When you think of 'anti-inflammatory' the things that might spring to mind are arthritis, gels and pills. These associations are true, but there’s more to inflammation than we think.
Inflammation in the body is something we can experience on a daily basis. It’s the body’s response to something irritating or harmful and, depending on lifestyle factors or medical conditions, people experience inflammation more than others.
“When you think about inflammation, there are many things that can contribute to it,” accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod told The Huffington Post Australia.
“It could be something that’s in our day-to-day environment -- maybe it’s exposure to cigarette smoke, or breathing in exhaust when you’re driving on the highway, or maybe you’re somewhere with a lot of pollution. Sleeping poorly on a regular basis and stress have also been shown to influence inflammation.”
These lifestyle factors can all play a role in the development of what's called 'generalised inflammation'. However, if you’ve ever experienced an injury or infection, you will know that a person can experience inflammation that is localised to a specific part of the body.
Some medical conditions may also result in inflammation in localised areas, or throughout the whole body.
"The most common medical conditions when people think about inflammation are rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and other types of arthritis. However, conditions like weight, heart disease, diabetes are all inflammatory conditions themselves," McLeod said.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet has been shown to help people manage these medical conditions, as well as help people who may tick the aforementioned lifestyle boxes (stressed people sleeping less than five hours a night, that’s you). But what exactly is anti-inflammatory eating?
“In a nutshell, anti-inflammatory eating is about eating whole, unprocessed foods,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
“It’s about eating a more plant-based diet, rather than eating lots of meat and processed foods. It’s about including healthy fats, herbs and spices, and also taking time and effort to prepare your food in a healthy way.”
A diet high in the following foods may help create less, and reduce existing, inflammation in the body:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables (in particular low-starch veggies like asparagus, broccoli, celery and capsicum)
- Whole grains (brown rice, oats, rye and quinoa)
- Plant-protein (legumes, nuts, seeds and tofu)
- Healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds)
- Herbs and spices (turmeric, cumin and ginger all have a significant beneficial anti-inflammatory effect)
On the other side are the foods which are more likely to cause inflammation. You’ve probably already guessed them: junk foods.
“When we think about the foods that are more likely to cause inflammation, it’s looking at foods which are more heavily processed or are ‘edible food-like substances’, to quote Michael Pollan,” McLeod said. "These foods which are high in processed, refined sugars, unhealthy saturated fats and salt are more likely to result in inflammation."
Anti-inflammatory eating isn’t just for people with conditions like arthritis. According to McLeod, everyone can benefit from eating anti-inflammatory foods.
“There’s so much research that backs up how following a whole foods diet can help prevent lifestyle related conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
To start following a more anti-inflammatory way of eating, McLeod suggests by first looking at your typical dinner.
“Start by looking at what’s on your dinner plate and asking yourself how much of the plate is low-starch vegetables, or if it’s mostly filled up with large serves of meat or high GI carbohydrates," McLeod said. “If that’s the case, maybe some adjustments can be made by aiming to fill at least half the plate with low starch vegetables.
“Incorporating vegetarian meals during the week is great. Try to include more legumes that are prepared well (if they’re not soaked, cooked and rinsed properly they can actually be inflammatory).
If you do include meat, McLeod recommends eating only small amounts of meat which is grass-fed, or choosing the best quality meat you can afford.
Eating fish and low-fat dairy products is also beneficial for inflammation.
“Including fish and natural yoghurt are really good for gut health and can be anti-inflammatory for people who are overweight, diabetic or have gout.”
Aside from healthy eating habits, other things we can do that can help reduce inflammation include exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.
“Exercise plays a really important role,” McLeod said. “Also, I can’t emphasise how important it is to get enough sleep Having good sleep hygiene (so getting up at the same time each day and getting consistent hours of sleep) is also important. If you’re not sleeping throughout the night, consider seeing a health professional to get some strategies to help you.”
If the idea of the anti-inflammation diet sounds too daunting, McLeod suggests to take it slow.
“It’s not about being perfect,” McLeod said. “It’s about making small changes at a time and building on those changes, and only doing what you feel comfortable doing and achieving. Soon, you’ll look back and realise how far you’ve come.”
Want to give anti-inflammatory eating a go? Here is a recipe from BJC Health's Anti-Inflammatory Eating.
Serves four as a main or eight as a side dish.
- 3 carrots, cut into 3cm pieces
- 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2-3 cm cubes
- 2 small beetroots, skin removed and cut into 2-3 cm cubes
- 1 cup dry quinoa
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 capsicum (red or green) cut into small pieces
- 3 bunches of asparagus, ends removed
- 400g can brown lentils, drained and rinsed
- Preheat oven to 200°C. Line a baking tray with baking paper and spread carrots, sweet potato and beetroot pieces over the tray (optional: drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle mixed herbs over vegetables. Roast for 50-60 minutes.
- Once vegetables have been in the oven for 30 minutes, place the quinoa and water in a saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring to boil then simmer until all the water is absorbed, stirring occasionally. Once cooked, transfer to a heat-proof bowl and stir with a fork to make fluffy.
- Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a fry pan. Cook onion and garlic until lightly browned. Add capsicum pieces and cook for 3-4 minutes.
- Heat another small fry pan or griddle pan to cook the asparagus, turning occasionally to cook evenly.
- Now all ingredients will be cooked or prepared. Add the onion, capsicum and roasted vegetables to the cooked quinoa. Also add the rinsed lentils and stir to combine. You can add some dried or fresh herbs at this point for extra flavour.
- Serve warm quinoa and lentil salad with the cooked asparagus spears.