Signs of inflammation in the body often reflect the presence of an infectious disease. But when inflammation persists, day in and day out, even when you are not threatened by a foreign invader, it can become your enemy. Many major diseases that plague us—especially heart disease, stroke, hardening of the arteries, and diabetes—have been linked to chronic inflammation. Even cancer, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease seem to be associated with some degree with inflammation.

One popular blood test, the so-called high sensitivity CRP (C-reactive protein), provides an indirect measure of inflammatory activity in the body, known to be an important tool to identify those individuals especially at greatest risk of cardiovascular disease. Many doctors check the blood for CRP levels during routine examinations in order to help identify those individuals at greatest risk.

Blood levels of CRP are also elevated in chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory disease of the bowel (Crohn’s disease), and even periodontits (inflammatory condition of the gums), and all these are associated with an elevated risk for heart and vascular diseases.

Not surprisingly, elevated CRP levels are closely tied to the standard indicators of high risk for cardiovascular disease, which include high cholesterol levels or unhealthy eating habits and obesity. Correction of these latter factors often results in lowering CRP levels, while, at the same time, at least reducing one’s chances for cardiovascular disease and possibly others as well. Whether the high CRP blood levels themselves are merely a sign of increased risk or actually produce risk is unknown; therefore, if we lower the CRP levels without changing anything else, we may be missing the target.

What is the role of diet in causing or reducing inflammation?

One of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation comes not from the pharmacy, but from the grocery store. Many experimental studies have shown that components of foods or beverages may have anti-inflammatory effects, meaning that if you choose the right foods, and you may be able to reduce your risk of illness. Consistently pick the wrong ones, and you could accelerate the inflammatory disease process and, most notably, your risk for heart and blood vessel disease.

Foods that produce inflammation

It’s not surprising that foods associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as and heart disease and diabetes are also associated with excess inflammation. These unhealthy foods also add to weight gain, which also contribute to inflammation. Yet in several studies, even after researchers took obesity into account, the link between foods and inflammation remained, which suggests weight gain isn’t the sole driver. Thus many food components may have independent effects on inflammation beyond increased caloric intake. Below is a list of some of these “deadly” foods:

refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pastries

French fries and other fried foods

soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages

red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage)

margarine, shortening and lard

Foods that combat inflammation

On the flip side are foods and beverages that have been found to reduce the risk of inflammation, and with it, various chronic diseases. Certain fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, apples, leafy greens, and nuts are high in natural anti-inflammatory components (polyphenols), and all can reduce inflammation and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Coffee, which also contains polyphenols and other anti-inflammatory compounds, may protect against inflammation as well.

So include plenty of these anti-inflammatory foods in your diet:


olive oil

green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collards

nuts like almonds and walnuts

fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines

fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges

nuts of all types

Remaining Uncertainties

One intriguing question is to determine whether, by simply reducing an unrelated condition such as periondotitis or intestinal inflammation, we could prevent cardiovascular diseases and others. At present, we have no answer to this question, and this is a subject for future research.

Bottom Line

Regardless of the underlying dynamics, we have it in our power to reduce many of the causes of inflammation and thereby improve our outlook. This information adds further support for the need to adopt proper diets as well as other known healthy life-styles. They all reduce inflammation as well as risk for heart and other chronic diseases.