Becky Graham explains how anti-inflammatory foods can help to preserve gut health and fight off chronic disease…
These days inflammatory conditions appear to be quite common, but whether that’s because they are on the increase or because we are simply more aware remains to be seen. In recent years there has been a lot of research into links between the typical ‘Western diet’ of high-fat, high-protein, high-sugar foods – often very salty and highly processed – and the onset of autoimmune diseases. According to the British Society of Gastroenterology, there are 300,000 people in the UK living with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including chron’s, ulcerative colitis and coeliac disease. Gastrointestinal conditions are perhaps the most well known, but there are a whole collection of other disorders perpetuated by inflammation including obesity, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, anaemia, asthma, fibromyalgia, alzheimers and hashimotos thyroiditis.
While digestive issues go mostly unnoticed to others, skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis can be debilitating not only because of the conditions themselves, but because they are visible and tend to impact on the sufferer’s confidence and self-esteem.
But what exactly is inflammation? Typically it is characterized by heat, pain, redness and swelling – symptoms we are all familiar with. In essence, it is a vital response driven by the immune system, without which we wouldn’t last very long at all! Imagine you fall over and cut your knee, what happens next is a complex series of steps known as the inflammatory response and it is an essential process for healing:
- Ouch you’ve fallen over! This is acute inflammation and your body reacts immediately – blood vessels in the injured area dilate, increasing blood flow and allowing an army of immune ‘messengers’ to congregate, clean up and prevent infection.
- These include white blood cells, which come along to remove dead tissue and help fight infection.
- As more blood and immune cells reach the site of injury, the area becomes red, swollen and warm.
- Specialised cells enter the wound to form a clot (or scab) and protect the site of injury.
- Any pain you feel is due to the presence of ‘pain mediators’ and the pressure of the swollen tissue on nerve cells.
Too little inflammation leaves us open to attack from bacteria and viruses, but equally, too much, in particular chronic inflammation, can lead to disease.
So what can we do about it? Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are widely available, with many more available on prescription. However, regular long-term use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can be damaging to the stomach lining and affect digestive health.
Can diet help? The resounding answer is yes! There are many everyday foods with super ‘anti-inflammatory’ properties included. The ratio of Omega fats in the body is very important in helping to manage inflammation. Humans are thought to have evolved on a one-to-one ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3, but our modern day Western diet tends to be in excess of ten-to-one, so a lot of us are walking around in an inflammatory state, regardless of whether we are exhibiting symptoms!
The optimal ratio of these fats is thought to be four to one or lower and some sources suggest as low as one-to-one.
Omega 3 fats are typically ‘anti-inflammatory’; oily fish is the number one, but if you can’t stomach fishy fish, seafood like prawns, mussels and oysters are good options. Nuts and seeds are great plant-based sources. Omega 6 fats work closely with their Omega 3 cousins and there are lots of sources like sesame seeds, soy beans, Brazil nuts and walnuts which should form part of a healthy diet. However, sources of processed Omega 6 fats in products like margarine and in fast foods like burgers, chips, crisps and biscuits as well as vegetable, sunflower and corn oils are not easily recognised by the body and can be ‘pro-inflammatory’.
In meat, Omega 6 fats are called ‘arachidonic acid’ which, if consumed in excess, may be converted into inflammatory messengers and cause a worsening of symptoms – pork and duck are particularly high in these fats. Grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed animals will have a better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 and organic is always best. Dairy also contains arachidonic acid and is a common allergen linked to both psoriasis and eczema.
Other helpful foods to include in an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet are those that are packed with antioxidants like berries, kale and broccoli, and herbs and spices such as turmeric, chilli, ginger and garlic. Aiming to ‘eat a rainbow’ every day will tick off many of your antioxidant requirements – the more richly pigmented the better!
Other healthy foods to include are white fish, lean meats, eggs, low sugar fruits, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, olive oil, hemp seed oil, coconut oil, quinoa, nuts, sweet potatoes, olives and avocado. ‘Prebiotic’ foods like artichoke, asparagus, onions and garlic can help to encourage a healthy gut, important for a healthy immune system.
Foods to be eaten in moderation include whole grains, root vegetables, cheese, milk, beans, pulses, high sugar fruits and brown rice, while refined grains, potatoes, white bread, processed fruit juice and white rice should be reduced or eliminated. Sugary drinks, alcohol, chips, cake, sweets, deep-fried foods, refined sugar and burnt foods all put an extra strain on the body, which can add to inflammation.
Top 10 Inflammatory Foods
- Vegetable, sunflower and corn oils
- Red meat
- Dairy produce
- Sweets and chocolate
- Fruit juice
- White bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits
- Barbecued or browned food
For more information, visit www.healthyhedonist.co.uk
About the author: Becky Graham is a registered nutritional therapist based at the renowned Institute for Optimum Nutrition in Richmond, London. She is trained in functional medicine, which uses a completely personalised approach to nutrition, working with a wide range of conditions from stress and low energy to digestive or hormonal imbalances. As well as working with clients on an individual basis, Becky works with large companies to support health and wellbeing initiatives. Combining nutrition with work in television, she is passionate about supporting busy lifestyles with food.