Inflammation is normal – whether you are aware of it or not, your immune system is creating inflammation to protect your body from things like sickness or injury. It is one of the most amazing and crucial responses in the body! However, it needs to be kept in check.
Short-term (acute) symptoms can happen fast – think sudden temperature rises, pain or swelling – it is our body releasing troops to help clear out the traitors with the message received from the marshals, cytokines. This short-term inflammation isn’t something to fear.
However, what happens when the troops don’t know when to back down? Longer-term (chronic) inflammation tends to happen slower (low grade) and less severe. It may start as an acute inflammation that doesn’t get the message to stop. This leads to things being attacked that shouldn’t be – such as arteries, organs, joints. Symptoms instead look like ongoing fatigue, mouth ulcers, poor sleep, suppressed mood, irritable bowel or frequent illness. Chronic inflammation can link to things like diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
So what is the role of food in all of this and why should we be considering anti-inflammatory foods?
Ultra-Processed foods (like preserved meats, fried foods and packaged biscuits) and higher sugar intakes play a part in inflammation. It may be due to the frequent peaks of high blood sugar levels and/or the impact of the ultra-processed foods on our gut microbiome creating havoc with immune system function. Because of this, our goals with food are to aim for a high quality diet with plenty of variety (read: colour) and only a moderate intake of the ultra-processed foods. Yep – the old message of moderation!
By having a diet with lots of colour and variety, we will be maximising foods high in polyphenols – a natural chemical in food that can act as an antioxidant and may help in reducing inflammation.
Foods that are high in these polyphenols may not come as a surprise and they are very much aligned to foods you will find in a Mediterranean type diet. Nothing crazy, nothing expensive and all about food that you can access easily.
Diet-shifting to include these foods can sometimes seem daunting, but don’t feel like you need to reach perfection here all at once. Dream big, but start small. Focus on changes that are about:
- what you can enhance your current intake with
- what you can ADD in
- Not obsessing over restriction or limiting other foods.
- When we start adding all of these nourishing foods in, you will start to feel the rewards and leave less room (and less motivation) to choose the ultra-processed foods.
Here is a list of some foods to get you started
The more variety and in season the better! Including berries such as blackberries, cherries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries are great, and so are the autumnal fruits like apples, grapes, citrus, pears and plums.
If you can aim for some different types and colours over the week. No need to get too fancy, options like broccoli, carrots, spinach, capsicum, tomatoes and even potatoes!
If you don’t yet include these into your days, get on it! An awesome anti-inflammatory food but also such a powerhouse in fibre and protein. Options like beans, tofu, chickpeas and lentils are all great.
Things like Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), oily fish (such as mackerel and salmon), plus nuts and seeds. There is no one type of nut or seed that triumphs over them all. Every single nut comes with a different profile of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
The grains pack a punch when it comes to nutrients, but also help support your gut microbiome with fibre. Aim for high quality grains such as oats, rye and quinoa as a start.
Herbs & Spices:
It is so easy to add these in. Embracing the additions of mixed herbs, cinnamon, cumin, curry powder and turmeric are all great places to start.
A note on dairy and gluten –
There is no evidence that dairy and gluten add to inflammation UNLESS there is an intolerance or allergy to these foods, such as lactose intolerance, dairy allergy, gluten sensitivity or Coeliac Disease.
It may be easy to fall into the thought of, ‘well if some anti-inflammatory foods is good, then more must be better’. However, not necessarily! There is evidence to suggest that chronically supplementing with high doses of anti-inflammatories could REDUCE your training adaptations!
So, when the risk of illness is high (such as when travelling or nearing a key event), supplementing with things like antioxidants (Vit C for example), may be worth considering. However, when the goal is training response, improvements in performance and increasing training load, remember a little bit of inflammation and stress response is a POSITIVE!
Inflammation is the body’s natural response and is a good thing in the short-term. However, if there are long-term inflammation symptoms, then looking at your diet and adding some key ingredients can help. Focus on making changes that last by adding in good foods, rather than obsessing over restrictions. You’ll be less stressed, happier and healthier in the long run.
Advanced Sports Dietitian and co-founder of the performance focused athlete dashboard, Compeat Nutrition
Alicia Edge is an Advanced Sports Dietitian and co-founder of the performance focused athlete dashboard, Compeat Nutrition. When she isn’t wrangling her 3 young kids, she is supporting a range of athletes, from everyday active to professional, achieve their definition of performance.
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