by Stephanie Liang, APD
If you’ve ever cut your finger, bruised your knee, or had a pimple, you’ve experienced inflammation. This kind of acute inflammation is our body’s normal immune response to protect our body against infection and injury,[i] and results in increased blood flow, redness, swelling, as well as the release of hormones and proteins called cytokines that work to reverse the damage.[ii] But what happens when inflammation sticks around? Read on for a summary on how inflammation and diet overlap.
How does inflammation relate to health and disease?
A prolonged state of inflammation, known as chronic low-grade inflammation, involves an increased level of pro-inflammatory cytokines compared to anti-inflammatory cytokines in our body. Chronic low-grade inflammation is a risk factor for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and age-related neurodegenerative conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.3-6 People carrying extra weight are more likely to have inflammation, as fat tissue is known to release hormones and pro-inflammatory cytokines that initiate chronic inflammation.2
High levels of specific inflammatory markers in our blood might mean we are suffering chronic low-grade inflammation, which can be checked by a blood test. One part of preventing this is by following a healthy diet and lifestyle, which can play a hand in protecting our health in the long-term.2
A prolonged state of inflammation, known as chronic low-grade inflammation, involves an increased level of pro-inflammatory cytokines compared to anti-inflammatory cytokines in our body.
How does our diet relate to inflammation?
Research has shown diet plays a role in the development of chronic diseases and inflammation, and there is promising research that shows specific dietary patterns can be particularly effective in protecting against inflammation and chronic disease.4
Dietary patterns and inflammation
The general consensus is that typical Western-style diets are linked to low-grade inflammation. These diets are generally high in red and processed meats like salami and bacon, refined grain foods like white bread and pasta, discretionary foods like desserts, soft drinks and fried foods, and research shows they are more likely to lead to higher levels of pro-inflammatory markers in the blood.7,8
Conversely, Mediterranean-style diets, rich in antioxidants, fibre and healthy fats, are known to provide numerous health benefits including weight management and promoting heart health, and further research has found they can also help to reduce inflammation.10-12 Mediterranean diets are predominantly plant-based, featuring plenty of olive oil, fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains and nuts, and moderate amounts of fish, seafood, poultry and dairy foods. Alcohol in the form of red wine is often enjoyed with meals – a common, but non-essential part of the eating pattern, and we suggest sticking to the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommendation of limiting alcohol to no more than two standard drinks per day.9
Following a Mediterranean dietary pattern may help protect against inflammation by lowering pro-inflammatory markers in the blood, but also by protecting against other conditions that encourage inflammation, like high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.10-12
Mediterranean-style diets, rich in antioxidants, fibre and healthy fats, are known to provide numerous health benefits including weight management and promoting heart health, and further research has found they can also help to reduce inflammation.10-12
What about grains and legumes?
As major components of Mediterranean-style diets, it’s no surprise that diets high in grains and legumes are generally linked with lower inflammation.
Whole grains in particular show protective properties, with observational studies linking them to lower levels of inflammatory markers.2 In a ten year study of dietary patterns, whole grain consumption had the strongest anti-inflammatory effect of the 37 food groups studied, with a lower whole grain intake linked to elevated levels of IL-6, a pro-inflammatory marker.13 Higher whole grain intakes have also been linked to a significant reduction in CRP,2,14 another pro-inflammatory marker, with every serve of whole grain food estimated to reduce CRP concentrations by 7%.15
Similarly, there is good evidence for legumes and lower inflammatory markers in the blood.16 One study found replacing two serves of red meat with legumes three days each week reduced inflammatory markers in patients with diabetes, regardless of whether they lost weight.17
Interestingly, one research study found peas and legumes were associated with higher rates of inflammation. However, it is assumed that legume intake included consumption of baked beans which were often consumed with pro-inflammatory foods including processed meats such as bacon and other fried foods.13 So there’s no need to ditch the baked beans, just enjoy with whole grain bread!
Whole grains in particular show protective properties, with observational studies linking them to lower levels of inflammatory markers2.
Gut health and inflammation
There is emerging evidence on our diet and gut microbiome, and its role in inflammation as well as health and disease. In particular, prebiotics such as soluble fibre from plant foods and whole grains, and resistant starch are known to feed the good bacteria in our gut, by resisting digestion in the stomach and small intestine, and traveling to the large intestine where they become fermented by our gut microbiota.18 Fermentation of these non-digestible fibres causes the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate and acetate, which can work to reduce inflammation.19 Read more about gut health in this recent hot topic on the microbiome by APD Nicole Dynan.
