrity-endorsed cookbooks and spend it on some fresh fruit and veggies. Your immune system will thank you!