“Anti-Inflammatory” has become a popular buzzword in the world of cancer and nutrition. Certain foods get marketed to us for their anti-inflammatory properties, which become connected to improved health.
In reality, there is no specific “anti-inflammatory diet” you can follow. There’s much more to the relationship between what we eat and inflammation than we’re led to believe. So, let’s take a deeper dive into what this actually means so you can make more informed decisions about how you eat.
Getting Acquainted with Your Immune System
The gastrointestinal tract (GI) has approximately 150 times more surface area than your skin. And it also makes up roughly 60% of our immune system because it contains the largest concentration of immune cells in our bodies.
A person’s ability to interact with the world around them and remain healthy is dependent to a large extent on a healthy immune system. The immune system fights foreign invaders to your body, like pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and destroys cells within the body when they become cancerous.
After an injury or infection, acute inflammation is the normal and healthy immune system response that contributes to healing. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is the body’s response to constantly fighting a perceived infection, and over time our system cannot handle the burden, resulting in an increased risk of certain diseases like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.
Research is starting to show that maintaining a healthy gut is essential for optimal immune function. This is important as our GI tract regulates the absorption of nutrients while keeping out damaging molecules and pathogenic organisms. If our immune system is compromised from chronic inflammation, there is an increased risk that pathogens can enter our bodies promoting disease.
Eating for a Healthy GI Tract
Plant-based foods contain lots of vitamins and minerals that help support new cell growth and maintain cell function. They are also becoming widely known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy GI tract is to consume lots of high fiber foods like whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, and legumes. Fiber is fermented by friendly bacteria in our colons into short-chain fatty acids, which act as an energy source for our GI tract immune cells. We can meet our high fiber needs by consuming a mostly plant-based diet.
Then there are B vitamins, which are important for supporting new immune cell growth. When we’re deficient in B vitamins, our immune cells can’t function properly, resulting in a weakened response to unwanted pathogens and abnormal cell development. This process is what leads to the progression of tumor cells.
To ensure adequate intake of B vitamins (B5, Folic Acid, B6, B1, and B12), here are some of the more common food sources you can to your diet:
Taking a B vitamin supplement may seem like the obvious solution for a deficiency, but it’s important to know that plant-based foods are not only made of B vitamins. Plant-based foods have several other nutrients, minerals, and phytonutrients, too. Taken together, foods give us even more tools to support a healthy immune system and lower our risk for chronic disease.
Evidence shows that certain foods can be linked to inflammation. When you eat a diet that’s heavy in foods such as red meat, processed meats, and trans fats, your body’s inflammation response will work overtime and potentially result in chronic inflammation, which increases your risk for chronic diseases and some cancers.
Pay Attention to Phytonutrients
Phytonutrients are chemical compounds in plants that help the plant thrive in various environments. Many of these phytonutrients that help protect plants also support our health — specifically in supporting our anti-inflammatory response.
Following a mostly plant-based diet allows us to consume foods that contain all the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that lower our body’s overall inflammation. This is especially important in reducing our risk of developing chronic diseases that are associated with chronic inflammation, like certain cancers and cardiovascular disease.
Making Sense of It All
This can feel like a lot of information all at once, but at the core of the matter it’s actually pretty simple: Eat more plant-based foods, eat the Rainbow of Color, and be sure to vary the types of foods you eat to ensure you’re getting as many phytonutrients and micronutrients as possible.
Kate Ueland, MS, RD specializes in oncology nutrition, primarily working with breast, ovarian, renal, and melanoma cancer patients throughout all stages of the cancer journey at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) in Seattle, WA. As Cook for Your Life’s nutrition advisor and editor, Kate ensures all culinary content adheres to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and follows science-based guidelines.