How does food influence chronic inflammation?

Eating the right foods can help you avoid chronic inflammation, a process in the body that can lead to health problems such as heart disease, arthritis, asthma and some forms of cancer.

What is inflammation?

“Inflammation is a part of our immune response,” says Zhaoping Li, MD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. When the body encounters injury or foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria, it releases inflammatory chemicals to protect itself. This type of inflammation is short-lived and doesn’t harm the body.

However, inflammation that occurs over a long period of time, or chronic inflammation, can cause disease.

What foods contribute to chronic inflammation?

Consuming too many calories and developing obesity, “sets the stage for low-grade, chronic inflammation,” says Dr. Li. “Beyond that, we know that saturated, animal-based fat promotes higher levels of inflammation in the body.” Overconsumption of refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and sugary drinks can also cause inflammation.

What foods can reduce chronic inflammation?

A balanced, plant-based diet can help your body avoid or reduce chronic inflammation, Dr. Li says. Foods that are known to contain anti-inflammatory compounds include:

  • Vegetables such as kale, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, garlic and onions
  • Fruits including blueberries, red cherries and pomegranates
  • Spices and herbs like turmeric, black pepper, red chili pepper and oregano
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat, brown rice and quinoa
  • Monounsaturated fats from nuts, avocados and olive oil
  • Fatty, ocean-caught fish including salmon, sardines and albacore tuna
  • Unsweetened tea, both green and black

Some of these foods have been used in Chinese medicine and folk medicine for thousands of years, says Dr. Li.

How much of these foods should I eat?

“Look at the food on your plate,” Dr. Li says. She recommends that half of the plate consist of vegetables, a quarter contain whole grains and a quarter have some lean protein. “On top of this, eat one or two fruits a day.” Fruit, a source of vitamins and other nutrients, also contains sugar, so moderation is important.

Adding just a teaspoon of turmeric or oregano to a dish can also be beneficial. “Spices tend to have high levels of anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says.

For more information on what anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet, or if you have concerns about your weight, contact the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.


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