Can you prevent inflammation by eating well?
Inflammation pops up in nearly all the conversations I have about long-term health and preventing illness. This is because it is the cause of many of the illnesses that dominate the NHS budgets. However, many of these illnesses are at least somewhat preventable and at the very least can be postponed. By this I mean that by making adjustments to our day to day lives we can improve our health outcomes significantly. This of course is not news. We are told this constantly! We can indeed prevent inflammation and therefore greatly reduce our risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even COVID-19, by eating well.
I have made a short video on inflammation called What is inflammation, anyway? which, if you don’t know much about it, I recommend you watch. In this article I’d like to take a deeper dive into the dietary elements of inflammation, and how this can help you prevent disease.
The ZOE Nutrition Study
A recent study involving 1000 people (that’s quite a lot in nutrition terms) has looked into the inflammatory effects of eating. Yes, the act of eating itself produces a certain amount of inflammatory compounds. And while we have known for some time that some foods seem to be protective and prevent inflammation and inflammatory diseases, this study has shown how. One other thing that this study shows is that the response to different foods varies widely from person to person and really does show that personalised nutrition is going to be extremely useful in the future. Personalised nutrition however involves lots of testing, is quite expensive, and although it can be very valuable it isn’t going to be possible for everyone. But, the study has given us some very useful findings that we can safely say will help most of us.
The things that increase postprandial (after eating) inflammation are, perhaps unsurprisingly, fat, sugar and processed foods. This, interestingly, includes processed plant-based proteins like Quorn. Over a lifetime, this chronic contact with inflammatory metabolites (including those in our environment) is what leads lead to diseases like cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It’s the individual’s response to fat and sugar nutrients that is so highly personalised. However there are some fairly universal things that can dampen this response, and over time can reduce one’s exposure to inflammation.
The advice for some time has been that fruits and vegetables are protective against heart disease, cancer and dementia and the PREDICT study has shown that the polyphenols present in these foods, especially those with vibrant colours like reds, purples and greens (eat a rainbow!) counteract the inflammatory compounds produced as a result of eating.
We’ve also known that fibre plays an integral role in preventing disease. The study found that some microbiota in the gut increase an inflammatory marker called GlycA. Some beneficial bacteria lower GlycA and some unhelpful bacteria raise it. A reliable way to improve beneficial bacteria is to eat more fibre. Fibre, again, comes from fruits and vegetables and also whole grains. Although I mentioned above that processed plant-based proteins can increase inflammation, this isn’t so for unprocessed ones. Beans, lentils and pulses raise beneficial bacteria and lower inflammation.
As we are talking about post-prandial inflammation, this effect of eating polyphenols and fibre it seems, can lower the inflammatory response of processed foods when eaten alongside them. So if you do want to eat a bowl of Frosties or Krave for breakfast, adding some blueberries might cancel out some of the negative after-effects.
The take home message is eat more fruit and veg, especially purple, red and dark green ones and eat more foods that are close to their original form and less processed ones. And if you do eat junk (which lets face it, who doesn’t on occasion?), have something healthy with it.