Nutritional therapist Dave Reavely takes a look at which foods can calm or promote inflammation

Did you know that injuries can be significantly influenced by diet alone?

Inflammation and injuries

Inflammation is the body’s defence system. It is nature’s way of destroying microbes (as in a feverish condition when the temperature is raised). Inflammation is, in essence, the cornerstone of the body’s healing response, bringing about an increase in nourishment and immune activity to the area where injury or infection has occurred.

Problems arise when that inflammation persists and serves no purpose, damaging tissues and causing illness. This is typified in conditions such as arthritis when the joints are inflamed and painful. Having experienced this myself with an arthritic knee from the age of nine, it later steered me towards the study of nutrition. My research led me to believe that arthritis could be greatly influenced by dietary choices.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that eating certain types of foods can encourage inflammation in the body. Conversely, consuming foods such as vegetables and fruits can reduce inflammation, which is why the aptly named Mediterranean diet, which consists of copious amounts of vegetables with the addition of fruits, olive oil, nuts, seeds and some oily fish, is recommended as an anti-inflammatory diet.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that eating certain types of foods can encourage inflammation in the body

For more information on the types of foods to eat have a look at Dr Weil’s website. He is an authority on the subject and has devised a food pyramid which is an excellent guide.

Repetitive injuries?

Athletes want to avoid repetitive injury problems – any downtime is not a good time! Of course, there can be lots of reasons why injuries manifest themselves. Biomechanical imbalances such as poor posture can cause misalignments in the spine, which can cause hip and knee issues. It could also be the direct result of trauma, such as an ankle inversion injury. These problems obviously need professional help from a therapist such as a physiotherapist.

Nevertheless, it’s amazing how little is known about how diet can affect the body’s entire musculoskeletal system. As a nutritional therapist with a background in PE and fitness, I’ve had plenty of time to assess the impact of diet on athletes in terms of their performance and their propensity to develop injuries. Moreover, the most important thing I’ve learned is that if we eat the wrong foods, we also encourage the body to become too acidic. This isn’t good because in health the blood should be slightly alkaline with a pH of around 7.4. High acidity encourages systemic inflammation in the body.

Let me sum this up with this simple equation: wrong food choices = acidity = inflammation = increased risk of joint injuries + slower recovery rate. Conversely, correct food choices = an alkaline state = low inflammation = decreased risk of injuries + quicker recovery rate.

Animal proteins

Foods containing arachidonic acid, such as organ meats (including liver, heart and giblets), beef, eggs and dairy products actually promote inflammation. This is because the body breaks down the acid into inflammatory compounds, including the hormone-like substances such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes that control the mechanisms of inflammation. These same mechanisms constrict blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and increase the body’s tendency to form blood clots.

High acidity encourages systemic inflammation in the body

What’s more, foods cooked at high temperatures (including French fries, barbecued foods, fried meats and deep fat frying) initiate complex biochemical reactions that promote an inflammatory response in the body. Of course, this can have huge implications for athletes, resulting in an increased likelihood of joint inflammation and therefore injuries and especially in areas of the body that are subjected to the greatest stress – weight-bearing joints such as the spine, hips and knees.

Conclusion

If you’re serious about increasing your resistance to injury and wish to speed up your recovery when injuries do occur, the foundation of your diet should be mostly plant-based as shown below:

» Vegetables: Use a wide variety including carrots, beetroot, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage (all kinds), radishes, kohlrabi, courgettes, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, squashes (all kinds), avocados, all manner of green leafy veggies such as lettuce (all kinds), watercress, spinach, kale, chard and sprouted seeds such as sunflower, broccoli, radish, mung beans and alfalfa sprouts. These are all rich in antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids and vitamins and minerals.

» Fruits: These should be eaten in moderation compared to vegetables due to their sugar content. They are naturally anti-inflammatory and contain heaps of nutrients, including antioxidants which help to protect the body from destructive molecules called free radicals.

» Raw nuts and seeds: The likes of sunflower, pumpkin, chia seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts contain natural fats that are important for your health. The best ones for lowering inflammation are: pumpkin, almonds, walnuts, pecans, flax seeds and chia seeds. Flax seeds and chia seeds contain the most Omega-3 essential fats, which help to lower inflammatory processes in the body. They’re also great for lowering bad cholesterol and help to keep the blood vessels pliable.

» Oils for cooking and salad dressings: The best oils are extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil and chia oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the best for cooking as it can withstand higher temperatures without damage to the healthy fats. However, chia and flax seed oils should not be heated as it damages the essential fats.

Health warning

Some of the worst fats are known as “trans fats”, found in some margarines and processed foods. They not only damage your body, they even compete with the healthy fats, making them unavailable to the cells. Despite the advertisements in supermarkets stating the contrary, avoid using polyunsaturated oils such as safflower and sunflower oils. Cooking damages these and when they enter the body they also damage cells and promote inflammation.

» Foods/drinks that calm inflammation

Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices (eg: ginger and cat’s claw, turmeric), juices, herbal teas, raw nuts and seeds, healthy fats (eg: extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil)

» Foods/drinks that feed inflammation

Eggs, refined carbs (white rice, white bread, pasta), dairy products, meats, wheat/gluten, alcohol, coffee, tea, milk, bad fats (eg: safflower oil, sunflower oil)

» David Reavely is a nutritional therapist, the author of several books and a fully qualified fitness instructor. See fooddetective.co.uk