What’s the science behind an anti-inflammatory diet?

Martha writes: “How does anyone really know what causes inflammation and what fights it, in the way of foods?”

Science of Anti-Inflammatory DietsA lot of people (myself included) are touting the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet these days.  Then again, people tout all kinds of diets–and some of them are complete hooey. So Martha’s question is completely justified: What do we really know about how food affects inflammation?

The evidence on diet and inflammation

In fact, there is quite a bit of data to go on, starting with a lot of observational evidence. In these types of studies, we don’t try to change what people eat; we simply gather data on what they are eating and other aspects of their health and look for patterns. And we can see consistent relationships between various nutrients and foods and the blood markers that indicate systemic inflammation. 

The next step is an interventional study, where you change what people eat and see how it affects them.  Here, too, we have collected quite a bit of data showing that when people modify their diets in certain ways, it affects their inflammation markers.  Adding omega-3 to the diet tends to reduce inflammation, for example. So does reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates. Switching from a standard Western diet to a Mediterranean diet pattern or a plant-based diet appears to reduce inflammation, as well.

You”ll find a digest of research on diet and inflammation here.

And there’s plenty more research underway.  I’m currently involved in a handful of research projects involving the IF Rating, a system for estimating the inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects of foods that I developed several years ago.  In the meantime, I summarized the existing evidence into some basic guidelines for anti-inflammatory diets in a recent episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast.

I should point out, however, that diet is not the only source of inflammation. Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or cancer or IBS produce inflammation in the body. Injuries and infections also cause inflammation. Smoking, air pollution, emotional stress, even excess body fat–all can be drivers of inflammation.

Because diet is not the only source of inflammation, it is unlikely to be the entire cure, either.  But it is one that we have control over, and when it comes to reducing excessive inflammation, every little bit helps.

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