Inflammation in brief
Inflammation is a defence mechanism by the body to help protect us from illness and damage. It's often split up into two types: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is when our body senses harm, such as an infection, and works to fight it off in a short period of time. This is a normal response by the body to promote healing. Some symptoms include pain, redness, swelling, and heat.
Chronic inflammation is a lower-grade response over longer periods of time that's often connected to our environment, dietary choices, stress, and overall health. It can be harmful and may increase the risk of several diseases such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease and heart disease.
Before we can explore the relationship between nutrition and inflammation, we can consider a few more definitions:
- Phytochemicals: also known as phytonutrients or plant chemicals, are naturally occurring compounds found in plant foods that have anti-inflammatory benefits. Flavanoids are one type of phytochemical particularly well-known for their anti-inflammatory potential.
- Antioxidants: components naturally found in plant foods that work to protect our body from damage. Examples include vitamins A, C, E, the mineral selenium, and plant compounds called phytochemicals.
- Free radicals: unstable chemicals that can build up and cause damage over time. Some sources of free radicals include exposure to radiation, highly-processed foods, and smoke. Antioxidants can help to stabilize free radicals.
Nutrition and inflammation
Our dietary patterns are one factor that can help keep our bodies and immune system strong. Here are six nutrition principles that may support optimal health, with some specific examples of foods with anti-inflammatory properties.
No. 01 - Eating the rainbow
Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables may be a delicious way to reduce inflammation and support immune health. Fruits and vegetables of a variety of colours offer an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants. Various fruits and vegetables also contain flavonoids that exert anti-inflammatory effects. For example, the bright and deep colour of berries is in part thanks to the flavonoid compound called anthocyanins. Dark red and purple berries are especially known for their anti-inflammatory and health-promoting potential, such as cranberries, blackberries, and blueberries.
Some fruits and vegetables richer in flavonoid compounds include the aforementioned berries, apples, avocados, cruciferous vegetables - such as broccoli and cabbage - and leafy green vegetables. Three other notable sources include garlic, onions, and ginger. Let's explore these further.
Garlic contains organosulfur compounds and flavonoids which may help with anti-inflammation, microbial infections, and diseases such as cardiovascular diseases.
Onions contain a flavonoid called quercetin, which has shown anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral potential. Quercetin may also offer heart health benefits through impacts on blood cholesterol levels.
Ginger contains gingerols, which have been found to help reduce inflammation and may slow the progression of various chronic diseases. Also packed with antioxidants, it’s been reported that ginger can help to prevent free radical production, which may help to prevent inflammatory-related diseases.
No. 02 - Spicing it up
Herbs and spices can infuse tasty flavours and aromas into food without excess salt or fat. They're also packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Many have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. More recently though, some have become better known for their potential benefits such as cloves, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, and thyme:
- Cloves: the anti-inflammatory properties in cloves may be in part due to a component called eugenol.
- Oregano: a flavonoid called luteolin in oregano has shown a promising anti-inflammation power.
- Rosemary: contains a variety of phytochemicals with potential roles in anti-inflammation and relieving pain.
- Thyme: made up of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, such as thymol, it's thought to have the potential to positively impact bacterial growth.
- Turmeric: a component of turmeric, called curcumin, has shown anti-inflammatory effects, such as relieving arthritis or joint inflammation.
No. 03 - Prioritizing plant-based protein
Research has found that higher consumption of animal-based foods, such as red meat or dairy products, has been associated with higher inflammation levels. Plant-based protein sources on the other hand, such as legumes and nuts, have been associated with lower levels of inflammation.
Beans are one legume that makes for a nourishing choice. They contain fibre, and dark coloured beans in particular also contain anthocyanin. Beans may help to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation.
Another wonderful source of plant-based proteins is soy products, such as edamame, tofu, and tempeh. To learn more about soy, read our PUL article.
