Traditional Mediterranean healthiest diet for inflammation
There’s a lot of talk about inflammation and anti-inflammatory diets – but there’s also a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding these nutrition buzz words.
Many people aren’t quite clear on what inflammation is and why we should be concerned about it. And then there are the plentiful myths about which foods affect inflammation.
Inflammation happens when your body reacts to something abnormal. Acute inflammation, which happens after an injury or infection, is an orderly, healthy process. Your immune system mobilises to destroy foreign invaders and clean up damaged tissue, then quiets back down.
Chronic, or systemic, inflammation is an unhealthy, chaotic process. It happens when your immune system is persistently on high alert and ends up damaging your body.
Instigators include an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, unmanaged stress and lack of sleep, along with environmental pollutants.
Chronic inflammation contributes to many long-term diseases, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
In fact, reducing inflammation may lower the risk of heart attack and stroke even when blood cholesterol is not at optimal levels.
Diet and lifestyle shifts are the best way to prevent or reduce chronic inflammation. There’s no single anti-inflammatory diet, but the traditional Mediterranean diet is a good model, with science to back it up. In general, think whole, minimally processed foods.
Foods to eat more of…
Fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds for the healthy fats. For fish, salmon takes top honours for inflammation-busting omega-3 fats, but sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trout are good choices.
Aim to eat at least two fish meals per week. If you don’t have a taste for fish, consider taking a good quality fish oil supplement.
Of the nuts, walnuts have the most research showing an anti-inflammatory effect, but almonds are another excellent choice. Olive oil – a key component of the Mediterranean diet – is high in antioxidants, as well as healthy monounsaturated fats.
Fruit and non-starchy vegetables for fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients. You can’t go wrong by making at least half of your plate non-starchy vegetables.
Top picks are leafy greens – kale, spinach and Swiss chard – and the cruciferous family, including broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. Garlic and onions are anti-inflammatory powerhouses, too. For fruit, eat berries, tart cherries and oranges.
Whole grains, beans and lentils for fibre and nutrients. Focus on intact whole grains such as oats, quinoa, farro and brown rice rather than loading up on bread, tortillas and crackers.
Although many anti-inflammatory diets claim that whole grains and pulses – beans, peas and lentils – increase inflammation, research shows otherwise. Pulses are high in fibre and magnesium, which helps reduce inflammation.
… And foods to eat less of
Sugar and refined grains (white flour). These spike blood sugar, leading to inflammation.
Less healthy fats from red meat and fried foods. In excess, saturated fat (found in animal foods, palm oil and coconut oil) can increase inflammation, and fried foods contain high levels of inflammatory advanced glycation end products.
Look at your lifestyle
Even the healthiest diet can’t make up for a lifestyle that’s marked by high stress and lack of sleep. Regular physical activity has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, plus it can help you manage stress and improve sleep quality.
Anti-inflammatory food myths
What’s the deal with nightshade vegetables – tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes – being inflammatory? Nightshades contain substances called alkaloids that are toxic – and inflammatory – in high quantities. But even the most ardent tomato devotee isn’t going to eat enough to matter.
Not only is there no notable research linking nightshades to chronic inflammation, but nightshade vegetables are part of the traditional – and anti-inflammatory – Mediterranean diet. Additionally, tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant phytonutrient.
Unfortunately, the fact that some individuals with specific inflammation-related health conditions have adverse reactions to nightshades has contributed to a belief that we should all avoid them.
Not so. If you have an actual allergy, intolerance or sensitivity to a certain food, then yes, that food is inflammatory. That goes for gluten and dairy, too, which are often falsely blamed for contributing to inflammation.
The big picture
Even though excess sugar and refined grains may promote inflammation, a cupcake isn’t going to kill you. Watch out for eating plans that shun even a shred of sugar, or ban whole food groups.
Not only can this deprive you of pleasurable and nutritious variety, but it can trigger disordered eating habits. And be aware that diets claiming they can reverse autoimmune disease are not supported by science.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist