Inflammation -- a ramped-up immune system -- seems to be linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, and even the very fact of aging. Some foods, it turns out, promote inflammation. Others damp it down.
Shara Yurkiewicz, our 2009 summer intern, wrote a fairly extensive Health section article on the issue of anti-inflammatory foods -- you can read it right here. She noted that there's an awful lot of over-the-top prose about anti-inflammation diets --"amazing results in just 30 days!" etc. etc. -- but also that there is some science to it all -- animal studies, cell culture studies, even some in people -- and that the science in this area is developing.
In broad brush strokes, fish oil, curcumin, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables -- they're anti-inflammatory. Saturated fats, trans fats, corn and soybean oil, refined carbohydrates, sugars -- they're pro-inflammatory.
Now some scientists are trying to paint with a narrower brush. They've come up with -- and tested -- an inflammation index for foods.
First, the scientists did a literature search and put together a list of foods with anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory properties. They came up with 42.
Top of the list on the bad, pro-inflammation end: carbs. Top at the anti-inflammatory end (should you be interested, but we caution you not to run out and immediately start consuming massive amounts in a quest to live forever): magnesium.
That was step one. In step two, the researchers decided to test whether the people's diets gelled with the levels of inflammation you could measure in their blood. So they tested it 494 people. The participants were asked periodically over the course of a year what they ate, and it was all cataloged very precisely. Samples of their blood were assessed for levels of a protein called CRP, which is a marker of inflammation as well as a risk factor for heart disease.
The scientists found that the measure worked, and that diet and inflammation indexes matched up in a broad sense -- i.e. those eating a lot of anti-inflammatory foods had lower CRP levels, and vice versa. (It wasn't a smooth, continuous relationship, however.) This supports the idea that diet really does influence your inflammation, even after controlling for other lifestyle factors.
The researchers say that their index could be a great tool for research but that it could also help people who are trying to reduce levels of inflammation in their bodies to lower their risk for chronic diseases. Though you'd think most of us could get a long way by just remembering: Carbs and fat and stuff, EAT LESS. Produce, nuts and fish and stuff: EAT MORE.
The study was done by researchers at the University of South Carolina and the University of Massachusetts, and published in the Journal of Nutrition. You can read it here.
-- Rosie Mestel
Photo credit: Kirk McKoy