Acute inflammation is a natural and beneficial bodily response to a trauma such as a broken bone or the presence of a foreign substance like the venom in a bee sting.  It usually involves swelling, heat, and pain and serves to prevent further harm.

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is low-level, ongoing inflammation that is caused by an imbalance in our diet and lifestyle and which adds up over time, contributing to numerous maladies including Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, insomnia, tendinitis, and many autoimmune diseases.

That’s a long list, but when you consider that chronic inflammation keeps the body in a constant state of offense and damage control in the absence of an actual threat you can begin to understand why the implications are so numerous and broad.  In the presence of inflammation and the absence of a clear foe, the body attacks itself.

The chances that you are suffering from chronic inflammation are extremely high.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) and a stressful lifestyle are major causes of chronic inflammation.  Thankfully, these are things are within your control.

I won’t spend time here on the topic of stress except to refer you to my posts on mental health and in particular the why and how of a mindfulness practice.

Instead I will focus on the primary cause of chronic inflammation: diet.

A rating system known as the Inflammation Factor (IF) has been devised to rate foods on a scale from anti-inflammatory (positive numbers) to inflammatory (negative numbers).  For example, garlic is very anti-inflammatory, with an IF of 215 per tablespoon, whereas broccoli is also anti-inflammatory, but less so, having an IF of 60 for a half cup (cooked).  Firm tofu is somewhat inflammatory, with an IF of -22 for a half cup, and graham crackers are more so, with an IF of -104 per ounce.

You can look up the Inflammation Factor of a given food at inflammationfactor.com/look-up-if-ratings or nutritiondata.self.com. The folks responsible for the former website have an iPhone app so you can have a handy reference.  The latter site provides lots of additional nutritional information.

It’s not always easy to guess the IF of a certain food so spending a little time looking up the things you regularly eat and drink is time well-spent.  Hopefully the lists below will give you a more general understanding of where things fall on the spectrum of inflammatory to anti-inflammatory.

Foods that tend to be inflammatory:

  • Omega-6 fats
  • Grains (wheat, rice, corn)
  • Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Fried foods
  • Trans fats
  • Grain-fed meats
  • Alcohol
  • Fruit juices
  • Coffee and caffeinated beverages
  • Foods with a high glycemic index

Foods that tend to be anti-inflammatory:

  • Omega-3 fats
  • Whole foods
  • Coldwater fish (salmon, herring, anchovy, tuna, trout)
  • Fish oils (I recommend this one for potency and palatability)
  • Fresh vegetables (kale, greens, onions, broccoli, chard, squash, lettuce, pumpkin, carrots)
  • Herbs and Spices (garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, turmeric, parsley, basil, cilantro)
  • Peppers (Serrano, Jalapeño, chili, banana)
  • Almonds
  • Grass-fed meats
  • Water and herbal teas

The good news is that IF is like a bank account, the positives offset the negatives and vice-versa.  If you eat something with an IF of -100 and then eat something with an IF of 101, you’re up by 1.  If you want to keep track, aim to end your day with a score of 50 or higher.

However, I recommend the more practical approach of not stocking the more inflammatory foods, taking fish oil (or other omega-3) supplements, and incorporating more of the anti-inflammatory foods into your regular diet, especially the potent and easily-added garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, and turmeric.

Small but significant changes to your regular routine can mean the difference between chronic disease and vitality.