The evidence for the health benefits of anti-inflammatory foods keeps building, with a recent University of South Carolina study showing a strong link between inflammatory foods and gastrointestinal-tract cancers.
The study, funded by the university’s Center for Colon Cancer Research and presented as a poster at a recent American Institute of Cancer Research meeting, took a fresh look at existing dietary data from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study from 1987-2003.
Using an inflammatory diet index developed by James Hebert, director of the South Carolina Statewide Cancer Prevention and Control Program and a distinguished professor at the University of South Carolina, researchers determined that participants with an anti-inflammatory diet were 400 percent less likely to die from gastrointestinal cancers.
Susan Steck, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at the university, cautioned that the sample size for GI deaths in the study is small. The 400 percent number shouldn’t be the takeaway as much as the growing evidence that diet can play a major role in diseases such as esophageal, stomach and colorectal cancer. And an inflammatory diet can contribute to higher rates of those cancers.
Foods high in saturated or trans fats, sugar and gluten are especially inflammatory on the digestive tract. Alcohol, white bread and milk (but not low-fat milk) also are inflammatory.
Fruits and vegetables and many non-processed foods are anti-inflammatory, and so are many spices such as turmeric, ginger, oregano and garlic.
While it doesn’t exactly make you feel warm and fuzzy, inflammation is the body’s totally healthy response to injury and infection, a way of defending ourselves by sending immune cells and key nutrients to the areas that need them most.
How do those fighter cells get there? Via increased blood flow, which in turn creates the redness, warmth, swelling and pain you likely associate with the word “inflammation.” Say you cut your finger, and notice it turns a little red. “That’s inflammation,” says Dee Sandquist, RD, CDE, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson. “It helps to heal your finger.”
But a small red cut that heals over time is entirely different from a state of chronic inflammation. This can be quite dangerous, in fact. When inflammation as an immune response is never “shut off,” so to speak, the constant production of immune cells can do permanent damage, leading to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s, among other health concerns. “When we don’t see the inflammation system switch off, we end up in a detrimental state,” says Julie Daniluk R.H.N., author of Meals That Heal Inflammation.
The causes of chronic inflammation can vary person to person, but include being overweight, experiencing lots of stress and even breathing polluted air, Women’s Health reported. Lifestyle choices, like smoking or lack of exercise, also play a role. “Sedentary lifestyle, lack of sleep — we have these repetitive insults that increase longer-term inflammation,” says Jessica Black, N.D., author of The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Recipe Book.
The foods we choose to eat — or not to eat — can also affect inflammation. Getting your fair share of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and omega-3 fatty acids — similar, yes, to the Mediterranean diet — has been suggested to have anti-inflammatory effects. “Diet can serve as a protective function,” says Sandquist. “When our bodies are best nourished, we’re able to heal quicker if we do cut our finger and maybe even prevent chronic inflammation.” It’s likely that no one food is to blame for causing inflammation, she says, but that your overall diet could contribute.