Inflammation is one of those things the body needs – it signals the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, for example – but it’s also a key factor in countless diseases.
While a number of things can play a role in individual inflammatory responses, food researcher, biochemist and author Dr Barry Sears believes diet can be a powerful tool for helping manage inflammation – and it’s all about balance.
By eating the right mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates and vitamins, people can keep their body in a unique ‘resolution zone’, he says, where genes that cause inflammation can be ‘silenced’ and genes that reduce it can be ‘switched on’, leading to better health.
Sears, who researches the hormonal effects of food at the Inflammation Research Foundation in the USA, explores this further in his latest book – The Resolution Zone.
“Inflammation is like the weather. We talk a lot about it, yet we know little about how to control it. We often think of inflammation as something to avoid. In reality, to maintain your health, you have to keep inflammation in a zone. You need to turn on inflammation to protect your body from infections and injuries, but also need to turn off inflammation, so it doesn’t continue to attack your body,” he explains.
“There is no drug to maintain this balancing act, but your diet can. Treating your diet as a ‘super-drug’ keeps inflammation in such a zone,” Sears claims. “There’s no magic bullet in nutrition, only the constant orchestration of the hormones and genes that reduce, resolve, and finally repair the damage caused by inflammation.”
Inflammation is a topic that’s cropped up a lot lately, as it’s cited as being a key factor in Covid-19 and why some people may become far more unwell than others.
While Sears says an anti-inflammatory diet can be beneficial for many things – including pregnancy health, athletic performance and fighting off illness – some experts say the notion of an ‘anti-inflammatory diet’ can be misleading, and striving for a healthy balance is generally better than following regimented diet plans.
“We know chronic inflammation can play a role in ill-health and that it can be affected by many factors, including the diet, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking,” says Sarah Coe, a nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation (nutrition.org.uk). “But as yet, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet, so we need a better understanding of the relationship between the foods we eat and inflammation.
“Diets that have been claimed to be ‘anti-inflammatory’ tend to be a Mediterranean-style diet or diets rich in particular nutrients (e.g. vitamins A, C and E, selenium, zinc and omega 3s), which we can get from eating a healthy, balanced diet,” she adds. “While the evidence isn’t there to recommend a specific diet, having a generally healthy diet and lifestyle may help to reduce levels of chronic inflammation, as well as having other benefits for health.”
So how does Sears think people should be eating? Here are five dietary strategies for eating your way to the ‘resolution zone’…
1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
“Your diet can either cause inflammation or reduce it,” says Sears, who recommends the ‘Zone Diet’ – an anti-inflammatory diet he developed more than 25 years ago. It’s a highly-personalised plan but the basic premise is to eat the right balance of low-fat protein and carbohydrate (such as non-starchy vegetables), plus a little fruit and mono-unsaturated fat, like olive oil or nuts, at every meal.
Most females, he says, will need about 90g of low-fat protein per meal, while males will need around 120g. Once you know how much protein you need, you can then determine the exact amount of carbohydrates and fat required.
A typical Zone meal might consist of about a 120g portion of chicken, fish or a plant-based meat substitute for vegans, three servings of non-starchy vegetables plus a small serving of berries for dessert, and 10ml of olive oil for fat.
2. Eat the right amount of fermentable fibre
A primary source of diet-induced inflammation comes from a leaky gut, says Sears. “Your best defence is consuming adequate levels of fermentable fibre to produce metabolites in the gut that also reduce inflammation,” he explains. This means at least 30g of fibre per day from non-starchy veg (primarily the ABCs: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach) and limited amounts of fruits (ideally berries) to maintain good gut health.
3. Be mindful of calories
Calories are not all created equal – and counting them is not the be all and end all of maintaining a healthy weight. However, Sears says it’s important to be aware of them. “The most proven method to live longer with less chronic disease is to restrict calories without malnutrition,” he says. “Those calories have to be balanced in protein, carbohydrate, and fat to generate the correct levels of hormones needed to reduce inflammation as well as to prevent hunger and fatigue.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean feeling deprived of food though – for example, Zone meals can typically contain 400 calories each, yet quite a lot of volume if you have the balance of veg right. So some people may even find consuming enough food every day is actually quite tricky!
4. Consume more omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are building blocks for the hormones that turn off inflammation, says Sears, who explains you’ll need to eat at least 3g of good omega-3 sources per day to make enough of these hormones.
The average person only consumes about 150mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day, so many of us might not be getting quite enough. Oily fish, nuts and seeds are good sources.
“If you can’t turn off inflammation, it’s unlikely you can repair the tissue damage caused by that same inflammation,” says Sears, who points out that unless you’re eating enough fatty fish regularly, you may need to take omega-3 supplements.
5. Consume more polyphenols
Polyphenols are the chemicals that provide vegetables and fruits with their colouring, and Sears says they also activate the genes that repair tissue damage caused by inflammation.
You’ll generally need to consume about 10 servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits per day to get adequate levels of polyphenols, he says.
“This is why it’s challenging to consume all the food [you need], even though you’re restricting calories,” says Sears, who suggests the ‘ABCs’ and berries are among the best sources of polyphenols.
The Resolution Zone by Barry Sears is published by Hammersmith Books. Available now.