Live Longer With Anti-Inflammatory Foods – A Guide by CARE

Inflammation is often thought to be harmful. In fact, inflammatory processes serve as the body's crucial defense mechanism in response to injury and infection. Chronic inflammation, however, deserves the bad reputation since it often goes unnoticed for decades, contributing to some of the leading causes of death in Western countries, including lifestyle diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. You can reduce these risks with a balanced diet of anti-inflammatory foods. In this guide, CARE dives deep into how inflammation occurs, which foods have powerful anti-inflammatory effects, and which meals you're better off consuming only occasionally because they can promote or increase inflammation.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Nutrition
13 min read · Jan 04, 2024

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Table of content

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation has a bad reputation, but fundamentally, inflammatory processes play an important role in our health.

But what is inflammation anyway?

Inflammation is a complex biological response that serves as a protective mechanism against infection and tissue damage by mobilizing the immune system and promoting tissue repair.

While acute inflammation is critical to our health, chronic inflammation can disrupt our body's balance and lead to various diseases.

We can influence these inflammatory processes in our bodies with our diet. [1]

So, as soon as your body actively fights against a harmful irritant, inflammation occurs. Depending on the type of irritant and the severity and length of the inflammation, a distinction is made between acute and chronic inflammation [2].

The distinction between these two types of inflammation is essential. Indeed, some inflammation can go unnoticed in the body for decades and affect your health. You can reduce this risk with a balanced diet of anti-inflammatory foods [1].

We would now like to distinguish between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.

Acute Inflammation – A Reaction Of The Body

Acute inflammation refers to the body's rapid response to an injury or infection and is characterized by immediate onset and short duration. This form of inflammation is a defensive reaction of the body against invading microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Acute inflammation can also help remove toxins and harmful substances from your body. These substances or materials can be microorganisms and foreign bodies, such as a splinter or even pollen to which you are allergic.

Typical symptoms of acute inflammation may include stabbing pain like a cut or swelling and redness around a wound. [2]

Chronic Inflammation – The Long-lasting Culprit

In chronic inflammation, on the other hand, a variety of different irritants, such as food intolerances, allergies, environmental stresses, or poor lifestyle choices, cause the immune system to become permanently irritated.

This type of inflammation gradually worsens to the development of serious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and rheumatism. [2]

What symptoms can you note that might indicate a chronic inflammation?

What are the symptoms of chronic inflammation?

Unlike the clear and immediate signs of acute inflammation, the symptoms of chronic inflammation are more subtle. Many of the symptoms overlap with other health problems and therefore often go unnoticed for years.

A blood analysis by CARE can give you a comprehensive insight into your blood serum, which might have biomarkers that indicate chronic inflammation.

Some of the signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include:

  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Constipation, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Headaches
  • A fuzzy mental state, often referred to as "brain fog"

These symptoms either persist long-term or come and go over time [2].

And how can chronic inflammation like this develop?

How Does Chronic Inflammation Occur In The Body?

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Chronic inflammation occurs when the body's immune system continuously sends out immune responses even after the initial threat has subsided. This leads to harmful attacks on healthy tissue and the development of a persistent state of inflammation.

Tissue inflamed in this way continuously sends out alarm signals that trigger further immune responses from the body – creating a vicious cycle. Instead of promoting healing, this process leads to further tissue destruction.

Factors contributing to chronic inflammation include the body's inability to clear harmful substances, resistance of pathogens to the immune system, and immune system hypersensitivity in autoimmune diseases.

A study from 2020 comprehensively researched what unhealthy lifestyle habits can lead to persistent inflammation. [3]

CARE has summarized these unhealthy lifestyle habits for you:

Smoking – Promotes Inflammatory Processes

Smoking has been shown to accelerate inflammatory processes! The cells of the respiratory tract are damaged by so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are produced when tobacco is burned. [3]

The damaged airway cells send signals that activate an inflammatory response. With regular smoking, this leads to a state of constant damage and inflammation. However, once smoking is stopped, this process automatically reverses.

Lack of Exercise – Laziness Is Bad For The Body

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Studies have shown a link between a sedentary and inactive lifestyle and increased inflammation.

However, it has not been unanimously determined whether the increased inflammation is directly attributable to excessive sitting or potential correlating problems such as obesity, high blood sugar levels, or an unhealthy diet, all of which are associated with an inactive lifestyle. [3]

Therefore, it is recommended to get up and stay active during the day.

Obesity – Metabolic Inflammatory Syndrome

The adipose tissue of overweight people is different from normal adipose tissue. It is what is known as excess adipose tissue, which is used to store fat and whose fat cells, also called “adipocytes,” have become too large.

These altered fat cells produce pro-inflammatory signal molecules that put the immune system on constant alert and trigger inflammation. If these fat cells continue to increase in size and number, more pro-inflammatory signaling molecules are produced. [3]

Therefore, as a rule, people with higher weight also tend to have more inflammation. This condition is called metabolic inflammatory syndrome and is associated with several health problems.

