Inflammation is a natural response by the body to injury – such as when you sprain an ankle, or scrape a knee – but it is not always a benign process. Many ailments, such as joint pain and auto-immune thyroiditis (Hashimoto’s disease), involve inflammation, and by keeping the inflammation under control, it is often possible to lessen other symptoms of the disease or condition.
How Can Dietary Changes Lessen Inflammation?
Our bodies make inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins from the nutrients in the food we eat. It’s important that these stay in balance – if someone eats too many pro-inflammatory foods, the body makes more inflammatory prostaglandins. Conversely, if someone eats a larger proportion of anti-inflammatory foods, such as those containing high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, the body produces anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, and inflammation in the body is reduced.
Many foods and food types have now been given an IF (Inflammation Factor) rating, and you can check the rates of individual foods here.
The rest of this article gives an overview of the inflammatory ratings of vegetables and grains.
Root and Leafy Vegetables – the Great Neutrals
Most vegetables do not contain any significant anti-inflammatory properties, but nor do they contain the saturated fats that have inflammatory actions. On balance, they are mildly anti-inflammatory, largely because of their antioxidants. Spinach and greens (including kale, collards and mustard greens) are great choices, as are onions, leeks, carrots, and garlic. Bear in mind that spinach depletes the body’s zinc, so supplement occasionally if you find spinach irresistible too often, or eat some pumpkin, sesame or squash seeds as snacks to retain the correct balance.
Soy’s Anti-inflammatory Effect
Soy contains isoflavones that have some cardioprotective effect due to their structural similarity to estrogen. In addition, a study in 2015 (1) found that the isoflavones improved women’s CRP concentration – CRP, or C-reactive protein, is a protein in the blood that indicates inflammation. The higher the CRP concentration, the more inflammation is present in the body. (A CRP test, which is widely available, will confirm the extent of any inflammatory condition.) However, soy is a goitrogen (a form of food that promotes the growth of goitres), and its isoflavones are inhibitors of thyroid peroxidase (which makes the hormones T4 and T3 in the body). A 1991 study in Japan confirmed that soy consumption can both cause goitres and suppress thyroid function. Occasional soy consumption is not considered a problem, but supplementation should be avoided.
Beans and Legumes are Surprisingly Inflammatory
Beans and legumes are great, healthy alternative sources of protein for vegetarians, and provide lots of fibre. But they’re quite high in starches and sugars, which raise blood sugar slightly, and so they’re considered slightly inflammatory. But note that green beans and lentils are very anti-inflammatory, so they’re great additions to a daily diet. Other legumes and beans can be eaten fairly regularly if balanced out with some anti-inflammatory foods, such as chillies, onions or garlic (which also add some much-needed flavour).
Eat Hot Herbs and Spices to Counter Inflammation
Hot spices such as ginger, cayenne, chili pepper and turmeric have been used successfully to treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, so Indian and Thai curries make a great addition to any anti-inflammatory diet. Garlic and cayenne also contain selenium, which is important for thyroid function.
Herbs with a notable anti-inflammatory action include nettle and ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo’s renowned effect as a brain-stimulator is thought to be linked to its anti-inflammatory action and the fact that it increases circulation.
Fruits and Inflammatory Factors
Pineapples are high in an enzyme called bromelain, which has a strong anti-inflammatory action. Unfortunately it is only found in fresh pineapple, not canned or cooked forms, and since fresh pineapple has a noticeable laxative action when taken in quantity, this may be one fruit that’s worth absorbing in supplement form.
The best fruits to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet are strawberries, melon, lemons, limes, rhubarb, raspberries, grapefruit and guava. Unfortunately two of the most delicious fruits – banana and mango – are mildly inflammatory, and should be eaten only rarely by anyone with an inflammatory condition.
Inflammatory Rating of Grains and Seeds
Surprisingly, many grains and seeds are slightly inflammatory, as most have a high omega-6 fat content in relation to their omega-3 levels, but their value in terms of nutrients and fibre content mean that they make a good snack option in moderation.
Most nuts are high in fats, but are mildly anti-inflammatory, due to their monounsaturated fat content and great balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid content. The one exception is walnuts, which should be eaten more rarely, as they are known to have a much higher level of omega-6 fatty acids.
Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium, which is important to thyroid function, so a couple of Brazil nuts every day make a perfect snack.
What About Dairy Products and Inflammation?
Dairy products such as cheese, milk and yoghurt are high in saturated fats, which have inflammatory effects. For this reason, lower-fat versions should be chosen in any anti-inflammatory diet, or avoided altogether. Anyone who can’t resist should choose cottage cheese, non-fat cream cheese, plain yoghurt and egg whites – avoid egg yolks, goose and duck eggs, fruit yoghurts, ice cream and hard cheeses as much as possible.
Interestingly, dairy foods and egg yolks contain iodine, which is needed to convert the thyroid hormones (from T4 to T3). But milk is high in calcium, so shouldn’t be taken within four hours of thyroid medication. The rule of thumb here may be to allow yourself a small amount of milk each day, but confine it to the afternoon or evening.