So what’s the bottom line?
Diet and inflammation is complex and a number of factors can promote inflammation in our body. By choosing a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and including more fish, seafood, poultry, dairy and unsaturated fats (such as olive oil) in your diet, you’ll be reducing the risk of inflammation, the development of chronic diseases and improving your overall health and wellbeing.
For personalised nutrition advice, we recommend seeking support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) who will tailor their advice to you based on the most up-to-date evidence. Find an APD near you by heading to daa.asn.au and ‘Find an APD.’
Stephanie Liang is a Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) who is dedicated to teaching individuals about the importance of nutrition and health, and strives to help others lead healthier lives by providing simple and practical advice.
You can follow Stephanie on Instagram @thenutritiouspalate.
- Medzhitov R. Origin and physiological roles of inflammation. Nature 2008; 454: 428-35.
- Calder PC, Ahluwalia N, Brouns F, Buetler T, Clement K, Cunningham K et al. Dietary factors and low grade inflammation in relation to overweight and obesity. Br J Nutr 2011; 106: S1-78.
- Anderson AL, Harris TB, Tylavsky FA, Perry PE, Houston DK, Lee JS et al. Dietary patterns, insulin sensitivity and inflammation in older adults. Eur J Clin Nutr 2012; 66: 18-24.
- O’Neil A, Shivappa N, Jacka FN, Kotowicz MA, Kibbey K Hebert JR et al. Pro-inflammatory dietary intake as a risk factor for CVD in men: a 5-year longitudinal study. Br J Nutr 2015; 114: 2074-82.
- Harris HR, Willet WC, Vaidya RL, Michel KB. An adolescent and early adulthood dietary pattern associated with inflammation and the incidence of breast cancer. Cancer Res 2017; 77: 1179-87.
- Tabung FK, Steck SE, Liese AD, Zhang J, Ma Y, Johnson KC et al. Patterns of change over time and history of the inflammatory potential of diet and risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women. Breast Cancer Res Treat 2016; 159: 139-49.
- Barbaresko J, Koch M, Schulze MB, Nöthlings U. Dietary pattern analysis and biomarkers of low-grade inflammation: a systematic literature review. Nutr Rev 2013; 7: 511-27.
- Syauqy A, Hsu C, Rau H, Chao JCJ. Association of dietary patterns with components of metabolic syndrome and inflammation among middle-aged and older adults with metabolic syndrome in Taiwan. Nutrients 2018; 10:
- National Health & Medical Research Council. Alcohol 2015 (Internet) https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/fat-salt-sugars-and-alcohol/alcohol (Accessed 19 June 2018).
- Sureda A, Bibiloni M del M, Julibert A, Bouzas C, Argelich E, Llompart I et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and inflammatory markers. Nutrients 2018; 10:
- Casas R, Sacanella E, Estruch R. The immune protective effect of the Mediterranean diet against chronic low-grade inflammatory diseases. Endrocr Metab Immune Disord Drug Targets 2014; 14: 245-54.
- Bonaccio M, Pounis G, Cerletti C, Donati MB, Iacoviello L, de Gaetano G. Meditteranean diet, dietary polyphenols and low grade inflammation: results from the MOLI-SANI study. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2017; 83: 107-13.
- Ozawa M, Shipley M, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A, Brunner EJ. Dietary pattern, inflammation and cognitive decline: The Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Clin Nutr 2016; 36: 506-12.
- Qi L, van Dam RM, Liu S, Franz M, Mantzoros C, Hu FB. Whole-Grain, Bran, and Cereal Fiber Intakes and markers of Systemic Inflammation in Diabetic Women. Diabetes Care 2006; 29: 207-11.
- Lefevre M, Jonnalagadda S. Effect of whole grains on markers of subclinical inflammation. Nutr Rev 2012; 70: 387-96.
- Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Mediterranean dietary pattern, inflammation and endothelial function: A systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention trials. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis 2014; 24: 929-39.
- Hosseinpour-Niazi S, Mirmiran P, Fallah-Ghohroudi A, Azizi F. Non-soya legume-based therapeutic lifestyle change diet reduces inflammatory status in diabetic patients: a randomised cross-over clinical trial. Br J Nutr 2015; 114: 213-9.
- Singh RK, Chang H-W, Yan D, Lee KM, Ucmak D, Wong K et al. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. J Transl Med 2017; 15:
- 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. Br J Nutr 2015; 114: 999-1012.