The anti-inflammatory diet

Anti-inflammatory foods – iStock
Anti-inflammatory foods – iStock

Inflammation is a process of healing important for the body to function well. When the body is injured or ill, the immune system brings white blood cells to the affected area via increased blood flow. This may lead to swelling, redness, heat and pain. This reaction is, however, natural and aids healing.

Abdominal fat cells

On the other hand, abdominal fat cells release inflammatory markers that cause a low grade, long term inflammation. Together with a poor diet it has been linked to conditions such as pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Various nutrients have been found to assist in reducing the inflammatory process and should be included into your diet. Together with avoiding sugar and all refined carbohydrates it can contribute to decreasing the risk for the diseases mentioned above, improving recovery from sport injuries, decreasing joint pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Read: Inflammation key to obesity ills

It can also contribute to improve inflammatory conditions in the gut such as coeliac disease. The following dietary guidelines can contribute to lowering inflammation:

1. Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices

A colourful and varied intake of fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices will provide fibre and phytonutrients, which have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers. They contain flavonoids which are a subclass of phytonutrients. A study of 2 115 participants showed that a diet rich in flavonoids was associated with low concentrations of the pro-inflammatory markers.

Include more cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale etc.) by adding cabbage to stir-fries, Brussels sprouts to roasted vegetables, blanched broccoli to salads, cauliflower to stews or kale to soups. 

Read: Cruciferous vegetable boost breast cancer survival

Eat more fruit such as berries, grapes, cherries or citrus by snacking on them whole, adding them to smoothies or oats porridge or choosing them as a healthier dessert option. Include a variety of herbs and spices in your cooking, especially turmeric and ginger. Add them to curries, stews, stir-fries, dressings, marinades and more.

2. Eat a variety of high fibre whole grain foods

A high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates (white flour foods), can aggravate inflammatory processes. Refined starches and sugars lead to fluctuating blood sugar levels and consequent insulin response that can trigger inflammation. Three studies with a total of 2 408 participants all indicated a positive relationship between refined sugars and starches and an inflammation marker called C-reactive protein (CRP).

Include whole grains such as rolled oats, corn, barley, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, legumes (lentils, beans and chickpeas) and fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet in place of sugars and refined starches such as white and brown bread, pasta, wraps, pita, pizza, pastries, pies, cake, rusks, sweets, chocolates and sugary drinks.

Read: Power up with whole grains

3. Regularly eat nuts, seeds and nut butters

Nuts and seeds provide phenolic compounds and polyunsaturated fats which have anti-inflammatory properties. Eat more nuts and seeds by adding them to salads, enjoy them as snacks, dip fruit pieces into nut butters or add chopped nuts to your morning cereal or smoothie.

4. Increase your intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids

We find omega-3 essential fatty acids in salmon, trout, sardines, pilchards, mackerel, flaxseeds, chia, hemp seeds, canola and walnuts. Two studies with 727 and 3 042 participants found that the higher the omega-3 fatty acid consumption, the lower the inflammation markers were.

Read: Omega-3 fatty acids cut fatal heart attack risk

It is preferable to receive omega-3 from an animal source than a plant source as they provide different forms of omega-3. The type of omega-3 that plant sources provide needs to be converted to another form – however, the conversion rate is poor. Different ways to include more omega-3 sources is to eat smoked salmon ribbons with cottage cheese on high fibre crackers, add smoked trout to salads, have tinned pilchards in tomato sauce on toast or make tinned salmon fish cakes.

5. Manage alcohol intake

A chronically high intake of alcohol may increase inflammation. It is therefore recommended to reduce alcohol intake. On the other hand, drinking one glass of red wine a day has been shown to decrease inflammation due to the anti-inflammatory polyphenols it contains.

6. Manage stress and improve quality of sleep

High stress levels and poor sleep lead to raised cortisol levels, which have shown to contribute to elevated inflammatory markers. De-stress by taking time out, enjoying activities such as reading, having a bubble bath, mediating, praying, having a good time with friends, and last but most important doing exercise that you enjoy. Improve your sleep by avoiding electronics a half an hour before you go to bed, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evenings and not eating less than two hours before bedtime.

Read: Caffeine gives erectile boost

7. Reduce abdominal fat

Losing weight around your abdominal area will aid in lowering inflammatory markers. Consult with your dietitian for an individualised meal plan that will fit your lifestyle and control your energy intake to facilitate fat loss. As exercise plays an important role in losing weight, find an activity that you will enjoy.

To conclude

Reap the many benefits of reducing inflammation by enjoying fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, fatty fish and whole grains. Manage your alcohol intake, stress and sleep. Contact your local dietitian for more information and guidance to reduce inflammation by visiting the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) website.

Read more:

Inflammation tied to cancer

Inflammation key to obesity ills

Male obesity really risky


Estruch R. Anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet: the experience of the PREDIMED study. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2010), 69, 333–340.

Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S, Raymond JL. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. Missouri (2016).

Minihane AM, Vinoy S, Russell WR, Baka A, Roche HM, Tuohy KM et al. Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation. British Journal of Nutrition (2015), 114, 999–1012.

Lee H, Lee IS, and Choue R. Obesity, Inflammation and Diet. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2013 Sep;16(3):143-152.

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