What are anti-inflammatory foods? What’s the best diet to reduce inflammation?

We need to talk all things inflammation. Inflammation (or rather anti-inflammation) is an increasingly common buzzword in the health and nutrition sphere, with experts urging people to add more anti-inflammatory foods into their everyday diets.

But let’s be clear – not all inflammation is necessarily bad. In fact, it can be quite a healthy, normal process for our bodies.

“It’s our body’s natural defence system,” explains award-winning nutritionist and lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, Lucy Williamson. “For example, if we were to get a bee sting, the redness and swelling at the site of the sting will stop the toxin spreading into the rest of our system.”

It’s when the inflammation becomes prolonged or constant that it can have a significant impact on our long-term health: “Inflammation is thought to be at the root of many chronic conditions, including some cancers, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke,” Williamson adds.

Of course, developing a chronic disease is complex, with many factors contributing to why they may arise in the body – but research does show that following a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is beneficial.

So, with the help of some expert nutritionists, Cosmopolitan UK got the lowdown on the best anti-inflammatory foods – and how we can all incorporate them into our everyday lives.

What causes inflammation in the body?

As previously explained, inflammation is a natural immune response from our body – but it can be problematic when it becomes chronic.

“Inflammation occurs when our immune system is over-responding,” Williamson explains. “This means it may start reacting to our own body cells as well as protecting us from harmful infection.”

Certain foods, particularly those labelled as being ‘ultra-processed’, can also trigger more inflammation within our own blood cells, Williamson adds, as they can cause repeated peaks of high blood sugar: “This is why it’s so important that our natural insulin works well to constantly remove sugar from our circulation.”

Inflammation of the gut itself can cause hormonal dysfunction too, explains Hannah Alderson, BANT Registered Nutritionist.

“It will also play a role in exasperating inflammatory disorders like endometriosis,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK.

“It will drive hormonal dysfunction, immune function and inhibit the absorption of nutrients and potentially exhibit as IBS symptoms.”

Stress can also cause inflammation – prolonged stress can cause dysfunction in the nervous and endocrine systems (FYI - the glands and organs that create hormones), leading to chronic inflammation, which can have long-term impact on the body and brain.

What do anti-inflammatory foods do?

Anti-inflammatory foods are packed with antioxidants, which can help remove toxic free radicals (for those of you struggling with the scientific lingo, these unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging).

These types of food have also been shown to help prevent conditions that are caused or exacerbated by chronic inflammation, such as arthritis, diabetes and heart disease.

What are the best anti-inflammatory foods?

Think fresh, green and not ultra-processed, and you’re on the right track.

Gabby Morse, Specialist Dietician at Nuffield Health, explains: “An anti-inflammatory diet can be understood as a Mediterranean diet – fresh foods such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, oily fish and cheese.

“Rather than focusing on excluding certain foods from your diet, my advice is always to prioritise inclusion: think about what plant-based foods you could add to your plate to make it more balanced.”

oily fish with seasoning
VICUSCHKA - Getty Images

An example she gives is a simple meal, like ‘eggs on toast’: “Add edamame beans, spinach, mixed seeds, and mushrooms. Always aim to eat around 30 plant-based foods per week.”

Alderson agrees: “Look out for food that is high in omega 3. Increasing omega 3 in the diet can counteract a ratio which has too much omega 6 in the body, which is believed to drive inflammation. Think oily fish, grass fed meats, walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds.

“Foods with a low glycaemic index, such as green vegetables, most fruits, raw carrots, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils, won’t cause too much havoc on your blood glucose levels.”

What percentage of our diet should be made up of anti-inflammatory food?

Ideally, the more the better, but Williamson says a good rule of thumb is to make sure around “two thirds of your diet is plants.”

“Following a flexitarian approach is a great way to go!” she explains. “It’s also good to think about the story behind our food - how was it produced? We’re beginning to understand that food from nature-friendly farming systems, with fewer chemicals used in its production, is likely to be richer in health-giving nutrients for our long term health.”

So if we see added salts or sugar, any nasty sounding chemicals or a very long shelf life – probably best to only eat in moderation.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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