Ginger, nuts, fatty fish and whole grains are just some of the many foods that have been touted to have anti-inflammatory properties. But do they work?
It turns out that experts agree that eating a diet rich in such foods may in fact help lower the levels of inflammation in the body. But they stress that adding or increasing the consumption of any one food is likely not going to have a profound effect on one's health.
In a new, small study, published this month in the Nutrition Journal, researchers found that men who consumed flaxseed for 42 days experienced a significant decrease in inflammatory markers compared with men who didn't consume flaxseed. In another study, published in October 2011 in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, the authors found that taking ginger root extract appeared to reduce markers of colon inflammation. And, according to the results of a study published in August 2011 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, curcumin (the main compound in the spice turmeric, which is used in curry) could help suppress biological mechanisms that lead to the inflammation in diseases of the tendons.
"There is abundant evidence [that foods can help lower inflammation], and it is not as if this is something we are not sure about in science," said Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. "I think what we are still learning is the mechanism in which it occurs."
Rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are some of the conditions that have been linked with higher levels of inflammation.
However, Kirkpatrick stressed that adding just one specific food to your diet is unlikely to work wonders for lowering inflammation, or for improving health in general.
"If you follow a very sound diet that has plenty of produce, plenty of plant-based foods like nuts and whole grains — that really helps in general to reduce overall inflammation throughout the entire body," Kirkpatrick told Live Science. And the reduction in inflammation that can come from a changing your diet can be very significant, but it only works if you eat such foods across the board.
Kirkpatrick also stressed that people who take dietary supplements don't get the same results as those who consume real foods that have anti-inflammatory properties.
Moreover, in order to lower inflammation through diet, it is also important to stay away from foods that can promote inflammation, such as sugar, she said. [7 Foods You Can Overdose On]
"So it is not just about adding these things in, it is also about taking pro-inflammatory foods out," Kirkpatrick said.
Dr. Monica Aggarwal, a cardiologist and a member of the Heart Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, agreed. "There is a lot of data that suggests that we are eating too many inflammatory foods," such as meat, eggs, dairy and processed foods that are high in preservatives, she told Live Science.
Aggarwal recommended that people eat less of such foods and eat more of such foods as fruits and vegetables that are full of lycopene and other carotenoids, which can help decrease inflammation. (Tomatoes and guavas are rich in lycopene; peppers, carrots and spinach are good sources of carotenoids, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
So, if you start eating a diet full of foods with possible anti-inflammatory compounds, and low in those with pro-inflammatory effects, can you expect to see a general improvement in your inflammation levels?
"I think it depends on what you were eating before — if you were eating the DASH diet, possibly not, but if you were eating the typical American diet before, which is so low in fruit and vegetables, definitely," said Julie Wylie-Rosett, a professor in the department of epidemiology and population health and the department of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York.
It is still not clear, however, how an actual anti-inflammatory diet compares with taking an anti-inflammatory medication regularly, she said."I don't think there has ever been a head-to-head comparison of an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern versus the use of drugs," Wylie-Rosett told Live Science.
"Food is medicine, but it is hard to compare medicine that is created in a lab with something that is grown in the ground to determine what is going to be beneficial," Kirkpatrick said. Depending on a person's condition, and the reasons for their inflammation, medication may be necessary, while food can be still be a nice add-on.