We’ve all experienced a small fall, scraping our knees, or accidentally scratching our arm on a sharp table—leading to a small cut, a little blood, and eventually some swelling, scabbing and then healing. This is an example of acute inflammation. Acute inflammation is good because it brings attention to something going wrong in our body and helps with the healing process.
But chronic inflammation is when our body is constantly in a flared-up state of stress. Chronic inflammation is the root cause of disease. For example, psoriasis is inflammation of the skin, heart disease is inflammation of the arteries, irritable bowel syndrome is inflammation of the intestine, arthritis is inflammation of the joints, and the list goes on.
The cause of inflammation is multi-faceted and very individualized. Stress, lack of sleep, emotional turmoil, smoking, drugs, inactivity, and processed foods are all possible causes. Typically, when you go to the doctor for any type of inflammatory disease, lifestyle and diet are rarely talked about, and instead, you're prescribed some sort of medicine. While these medicines may bring a lot of much-needed relief, it’s important to get to the root cause of your inflammation and treat it from the inside out. Diet alone can make a major impact on your pain and inflammation level.
One common lab value that is used to measure your inflammation is called c-reactive protein (CRP). The test is often ordered when assessing heart disease risk, but it's also a good indicator of other inflammatory diseases. When fighting an infection, this number will be high—so for a more accurate reading, make sure you don’t have any acute illnesses when getting this blood test.
Depending on how inflammation is manifested in your body, you may be able to feel the impact of your diet changes by your pain level, or you might only notice by looking at your lab results. Besides CRP, other cardiac lab values and autoimmune markers should also improve as you improve your lifestyle to reduce inflammation.
Foods that fuel the fire of inflammation:
Sugar, especially processed sugar found in soda, candy and sweets, drastically raises blood sugar. Constantly spiking your blood sugar leads to your pancreas releasing insulin and can eventually make your pancreas tired, leading to insulin resistance. Elevated blood sugars drive inflammation. Naturally occurring sugars from plants have a much different effect on inflammation than added sugars and are okay to eat in the right balance with healthy fats and protein to balance blood sugar.
Looking for added sugar can be tricky, since there are so many types of sugar that appear on food labels. Some other common names for added sugar include high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, honey and syrups. Avoiding sugar completely isn’t necessary or very realistic, but aim to keep added sugars on the low side. A good rule-of-thumb is to keep added sugars below 6 teaspoons, or 24 grams, per day.
Most people will agree that fried foods aren’t health foods, but they are still rampant in our food culture. Noms like French fries, potato chips, chicken strips, fried seafood, donuts, etc. are typically cooked in highly processed vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids cause inflammation when out of proportion with omega-3 fatty acids, something that's very common in the Western world. Studies show that the lower the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, the lower the risk of inflammatory and autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Cereal, white bread, baked goods (and basically anything made with flour) are examples of refined carbs. Refined carbs are basically processed carbs that are swiped of nutrients. A diet high in refined carbs is also associated with low intake of micronutrients, elevated insulin, and increased inflammation.
Most refined carbs that Americans are eating are also high in gluten, which is a protein found in wheat products. Gluten can be controversial in the health world, but many people and some studies report inflammatory symptoms improving when reducing or cutting out gluten. Results depend on the person! But eating a grain-free, or mostly grain-free diet is a great way to reduce refined carbs.
Foods that cool the fire of inflammation:
Fruits and Vegetables
A diet high in fruits and vegetables, like the Mediterranean diet, has been proven to decrease inflammation, as well as decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory diseases. Berries, cherries, tomatoes, oranges and dark leafy greens, especially, decrease inflammation.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices, especially turmeric and ginger, add antioxidants and decrease inflammation. Curcumin, the anti-inflammatory component of turmeric, is now widely accepted in the medical community as a supplement to reduce pain and inflammation.
Omega-3’s and Monounsaturated Fats
As stated above, an out-of-balance ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 increase inflammation. The best sources of omega-3’s include fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel; seaweed products; and small amounts in flax and chia seeds. Monounsaturated fats found in nuts and olive oil is also associated with decreased inflammation.
Packaged foods can be confusing to rate on a health scale since they are technically processed. However, the key is looking at the ingredient label and nutrition facts. Look for products with a simple ingredient list with real foods and a nutrition label that is balanced.
When looking for a healthy, anti-inflammatory balanced snack, you want to look for low sugar, no artificial ingredients or sweeteners, and plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fats to keep you satiated. FitJoy's protein bars are a perfect example of this with around 20 grams of protein, only 5 grams of sugar and 14 grams of fiber; a great balance of nutrients to keep you nourished and satisfied.
Overall, eating a diet full of natural foods that come from the Earth with a lot of variety—especially colorful fruits, vegetables, herbs/spices and omega-3’s—and low in highly processed foods, will lower inflammation and decrease your risk of disease!
Lindsay Nelson, R.D., L.D.
Lindsay Nelson, R.D./L.D., is a freelance dietitian based in Kansas City, Missouri. Most of her time is dedicated to her 3-year-old and 1-year-old boys, teaching them all about cooking, gardening and nature. Her husband and boys are great guinea pigs in the kitchen, always willing to try her latest food creations. On the weekends you’ll usually find them outside on a trail, hanging out with friends and family and always eating good food.