The words “chronic inflammation” are bandied around on the regular. We’re well-aware by now that this something we don’t want, but before we dive into how to avoid it… what does it actually mean?

“When tissues in our body encounter damage, they release signals called inflammatory cytokines to flag the body to send blood and healing nutrients to the site to hasten the repair process,” says Paul Kriegler, RD, director of nutrition product development at Life Time. “While this response is incredibly helpful, if tissues in the body encounter damage faster than they can be repaired, we call it ‘chronic inflammation.’ In short, chronic inflammation is an imbalance of damage relative to the ability to restore homeostasis.”

A new study published in the journal Neurology now indicates that people who consume a greater amount of pro-inflammatory foods—assessed via the diet inflammatory index (DII), a scoring algorithm that provides an estimate of the inflammatory potential of foods—were associated with an increased risk for dementia and cognitive decline.

“The data presented in this new anti-inflammatory diet study suggests that participants who tended to choose less-processed, more nutrient-dense foods had lower incidence of dementia, which is not surprising,” says Kriegler. “More wholesome foods make it easier to manage appetite, energy intake, and physical wellness.” That said, he underlines that the study has limitations. Namely, that there wasn’t a specified diet tested against other dietary patterns in a highly controlled manner. Instead, it was an observational study.

But that’s not the only limitation. The DII scoring system has some limitations in and of itself according to Kriegler, namely that it was developed for typical dietary choices in the U.S. population and hasn’t been fully adapted to other cuisines or food cultures around the world. The anti-inflammatory diet study solely used participants from Greece. “The DII system also seems to have biases against some very nutrient-dense, animal-based foods, such as organ meats, and favorably scores some nutrient-poor foods, such as highly-processed vegetable oils, that may in fact be pro-inflammatory for many individuals,” Kriegler says.

Study limitations aside, the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet are plentiful. “Anti-inflammatory diets emphasize minimally-processed foods such as fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, seafood, poultry, monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, and whole grains instead of refined grains. They also minimize consumption of trans fats, refined or added sugars, alcohol, and fried foods,” says Kriegler. You don’t need to have RD credentials to conclude that those are all healthy traits.

But let’s get more granular with a look at specific foods that can be particularly healing—and a few that may be triggering—when it comes to inflammation with the ultimate goal of not only mitigating the risk of dementia, but boosting overall well-being.

The 4 best anti-inflammatory foods

1. Fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and halibut

“Wild-caught fish are rich sources of two key omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both of these omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Studies show that people who eat fish regularly are less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, or develop Alzheimer’s disease, and higher red-blood cell omega-3 content is associated with better maintenance of strength and cognition throughout the lifecycle,” says Kriegler.

2. Fresh produce

According to Kriegler, non-starchy vegetables and fruits are extremely nutrient-dense. “The bang-for-your-buck concept of nutrient-density means that relative to the energy these foods supply, they also provide ample vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants the body needs to combat inflammation and facilitate tissue repair,” he says.

3. Lean protein

“Fresh meat, poultry, eggs, pork, and wild game or organ meats are excellent sources of the amino acids we need to maintain or repair all the lean tissues and structures in the body. These foods are also excellent at helping manage satiety or fullness and also help us maintain more stable blood sugars when we include them with each meal,” says Kriegler.

4. Herbs and spices

“Many fresh or dried herbs and spices contain antioxidants and polyphenols that can help stabilize free radicals generated by other inflammatory compounds, and some—such as curcumin in turmeric or some compounds in ginger—are known to help up-regulate anti-inflammatory cytokines.”

3 foods that cause inflammation

According to Kriegler, foods with a high amount of added sugar can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress, as can industrial seed oils such as safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and soybean oil. Alcohol is another pro-inflammatory agent, he says. “When alcohol is metabolized in the liver, the byproducts are highly inflammatory and create a great deal of oxidative stress, which can damage cells and tissues throughout the body. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions and can disrupt healthy blood sugar balance,” Kriegler says.

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