Sleep Deprivation—Immune System Dysregulation

Lack of sleep is known to be associated with an increased inflammatory response in the body. Chronic sleep deprivation or inadequate sleep quality can lead to immune system dysregulation, resulting in increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

One study showed how sleep deprivation can impair the immune response, leading to increased inflammatory responses and a higher risk of disease [4].

Stress – “Fight-or-Flight” Releases Stress Hormones

Stress in moderation can be beneficial and lead to performance enhancements. In contrast, chronic stress, similar to chronic inflammation, has a negative impact on health.

The body's so-called fight-or-flight response, which is triggered by stress, is designed for survival in threatening situations. However, prolonged stress can lead to repeated release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, even when there is no (real) danger.

Over time, excessive cortisol release reduces the effectiveness of inflammatory regulation, and uncontrolled inflammation can result.

Aging – "Inflammaging"

Aging is associated with an increased risk of several age-related diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and cancer due to chronic inflammation. This persistent, low-level inflammation in seniors is known as inflammaging.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS), including free radicals, play an important role in the inflammatory process. ROS molecules are produced during cellular reactions and environmental exposures, causing cellular damage that triggers a chain reaction of inflammation.

The decline of the immune system with age further contributes to inflammation as immune regulation is weakened. This condition is further exacerbated by prolonged exposure to pollutants, UV radiation, and chemicals over time.

Genetic Predisposition – “Thanks, Dad”

Genetic predisposition plays an important role in the development of inflammation. Research suggests that certain genetic variants may increase the risk for chronic inflammation.

According to a study in the journal Immunological Reviews, genetic factors may influence the type and intensity of the immune response to inflammatory stimuli, thereby influencing the risk for chronic inflammation and associated diseases. [4]

Pro-inflammatory Lifestyle – Poor Diet Promotes Inflammatory Processes

Foods can either increase or decrease inflammation. Diets rich in trans fats and refined sugars are associated with increased production of pro-inflammatory molecules. [6]

In addition, certain foods also contribute to weight gain, which in turn leads to increased inflammation of adipose tissue.

Consequently, we would like to list some foods that can cause or aggravate inflammation:

Inflammatory Foods You Should Limit

If you would like to adjust your diet to reduce or prevent chronic inflammation, we have compiled an overview of the most important pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods.

This is not a strict diet but rather the conscious limitation or inclusion of certain foods. Only the exact composition of anti-inflammatory food will vary according to your individual characteristics (e.g., age, gender, lifestyle, and level of physical activity), locally available foods, and dietary habits.

However, the basic tenets of what constitutes a healthy diet remain the same. [1]

Refined Sugar – Not a “Refined” Choice

Excessive consumption of free sugars—refined sugars added to foods—not only increases the risk of tooth decay but also promotes unhealthy obesity.

New evidence shows that free sugar negatively affects blood pressure and blood lipid levels, indicating that reducing sugar intake reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. [5]

Therefore, in adults and children, WHO recommends reducing free sugar intake to less than 10% of total daily calories, while further reduction to less than 5% of total calories provides additional health benefits.

Refined Carbohydrates — Quick Blood Sugar Spikes

Refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour have a high glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that indicates how quickly foods containing carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels after consumption.

Foods with a high GI cause rapid blood sugar spikes, promoting insulin resistance, diabetes, and inflammation [6].

Trans Fats – Controversial Fats

Fats are not unhealthy per se but can be divided into pro-inflammatory (unhealthy) and anti-inflammatory (healthy) fats. Trans fatty acids, in particular, are considered inflammatory fats. These belong to the group of unsaturated fatty acids and have single or multiple double bonds in their chemical structure.

But it is only through various processes, such as hydrogenation (fat hardening) or through heavy and multiple frying or roasting, that these double bonds change, and the unhealthy trans fats are formed. So limit your consumption of fried foods.

Another process that creates trans fats is deodorization, a sub-process of refining vegetable oils to remove unwanted flavors [6].

Meat & Sausage – Beef Contains Trans Fats

Significant amounts of naturally occurring trans fatty acids can be found in the depot fat (slaughter fat) of ruminants, which includes cattle, sheep, goats, as well as deer [6].

Especially beef fat is almost completely used in food production and can be found, for example, in industrially produced sausage. [6]

Pure pork, on the other hand, does not naturally contain trans fats. Nevertheless, processed pork products, such as sausage or bacon, may contain trans fats if hydrogenated vegetable oils are used during its production. Therefore, eating a maximum of 300 to 600 g per meat per week is recommended.

Milk and Dairy Products – Moderation is The Keyword

Although milk and dairy products are often associated with improved bone health, dairy products with a high fat content in particular can be pro-inflammatory. This is due to the milk fat found in milk and dairy products, containing 3% to 6% trans fats. [6]

Therefore, moderate consumption of very fatty dairy products is advised. The WHO recommends reducing the intake of trans fats to less than 1% of total calories. The same applies to the consumption of saturated fats, which should be less than 10% of your total calories.

