Inflammation: friend or foe?

When it comes to inflammation, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it the pain that comes with the redness after you’ve bruised your arm, or the blocked nose when you catch a cold? Or do you think of certain health conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease? While all the above are accurate and truthful examples of inflammatory responses, you may be surprised to know that not all types of inflammation are ‘bad’.

Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system to fight infection or support wound healing. For example, when the local cells on our arm detect a graze from us falling over, chemical signalling molecules known as cytokines are activated to surrounding cells and the immune system. Whilst while the platelets stop further bleeding of the wound, chemicals released by these cells surrounding the injury cause local vasodilation and allows more blood to flow to the injury site. The permeability of the blood vessels increases, clearing the way for immune cells to come around. What comes with the blood flow is an influx of immune cells that fight against the pathogens that may have entered the wound site, and also other ‘workforces’ such as platelets and other building cells to repair what has been broken. These are some of the reasons why the wound becomes swollen, red and painful. A similar response occurs when we catch a cold or have an acute infection somewhere in our body. These types of inflammation are usually characterised by their acute and short-living presence and will go away as soon as the problem is solved.

So, when does inflammation become problematic? When the cells continue releasing inflammation-inducing factors due to an unresolved underlying issue, this becomes chronic inflammation. The body remains in a state of stress, and this can lead to a negative effect on our overall health.

Chronic inflammation progressively alters the cells present at the inflammation site and gradually leads to a scenario where the tissues are being destroyed by immune cells and repaired by building cells at the same time. This is a risk factor for many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. What makes it so dangerous is that this low-grade chronic inflammation is usually undetectable at the early stages. It may only come into sight after years of damage have accumulated and finally develop into a symptomatic disease.

What can we do to reduce the chronic low-grade inflammation that may be present in many of us? For most individuals, an overall change in lifestyle and eating patterns is needed to achieve an optimum reduction in underlying inflammation. Some of the changes include but are not limited to; increasing physical activity, adjusting sleeping patterns, stress management and of course, dietary intervention. In the next section, we will move on to the anti-inflammatory diet. we will explore what it is, how it affects the body and some of the principles of anti-inflammatory diets.


Foods that fight inflammation

There are a variety of different diets that claim to have an overall anti-inflammatory effect. You may have heard many of these healthy diets and eating patterns: the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension), the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), vegetarian diets, calorie restriction, intermittent fasting and many more. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell which of these options are superior to others and whether they are just another ‘fad’ diet circulating the internet which is full of misinformation. To enable you to design an anti-inflammatory diet that fit your own needs, we will discuss some of the most important features that generally apply to all effective and healthy anti-inflammatory diets.


1.     Plenty of fruit and vegetable consumption

Everyone knows about the benefits of eating vegetables and fruits, and as you may expect, they also play an important role in reducing inflammation. Many foods in this family contain an abundance of anti-inflammatory substances such as phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Anthocyanins, carotenoids, curcumin, vitamin c and resveratrol are just a few powerful antioxidants to be named, which are also effective in reducing chronic inflammation.


2.     Herbs and spices

Don’t forget about your herbs and spices because many of them also provide an anti-inflammatory effect that is just as powerful. So next time when you are cooking, why not try to incorporate some turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and black pepper into your recipes? Not only do they add another layer of flavour, but you may also be able to avoid excessive salt use as the spices can be used to partially replace salt. Consider ginger shot supplements – upping your intake of antioxidant-rich foods and beverages like ginger shots may combat inflammation and keep your immune system healthy.


3.     Green tea

Another practical aspect is to drink more green tea, which has become arguably one of the most healthful drinks there is.


4.     Water

Spice-infused water can also encourage your daily water consumption by giving you the enjoyment to customise your drink. You will be glad to know that these drinks are some of the most promising anti-inflammatory options out there.


5.     Choose your oils smartly

Interestingly, different classes of oils have an integral role in the biochemical pathway of inflammation activation.

To reduce sustained non-resolving inflammation, you would want to increase the unsaturated fats in your diet. Among the unsaturated oil family, the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids have some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory effects. This can be achieved by including a variety of nuts and oily fish such as salmon and mackerel in your diet. This is in accordance with the UK Eatwell guide which states that you should consume at least 2 portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, one of which is oily’. Furthermore, monounsaturated fatty acids in foods such as olive oil and avocado are also effective in serving this purpose.

The oils that you should try to minimise are saturated fats, oils heated to very high temperatures such as deep fry oil, processed oils, hydrogenated fats and trans-fatty acids, in particular, the latter three are of the most concern. Excessive intake of these lipids is associated with increased inflammatory markers in the body and an increase in body weight. These are some of the examples that you would not want to include in an anti-inflammatory diet. Some of the foods that contain these oils are deep-fried products and red meat.


6.     Choose whole grain options and include fibre in your diet

Foods that induce a high glycaemic response such as free sugars are known to be pro-inflammatory. Aim to replace these with whole grain options that will create a much lower glycaemic response (increase in blood sugar level) after consumption. Whole grain options are often richer in vitamins, minerals, and fibres than refined carbohydrates.

In addition to reducing spikes in blood sugar levels, fibres are also known as prebiotics which support the healthy growth of beneficial bacteria in your large intestine. This will boost the healthy microbiome, which may help modulate undesired inflammatory responses.


7.     Avoid inflammation-inducing substances

Foods and other substances that fall under this category include pesticides, chemical residues on foods, BPA and other artificial food additives, and alcohol. You should be mindful of the potential presence of these substances and choose minimally processed organic foods where possible. On top of this, if you are known to be allergic to certain foods or suffer from any food intolerance, these foods are to be avoided at all times due to the fact that they can initiate an undesired inflammatory immune response in your body, and in the worst-case systemic inflammation can be induced.


How well does an anti-inflammatory diet work?

Overall cohort studies have shown promising results of the anti-inflammatory properties of diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. They have been shown to reduce the inflammatory markers in the bloodstream, such as C-reactive protein in individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies have also found such diets reduce the incidence of diseases such as type-2 diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. The bottom line is that following such a diet is likely to promote overall health, but more extreme diets that include food group elimination or calorie restriction may cause nutrient deficiency and other adverse effects. Seek support from nutrition professionals who have specialist knowledge in the specific diets you want to follow, to make sure you get a well-rounded diet that promotes anti-inflammatory effects and overall health at the same time.


By Rutian Ding, Dietetic student, revised by Reema Patel, Registered Dietitian at Dietitian Fit & Co



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