What you eat can help reduce your risk of inflammation that can cause chronic disease – and it’s easier than you think.
By Gina Flaxman
We all know what happens when a wound or joint becomes inflamed: there is swelling, redness, heat and pain. “Inflammation is a protective immune response designed to help the body clear an irritant and heal from trauma,” says Jean Hailes GP Dr Dominique Baume.
In the case of an injury, the inflammation protects us from infection and tissue damage. This is inflammation we can see.
“We’re all familiar with this acute inflammation,” says Dr Peter Brukner, a specialist sports and exercise physician and the author of A Fat Lot of Good, a book that examines diet and health.
However, there is a type of inflammation we cannot see, known as chronic, low-grade inflammation. This inflammation has no external symptoms, but is always there at a low level, says Dr Brukner, “just chipping away at things, creating long-term damage”.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation seems to be a major factor in the development of chronic diseases like [type 2] diabetes, heart disease and arthritis,” says Dr Brukner. “It may also be a factor in the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s.”Dr Peter Brukner, author and specialist sports and exercise physician
In the case of atherosclerosis – a build-up of plaque inside the arteries and the cause of most heart attacks and strokes – Dr Brukner says the focus is now moving from the impact of cholesterol to that of inflammation. “We now know it’s the inflammation that attacks the artery walls,” he says.
Dr Brukner says lifestyle factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, smoking and alcohol have all been shown to increase the body’s levels of chronic, low-grade inflammation. “Traditionally, we’ve tried to treat inflammation with medications,” he says. “But making lifestyle changes can have a dramatic effect on inflammation.”
An anti-inflammatory diet involves avoiding or limiting foods that have been shown to increase inflammation, and increasing your intake of foods that reduce it.
“Growing research suggests that reducing certain foods may be helpful for both the symptoms and long-term health outcomes associated with chronic disease,” says Dr Baume.
Sugar is particularly inflammatory and consuming high amounts can lead to obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Dr Brukner, who is the chair of advocacy group SugarByHalf, says the “hidden sugars” found in products such as fruit juice and packaged foods are particularly harmful, as people often aren’t aware they’re consuming them. “About 70- 80% of all processed foods have added sugars,” he says.
“The Western diet of highly processed foods tends to promote inflammation,” says Dr Baume.Jean Hailes GP Dr Dominique Baume
She says these foods also often contain harmful trans fats. She says you should also reduce your intake of saturated fats (deep-fried foods), alcohol, soft drinks and refined carbohydrates such as white bread.
Some medical experts also believe consuming too many vegetable oils results in an imbalance of omega-6 fatty acids, which may promote inflammation.
To reduce inflammation, focus on whole, nutrient- dense foods. Dr Baume says the Mediterranean diet is a good example of this. “This diet is rich in green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, cherries, oranges), extra-virgin olive oil and nuts (walnuts and almonds), which are good sources of antioxidants,” she says.
Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel contain omega-3 fats, which are particularly good for reducing inflammation.
Some believe fruit and vegetables from the nightshade family, such as eggplant, tomatoes and capsicum, may trigger arthritis flare-ups, but Arthritis NSW says there is limited evidence to support this.
“We just need to get back to eating real food, the way our grandparents used to eat,” says Dr Brukner.
What to eat: A range of fresh, brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, oily fish, nuts, olive oil.
What to avoid: Sugary and processed foods, refined carbohydrates, alcohol.
Healthy swaps: Swap vegetable or soybean oil for extra-virgin olive oil.