Updated November 2020

Inflammation is a hot topic in the medical community and has been shown to increase the risk of thrombosis and cardiovascular disease. However, you can reduce your risk of inflammation by monitoring your diet.

The connection between diet and inflammation

There are many different theories about the connection between different foods and inflammation. While many scientists know there’s a connection, the details of the connection have not been discovered yet. Inflammation can be caused by many different factors.

“Inflammation is complicated and there are multiple pathways that are relevant,” explained Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “I think that a lot of this is still in the area that I would call ‘emerging research’. There’s not a lot that is definitive.”

What scientists do know is that inflammation can be triggered by diseases that arise from unhealthy eating habits. According to Dr. Mozaffarian, that knowledge is the most direct and well-established connection between diet and inflammation.

“We know poor nutrition overall causes metabolic dysfunction, in particular insulin resistance and, ultimately, obesity. Those are major pathways for active inflammation,” Dr. Mozaffarian said. “Similarly, a good diet can improve metabolic risk and separately lead to weight loss, which can dramatically improve inflammation.”

“Independent of insulin and weight-related pathways, I think there are a lot of theories of possible inflammatory effects of different types of foods,” Dr. Mozaffarian remarked, explaining some of the additional nutrients believed to be involved in controlling inflammation. “Probably the most studied are omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, and newer bioactive flavonoids that are found in cocoa and teas. In experimental models, these substances have had anti-inflammatory or antioxidant effects, and clearly, that’s important. But I think we’re still trying to understand how that interaction works.”

Mediterranean diet

So, what type of diet can help you battle inflammation? Dr. Mozaffarian cites the Mediterranean diet as anoption, which has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

“For general health, I think that the most important thing is to focus on eating healthy foods,” he explained. “My simple rule is to avoid packaged or fast food and instead eat a lot of healthy fats from fish, oils, and nuts. I also advise plenty of fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.”

The “Mediterranean diet” mimics the natural diets of people who live along the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet involves:

  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

The diet also encourages lots of exercise and supports drinking red wine in moderation.

Foods to avoid

By avoiding overly processed foods, you can actually stop inflammation before it begins. “The main things to avoid in the food system are starch, sugar, and salt,” said Dr. Mozaffarian. Try to avoid buying pre-packaged foods and “white” foods, such as white bread, white rice, and certain pastas – these foods all contain high levels of starch.

The worst foods you can have? Soda and candy, according to Dr. Mozaffarian. “There’s no reason to have soda. If people want a sweet, have a little bit of ice cream or dark chocolate, nuts covered in honey, fruit, or any food that has some nutritional value.”

Dark chocolate, he explained, is made from cocoa beans, and ice cream has milk in it. Most other candies and treats have no such natural bases.

The bottom line

Embracing healthy eating can help combat inflammation, reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and help you stay clot-free.