Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

There are over 1,000 books about anti-inflammatory diets and an internet search brings up almost eight million hits. Why the sudden interest? What is the connection between diet and inflammation? And most importantly, are there foods that can protect us from inflammation?

Anti-inflammatory Diets: The Facts Behind the Hype

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s natural defence against injury or infection. This is a good thing. It’s how your body heals from simple cuts and scrapes to more serious injuries such as burns. Inflammation is meant to only last a short time until the wound is healed.

When inflammation begins, special cells are released that attack and kill the infected or injured tissues so that new healthy cells can replace them. If it lasts too long and becomes chronic, these special cells start to attack and destroy healthy tissues. For example, when there is chronic inflammation in blood vessels, these cells can irritate the lining of the blood vessels and cause them to produce plaque. As the plaque continues to build, it causes the blood vessels to harden and become narrower. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

In other tissues, this irritation and attack can lead to diseases such as cancer, arthritis and dementia.

What are the foods that stop chronic inflammation?

Foods that are believed to stop or decrease chronic inflammation are commonly described as anti-inflammatory. They include pulses and whole grains, vegetables and fruits, spices and tea. Keep in mind that this a new area of research and more work has to be done to understand exactly how these foods stop inflammation.

Pulses and whole grains
Dietary fibre, mainly fermentable fibre, has a strong anti-inflammatory effect. This is the kind of fibre that the colon’s healthy bacteria can use for food. Fermentable fibre is found in legumes (dried peas and beans) and whole grains. All types of fibre have health benefits, so, for overall health, it’s best to aim for a diet that is high in fibre from a variety of sources.

Spices, herbs and garlic contain natural plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects. The list includes turmeric, ginger, garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano, saffron, pepper and cloves. Although we do not yet know how much you have to eat to get the maximum benefit, it’s great news that using either fresh or dried herbs and spices may actually benefit your health while making your food taste even better.

Vegetables and fruit
Vegetables and fruit contain many nutrients, such as vitamin C and phytochemicals, thought to be anti-inflammatory. These phytochemicals and their sources include the following:

  • Beta-carotene: dark green and orange vegetables and fruit
  • Flavonols: onions, apples, squash, spinach and kale
  • Flavanones: oranges and grapefruit
  • Flavones and isoflavones: parsley, celery and soy
  • Anthocyanins: berries, cherries and red cabbage

Rather than just adding one of these vegetables or fruit to your diet, eat a variety for the greatest anti-inflammatory effect.

Both green and black tea, either regular or decaffeinated, can help fight inflammation. Herbal teas, while healthy choices, do not have the same anti-inflammatory compounds.

Fatty fish
Fish, such as salmon and sardines, contains omega-3 fats, a healthy fat. This type of fat reduces inflammation and decreases cell damage.

The bottom line

There are no superfoods that are anti-inflammatory. Therefore, when choosing your diet, it is wise to focus on the whole food rather than specific nutrients. The greatest effect is achieved when different anti-inflammatory compounds in food work together. Keep in mind that other lifestyle factors, such as lack of activity and stress, also lead to inflammation. Therefore, in addition to diet, healthy behaviours, such as stress management and increased physical activity, will also protect you from inflammation.

Lee Finell

Registered Dietitian

Lee (MHSA, RD) is a registered dietitian and nutrition educator at Alberta Milk. She writes articles and develops programs and resources that help Albertans translate the science of nutrition into healthy food choices.

Article posted on July 1, 2016

Active Tip

Walk or cycle to work, to the store with the kids, or on your lunch break. Forty-five percent of Canadians say that walking is the physical activity they do most often. It is by far the major outdoor activity for women.

The Expert Says

When choosing your diet, it is wise to focus on the whole food rather than specific nutrients. The greatest effect is achieved when different anti-inflammatory compounds in food work together.