Foods and inflammation: What to eat and avoid

Chronic inflammation can harm your health, but an anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce the risks. So which foods should you avoid, and which should you stock up on?

Most of us know that certain foods aren’t great for our overall health, but did you know that some foods trigger inflammation that can increase the risk of serious health problems such as heart disease and stroke?

On the other hand, avoiding or reducing those foods and eating more foods that have an anti-inflammatory effect can help reduce these health risks.

A new study published by the American College of Cardiology found diets high in red and processed meats, refined sugars and carbohydrates such as white bread and pastries, fried foods and soft drinks are linked to inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of heart disease as much as 46 per cent and increase stroke risk by 28 per cent.

What is inflammation?

“Inflammation is an important process. If you have an infection and a bacteria or virus tries to enter your body, the immune system gets activated and produces pro-inflammatory cytokines that kill the virus or bacteria,” explains University of Sydney professor of medicine and nutrition Luigi Fontana.

Cytokines are produced by specialised cells of the immune system.

“But in the past few years we have found that obesity, especially an accumulation of excessive abdominal fat, causes an ongoing low-grade inflammation that is implicated in diseases of ageing like atherosclerosis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia,” adds Prof Fontana, author of The Path to Longevity.

What are inflammatory foods?

While certain foods can contribute to damaging inflammation, Prof Fontana says limiting these foods may not be enough and that losing weight, particularly around the middle, is key.

“Fat around the abdomen drives inflammation and my research suggests that if you have an excess waist circumference and fat in your gut, eating anti-inflammatory foods alone will not address the problem,” he says.

“You need to lose weight, particularly from the waist, because every centimetre you lose lessens inflammation.”

Inflammatory foods include:

  • Fried foods
  • Red meat and processed meats (bacon, ham, devon and frankfurts)
  • High-sugar foods (cakes, biscuits, lollies and commercially produced soups)
  • Tomato sauce
  • Fruit juice and soft drinks
  • White bread, pasta, flour and pasta
  • Pastries
  • Some breakfast cereals

What are anti-inflammatory foods?

Some foods have an anti-inflammatory effect and help blunt inflammation, says Associate Prof Francine Marques, head of the Hypertension Research Laboratory at Monash University.

These include foods with dietary fibre, such as resistant starches, which has an anti-inflammatory effect.

But she says about 80 per cent of people do not eat enough fibre.

“When we eat some types of fibre, they pass undigested through our gastrointestinal tract until they reach the large intestine where they are then fermented by bacteria or our gut microbiota,” says Prof Marques.

That fermentation process releases substances, which helps reduce inflammation and lowers the risk of problems such as high blood pressure.

Anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Fruits and green bananas
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Cooked and cooled pasta and potatoes
  • Wholegrains and nuts – especially cashews

Written by Sarah Marinos.