Diet and Inflammation: What’s the link?

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What’s the link between diet and inflammation inside the body? We know that inflammation can cause all sorts of problems — everything from belly fat to heart disease, obesity, and cancer. It’s also associated with constipation, low energy, high cholesterol, anxiety, depression. Are there certain foods that are better at reducing inflammation? On the other side, what foods do you need to reduce or eliminate to lower inflammation in the body? Let’s address these issues in this article.

Acute versus Chronic Inflammation

Now, before jumping into the research, it’s important to understand there are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.

The acute type is a protective response that our body has to injury or infection. On the other, we need to be concerned about chronic inflammation.  This type of inflammation is linked to all sorts of diseases like stubborn belly fat, heart disease, diabetes, and even certain cancers.

We have lots of different ways of measuring inflammation in the body.  For example, we have markers such as Interleukin 6, C-reactive protein, tumor necrosis factor-alpha receptor 2, soluble intracellular adhesion molecule, or sICAM 1. Using these markers, we can look at the impact of food on inflammation inside our bodies.

Anti-inflammatory Foods

Foods linked with lower inflammation levels in the body have several things in common. They tend to be rich in antioxidants and fiber.  Also, they tend to have a high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids.  These anti-inflammatory foods include green leafy vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fruits, teas, coffee, and wine in moderation.

On the flip side, foods prone to causing inflammation in your body and the ones you want to minimize are things like red meat, processed meat, organ meat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-sweetened beverages.


Now, let’s look at some research.  In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dr. Jun Li and colleagues looked at which foods increased the risk of developing heart disease in men and women.  The authors looked at over 210000 healthy men and women from the Nurses Health Study 1, the Nurses Health Study 2, and the health professionals follow-up study.

The authors used a validated food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) every four years up to 32 years to look at dietary patterns.  Moreover, the FFQ was validated with both 24 hour recalls and multiweek dietary records. In other words, they compared the FFQ to what people stated eating in the last 24 hours and what their food diaries showed. This added an extra layer of accuracy to their data collection.

The authors then determined the participants Empirical Dietary Inflammatory Pattern (EDIP) score. According to Medpage today, the EDIP score is a weighted sum of 18 food groups.  Basically, the higher the score is, the more inflammatory markers are in the body and vice versa.


The authors found that those with the highest EDIP score had a markedly higher risk of heart disease by 46% and stroke by 28%. These results remained significant despite adjusting for age, race, menopause, anti-inflammatory medications, cholesterol and cholesterol medications, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.


Now, you want to keep in mind some limitations of the study. First, it’s an observational study, so you can’t conclude causality. In other words, you can’t say that inflammatory foods are causing heart disease or stroke. But there’s a robust link, not just in this data, but multitudes of other studies.

It is essential to know that there are inherent issues any time we look at food frequency questionnaires.  However, in this particular case, the authors did a really nice job of using a validated food frequency questionnaire confirmed with 24-hour recall and food diaries to make sure it was accurate.

Finally, there can always be a chance that a residual confounder exists that could affect the outcomes.

Bottom Line

So what is the take-home message?  The bottom line here is that higher intakes of inflammatory foods lead to higher amounts of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation in the body is linked to heart disease, stroke, obesity, and even certain cancers.

So as you think about what foods to eat, remember, a whole-foods, plant-based diet is anti-inflammatory by its definition. It consists of foods like green, leafy vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, whole grains, fruits, teas, coffee, and wine (in moderation).  On the flip side, be sure to minimize foods like red meat, processed meats, organ meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-sweetened beverages.


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Sean Hashmi MD
Articles: 56

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