Instant Food – Contains Trans Fats

Specifically, industrially produced convenience foods, fried foods, and pre-made snacks and foods such as frozen pizza, baked goods, cookies, and cakes, as well as pies and cooking oils contain comparatively high levels of trans fats and therefore promote inflammation. [6]

So, limit your consumption of these foods and rather walk into the fresh food aisle once in a while or throw on the music and prepare yourself a freshly cooked meal.

Since it's never educationally sensible to issue bans and wag a reproachful finger, we'd now like to list anti-inflammatory foods that you may want to prioritize more in your diet.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods For A Healthy Diet

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Especially vegetables, but also fruits, play a crucial role in the prevention and reduction of (chronic) inflammation as a supplier of nutrients, fiber, as well as secondary plant compounds and antioxidants.

For diseases such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, and stroke, there is convincing evidence that increased consumption of vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of these diseases.

There is also likely evidence that the risk of developing common cancers can be reduced by eating certain vegetables and fruits. [7] Therefore, it is recommended to consume at least 400 g of vegetables daily.

Berries – Berry Anti-Inflammatory

Berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are rich in antioxidants, especially flavonoids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds help reduce the activity of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body, making berries a valuable addition to an anti-inflammatory diet. [7]

Citrus Fruits – Let’s Be A Little Sour

Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation by fighting free radicals. They also contain flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory effects and help promote a healthy immune response. [7]

Nuts and Seeds – Add More Crunch to Your Life

Nuts and seeds are rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as antioxidants, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce chronic inflammation.  [7]

A delicious way to incorporate them into your diet is to add ground flaxseeds or chopped nuts to yogurt, cereal or smoothies to enhance the flavor, add a little crunch, and, most importantly, nutrients to your meals.

Fermented Foods – The Secret From Babylon

Even in Babylon, people knew that fermented foods were healthy. Fermentation of foods in Babylon and other ancient civilizations was considered healthy because it helped preserve foods, improved their digestibility, enriched flavor and texture, and provided probiotic benefits.

Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi are rich in probiotic bacteria, which can promote intestinal health and have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. [7]

A tasty way to enjoy fermented foods is to serve them as a side dish with meals or incorporate them into sandwiches and salads to experience the variety of flavors and health benefits.

Spinach – Duh, Popeye said it

No wonder Popeye was so strong! Spinach is rich in antioxidants, especially vitamins C and E, as well as anti-inflammatory phytochemicals such as quercetin and kaempferol, which can help reduce the effects of inflammation in the body. [8]

To incorporate spinach into your diet, you can use it fresh in salads, blend it into smoothies, or steam it briefly and serve it as a side dish with fish or poultry to boost both flavor and nutrition.

Broccoli – What Looks Like A Tree Can Only Be Healthy

Broccoli is a great choice for you when it comes to anti-inflammatory nutrition. It's full of anti-inflammatory compounds, especially sulforaphane, which inhibits the activity of inflammatory enzymes in the body. [9]

You can incorporate broccoli into your diet by steaming, roasting, or adding it to soups and stews to benefit from its nutritious and anti-inflammatory potential.

Legumes – Team Hummus

Legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas are rich in fiber and anti-inflammatory antioxidants that can help reduce chronic inflammation. [6]

A delicious way to incorporate legumes into your diet is to use them in soups, stews, or salads or make them into puréed dips like hummus to combine flavor and health in one meal.

Onions and Garlic – CARE's Insider Tip

Onions and garlic contain sulfur compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce the body's production of pro-inflammatory molecules. [10]

To incorporate these healthy ingredients into your diet, you can use them in sauces, soups, and stir-fries, or soak garlic in olive oil to make a tasty dressing for salads and vegetables.

Insider tip: To prepare garlic without developing the typical garlic smell that will be enjoyed by the people surrounding you the next day, you can first skin the garlic cloves and then soak them in milk before using them. The milk will help break down the sulfur-containing compounds in the garlic that are responsible for the garlic odor. After soaking in milk, use the garlic as usual.

Anti-Inflammatory Food Against Inflammation

Even if the terms surrounding "inflammation" and "anti-inflammatory foods" seem complicated at times, the concept is quite simple: we have the ability to positively impact our health by making conscious choices about what we eat.

Anti-inflammatory foods are both a delicious and powerful weapon against inflammation in our bodies. While the inflammatory processes of acute inflammation, such as redness around a paper cut, are important for your body to heal, chronic inflammation is not desirable and can be detrimental to your health.

Eating anti-inflammatory foods can reduce the risk of chronic inflammation, which has been linked to many serious health problems, especially lifestyle diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

By adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, you can support your body's natural defense mechanisms while laying the foundation for sustainable, long-lasting health.

In your Health Check-ups with CARE, we can check the inflammatory levels in your blood and give you tips and tricks for an anti-inflammatory diet. As a specialist in blood analysis and preventive medicine, we would be happy to accompany you on your health journey and work with you on your long-lasting and optimized wellness.

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!