No. 04 - Fueling up on fibre
Our gut is an ecosystem that trillions of microorganisms call home. Some of these microorganisms promote inflammation, whereas others are thought to reduce it. Fibre is one source that can promote a more favourable profile of these microorganisms to support optimal health. Some sources of fibre include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Whole grains tend to be richer in fibre and phytochemicals than their refined counterparts. A few examples of whole grains to support overall health and anti-inflammation include:
- Steel cut-oats or oatmeal
- Quinoa, millet, or brown rice
- Whole wheat bread, pasta, or cereal products
No. 05 - Embracing omega-3 fats
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with anti-inflammatory benefits. Some sources of omega-3 fats include walnuts, hemp seeds, ground chia seeds, and ground flax seeds. In contrast, omega-6 fats - a type called arachidonic acid in particular, have been associated with increased inflammation. A few omega-6 rich sources include fried foods, baked goods, sunflower, safflower, corn, or grapeseed oil.
We can consider baking or steaming foods at home, and enjoying omega-3 sources more often where possible. To learn more about omega-3 fats and finding a balance between omega-3 and omega-6, see our omega-3 article.
No. 06 - Aiming for whole foods first
Highly processed convenience foods generally have added sugar, salt, fat, and other additives. They may be processed in a way that reduces their natural nutrient density or breaks down their structure which may contribute to stress in the body. Excessive consumption can promote inflammation, especially when highly processed choices consistently displace the consumption of less processed options.
One example of a more processed choice includes sugar-sweetened beverages, such as carbonated soda or sweetened juice, which may promote inflammation. Aiming to enjoy whole foods that have gone through less industrial processing, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes is a nourishing approach to consider.
Other factors to consider
Now that we’re familiar with key foods or dietary patterns that might help to reduce inflammation, here are some other strategies that may support optimal health and inflammation levels.
Although it's true that red wine may play a role in decreasing inflammation, it's generally recommended to limit excessive alcohol intake. Excess alcohol has been found to impair liver function, which is a part of our body responsible for getting rid of toxins. Alcohol can also disrupt our general body functions which may promote inflammation and organ damage. Some alternative beverages to alcohol may include:
- Flavouring water with fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs
- Blending up a smoothie
- Cozying up with a glass of tea - green tea, in particular, may have added anti-inflammation benefits
- Refreshing with one of our favourites, kombucha!
Research has shown that an inactive lifestyle may increase the risk of inflammatory-related diseases. Other studies have found that just 20 minutes of exercise a day can be enough to produce an anti-inflammation response. Some ways to enjoy exercise might be:
- Going for walks, runs, hikes, or bike rides.
- Signing up for a workout class.
- Stretching first thing in the morning or evening.
- Swimming at the pool.
- Sports activities such as dance, badminton, or football.
Stress isn't necessarily a negative thing, although it's important to deal with stress over time. Excessive stress can take a mental and physical toll on us all, and may also contribute to inflammation. We're all unique when it comes to which stress management techniques work best, and working with a healthcare professional for ongoing support is advised if needed.
Getting enough sleep
Good quality and quantity of sleep can help us feel fueled and energized. A disturbed sleep pattern or overly long rest has been associated with signs of increased inflammation.
Research has found low levels of vitamin D in the body connected to inflammation. There remains uncertainty on whether inflammation lowers our body's vitamin D levels, or if vitamin D lowers inflammation. It's challenging to meet our vitamin D needs from food alone though, so supplementation is often recommended. To learn more about vitamin D, see our PUL article.
- Focus on colourful foods first. This includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins, and whole grains. These foods also offer beneficial fibre. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as some seeds and nuts, have also been reported to help reduce inflammation.
- Aim to season dishes with spices and herbs for added flavour and aroma, in addition to possible health benefits.
- Try to reduce omega-6 rich foods, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. These may increase the risk of inflammation and other negative health outcomes.
- There are other factors beyond food. We can try to fight inflammation with food and lifestyle strategies, such as enjoying movement or stress management, but it's always best to listen to personalized advice from a health professional.
Discussion & Rating
I wanted to share an experience I had related to inflammation and a vegan diet. I have plantar fasciitis, which is inflammation of the tendons in my foot that can cause intense foot pain. I've had it for years, but I recently started a new job as a high school custodian that has me on my feet for 7.5 hours every night, and my foot pain became much, much worse. By the end of the night it would be almost excruciating. I'm only 37, but I ended up buying a cane to help me walk from my car to my apartment after work every night.
