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What is inflammation and is it all bad?

2 minute read

  • There are two types of inflammation
  • Some inflammation is beneficial and starts the healing process
  • Longer term inflammation is bad and linked to heart disease
  • Diet is a big contributing factor

You hear the word ‘inflammation’ and if you’re like me you automatically think it’s a bad thing. However, delving a bit deeper there’s a bit more to it.

Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting itself from infection, illness and injury. There are two types – good and bad.

Acute inflammation is the ‘good’ type and is the body’s normal response to microbes, tissue damage or metabolic stress. It happens when something harmful or irritating affects our body (e.g. you get a cut, burn or bruise) 1. When the inflammatory response is short-term, it serves a useful purpose by kick-starting our body’s defence system, protecting against further damage and helping us to recover.

Chronic inflammation is the ‘bad’ type and happens when the inflammation process goes on for too long, or if there is too much of it. This type is linked with a range of diseases, including heart disease, where it plays a major role in the development of atherosclerosis. This is when plaque builds up in your artery walls and over time can cause a heart attack or stroke. It is most commonly identified by high levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, which remain elevated over long periods of time.

When it comes to chronic inflammation, there is evidence to show that your diet, weight around your stomach, stress levels, smoking status, activity levels and amount of sleep can affect your overall health and risk of developing chronic disease.

Foods that cause inflammation

There are certain foods which, if eaten in abundance may, ‘switch on’ inflammatory processes within the body. Some of these foods have already been associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This isn’t surprising given that inflammation underlies the development of these diseases.

Foods that contribute to inflammation tend to be highly processed nutrient-poor foods:

Low-fibre, refined carbohydrates like white bread, crackers, donuts, cakes and pastries

Sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and fruit juices

Processed convenience and junk foods like confectionary, snack bars, potato chips, ice cream, microwave popcorn, biscuits and other sugary/salty snacks

Other foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fats like takeaways and deep fried foods.

Do any foods help to fight inflammation?

Over the last 10 years, there has been more and more research showing that eating certain foods reduces inflammatory markers. Therefore it may help to reduce the risk of inflammation and the severity of inflammation when it occurs with various diseases and conditions.

There are a range of different eating patterns that are anti-inflammatory and overall we know that they are based around foods that are whole, less processed, high in fibre, low in saturated fat, include omega-3 fats (especially from fish) and are rich in phyto-nutrients (found in plant foods). 

Some research shows that a traditional Mediterranean-style diet focused around fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil and fish is one way of achieving an anti-inflammatory diet. This is consistent with our existing advice on the Mediterranean diet because it decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, both in healthy people and those who already have heart disease.

We encourage basing your diet around the following whole and less processed anti-inflammatory foods:

Vegetables and fruit of a wide variety and range of colours. In particular, there is evidence for the anti-inflammatory benefits of leafy greens (i.e. broccoli, silverbeet, spinach, cabbage, bok choy), tomatoes and berries because they are high in antioxidants like Vitamin C 8.

Green leafy vegetables
Legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas

Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon, as well as other good sources of omega-3 fats like chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts.

Healthy oily fish

Nuts, seeds and healthy oils like olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil.

Nuts, seeds and oils

There is some research to show that drinking tea (e.g. black or green tea) and cooking with ginger, garlic and turmeric may be anti-inflammatory. Researchers are also investigating the inflammatory response of different food combinations. An example is with turmeric, where if eaten on its own, its actions in the body are limited. However if turmeric is consumed with black pepper (which contains the alkaloid piperine) the rate of absorption is greatly increased, amplifying its actions in the body.  

Although the research continues to emerge in this space, if you base your diet around anti-inflammatory foods, keep active and manage your stress, you are making great progress towards reducing your risk of chronic inflammation and subsequent illness. 

The good news is that most heart-healthy foods are also anti-inflammatory and you don’t need to follow a special diet to eat these foods. There are also plenty of affordable options to suit all food budgets (e.g. frozen berries, canned chickpeas, frozen spinach and canned salmon).

Whether you’ve had a heart event or wanting to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, there is no one single food that you should eat to make a big difference, it’s your overall diet. As you can see, there are plenty of different and affordable foods we can eat to help fight inflammation and support optimal heart health. 

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Apexgray are a progressive sportswear brand headquartered in Derby, UK. Using environmentally sensitive materials including Lyocell, recycled plastics and bamboo, our pieces are made in carefully selected sewing studios that comply with international workplace standards.

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Apexgray are a progressive sportswear brand headquartered in Derby, UK. Using environmentally sensitive materials including Lyocell, recycled plastics and bamboo, our pieces are made in carefully selected sewing studios that comply with international workplace standards.

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