If you spend any amount of time reading about health and nutrition, you have a pretty good idea that inflammation is linked to many diseases, conditions, and poor outcomes, including a shortened lifespan. You may also have come to understand that some foods help fight inflammation in the body. However, there is such an onslaught of hype about low-inflammation diets that it can be difficult to sort out fads and baseless advertising claims from research-backed science. In this guide, you’ll learn what inflammation is, why it matters for your health, and how to select healthy foods as part of a low-inflammation diet that help reduce the amount of inflammation in your body.

What is inflammation?

A common shorthand for inflammation is “swelling.” Certainly when a body part swells, inflammation plays a role, but let’s delve more deeply into the physiology of inflammation. To do so, it helps to know that there are two main types of inflammation, acute and chronic.

Acute inflammation occurs when you injure a specific body part—for example, if you sprain your ankle on the pickleball court. We all know what happens externally. You feel pain around the injury site, which might become hot, discolored, and swollen. Inside your body, what’s occurred is an immune response…white blood cells, which are famous for fighting infection, swarm the injured area to wall it off and protect it, simultaneously triggering what’s known as a “healing cascade” of biochemical processes that get the injured tissue rebuilt while clearing away damaged or dead material. This form of inflammation, while possibly alarming and sometimes painful, is very good for the body since it’s a crucial precursor to healing. In fact, a 2022 study from McGill University that when patients with acute back pain took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to quell the inflammatory response, they were far more likely to end up with chronic back pain a decade later.

Chronic inflammation, however, is not beneficial. Rather than being caused by an acute injury, chronic inflammation is triggered by stress, toxins, pollutants, chemicals in some foods, excessive fat cells, and other irritants. Nor is it localized to one injured area. Instead, it can affect various internal organs and especially the blood vessels. However, the underlying processes are similar to those seen in acute inflammation. It’s just that in the case of chronic inflammation, rather than providing a healing function and then tapering off, the immune response continues for as long as the trigger is present, which in some cases is years and even decades. Rather than being healthy, that prolonged immune action can have deadly results.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress is a process often discussed in the same breath as inflammation, and with good reason since the two processes play off each other. When your body digests foods and undertakes other metabolic processes, your cells release byproducts known as free radicals, unstable molecules that circulate in your bloodstream, damaging your cells until disposed of by your immune system. Although undesirable, this process, called oxidation, is natural and normal. But free radicals can also be generated by exposure to environmental contaminants including radiation, smoke, and pesticides. If so, many free radicals are produced that your body cannot dispose of them quickly enough, you are said to be under oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is both a cause and effect of inflammation and is implicated in several diseases of aging.

Food and inflammation

What you eat has a major impact on the amount of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress to which your body is subjected. And unfortunately, the Western diet or Standard American Diet (appropriately shortened to SAD) contains an alarming number of foods that trigger these processes. But an “anti-swelling diet” is about both avoiding foods that cause inflammation and embracing foods that combat it.

Foods to avoid

One of the major categories of foods associated with chronic inflammation—which also happens to be extremely prevalent in the SAD eating pattern—is ultra-processed foods. These are foods that have undergone a manufacturing process, often using preservatives, chemicals and ingredients not found in your kitchen. Essentially, if you’re eating a food you couldn’t make at home, you’re consuming something ultra-processed.

Common components of ultra-processed foods include refined grains (especially white flour), added sugars (including syrups), saturated fats, and added sodium (salt). Add to that list any ingredient you read on a label that you find hard to pronounce or that sounds like something from chemistry class.

The SAD diet has repeatedly been linked to poor health outcomes. A 2023 study from Harvard researchers examined data on nearly 120,000 adults going back more than 35 years. Those whose eating habits were the worst had a 20% higher risk of dying during the study period.

Foods for a Low-Inflammation Diet

Some of the “anti-swelling foods” recommended by nutritional experts may not directly combat inflammation. Instead, their power may lie in the fact that they merely do no harm. Your risk of chronic inflammation goes down because you’re eating them instead of harmful foods. For other foods, there is evidence that they have a more direct anti-inflammatory effect.

Most experts recommend a diet high in plant-based foods, especially whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. An lowi-inflammatory diet also includes healthy fats, seafood, and high-quality proteins.

Foods that reduce inflammation are most often plant based. Fruits and vegetables contain substances known as phytochemicals, which are protective to plants while they’re alive but also to us when we eat them. Many phytochemicals directly lower levels of inflammation in the body, and some are also antioxidants, meaning they help lower levels of oxidative stress. Phytochemicals have been found to fight cancer cells, repair damaged DNA, protect against heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions, and support healthy aging.

What diet should I follow?

Experts have developed several diets that lower inflammation while improving many different aspects of health. The most well-known is the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, and fish. Most of the other diets are based loosely on that same eating pattern, making small substitutions here and there. For example, the “Healthy US Eating Pattern” incorporates low-fat dairy and eggs, while the “Healthy Vegetarian Pattern” relies on plant-based proteins. Choose a diet that you’ll enjoy and stick to, one that fits your lifestyle and priorities. Just make sure it eschews ultra-processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars, while embracing natural foods, especially those that come from plants.

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