Something I've been noticing since I began my vegan, mostly whole foods diet is that my foot hurts soooo much less than it used to! It was completely unexpected for me, but one night I was walking around at work and I realized that I had almost no foot pain. The only thing I had recently changed was my diet. I know that just because my diet change occurred at the same time as the reduction in my foot pain does not mean that they are related, but I thought that maybe my diet had caused a reduction in inflammation in my body, including the inflammation in my foot.
I Googled "vegan diet pain reduction" and found that there had actually been some studies done that showed a reduction in joint and musculoskeletal pain has been associated with a vegan whole foods diet, so I feel comfortable saying that my diet change has at least partly contributed to my unexpected pain reduction.
thank you so much pul team
Informative article. The topic of antioxidants and flavonoids is an interesting one for me since I love learning more about phytochemicals. Thank you so much for the information.
This is great video and article! I plan to share it with clients who have inflammatory issues, especially gut issues. I would like to know which seeds you combined to make the seed mixture that can be used as a topping.
First time commenting. Thank you so much for all the helpful content released by you guys. Keep up te extraordinary job! I have a question about herbs. I read in a previous comment something about the potency of dried herbs. Is consuming dried herbs better, the same or not as good as using fresh herbs? In the past I've heard that fresh is always better so I haven't used dried herbs, but dried herbs are so much more convenient. Are fresh herbs better just flavorwise? What is the difference of dried and fresh herbs nutritionwise?
So grateful for this article, it’s so informative! Food literally is medicine!
This article was very informative I learned a lot. Thank you .
Also, I would love to know your thoughts on pre and pro-biotics. I have been taking SEED. But would love to get more advice to gain knowledge on gut health. I saw that Sadia really enjoys learning about that!
So thankful for this resource! Me and my family deal with inflammation and this is going to be great to share with them. Did you include a link to that omega supplement that way was shown in the video?
What kind of plant based milk do you use? Great video! thank you.
Thank you for this post, I enjoyed reading it and watching the video. My question always is: how much of the nutrients is left in the food when we cook it? I know that the best is raw, but I do like stews and curries, and soups and grilled veggies. And do the antioxidants & co. survive the stomac acid and really get absorbed (does this happen in the gut, the absorption?)? Do you have any books to recommend on this topic? As you see I have a lot of questions🙈 I remember you saying a long time ago about the potency of dried herbs, I have been having that in mind every time I cook and I really add spices and herbs more to my dishes after that :) thank you very much for your content, it is of unique and important value for me! ♥️
I love the idea of "eat the rainbow" so much and have been trying to do that every single meal ever since. it's good for the body, and happy for the eyes! I always enjoy eating so much more when I have a plate of varieties of foods, thanks for the constant inspiration and easy eating/health/dietitian tricks to stick to :)
Thank you so much! I really appreciate your work.
This article is amazing, deep enough for everyone to understand and learn. I will definitely recommend to my friends.
With gratitude 🦋
this is so helpful to me!
In 2020 I have been diagnosed with MS (honestly out of the blue), so I've been having a hard time gathering info on what to eat since lots of different people say different things (+ my focus is nowhere to be found, thanks to it aswell haha). You made the information easy to digest, on one page on your website and now i can always come back to just this blog to re-read anything I need. Thank you for helping people out Sadia (and team), you are doing great work! <3
I really like how you explain everything in so much detail yet keeping it simple. I myself have been dealing with managing my diet, adding good food replacing outside one and find your videos very helpful. Keep up the good work!
The best article! Thank you pick up limes (:
I appreciate reading this article. It's incredible how our decisions when it comes to food ultimately heals or harm us. Understanding the science of food also helps to ground this truth. Thanks Sadia!
It's so important to be aware of the types of food we eat and it's effects in our body... sometimes this get so passed by! Thank you, Sadia, for your amazing articles ♥♥ I love it.
This is not only easy to understand but also gives you ways to implement it into your diet right away! Shared the post and the video right away because I really think it's the best summary of the topic I've seen so far!
Thank you so much Sadia and PUL team Really means alot the way you go to explain,also please put another video soon, try to make i more videos with fruits in it.🥰😋 Loved every RECIPE OF Ur's, HOPE TO MAKE MANY IN NEWR FUTURE😇
Love when videos are posted with articles! Thank you Sadia and PUL for the helpful content 😊