Gulp. I’ve mentioned the I word. It’s scary. Anti-inflammatory diets are all the rage, and just like the Paleo camp and the Gluten-free camp anti-inflammatory diet enthusiasts can be a fanatical bunch who don’t like their views questioned. But you all know me by now, ever the one to stick her head above the parapet. *Deep breath*
I’m quite cynical when it comes to diet curing all ills, despite the fact I’m on a restricted diet myself. I’m no expert on inflammation so I try to look at both sides of the argument – if I google “anti-inflammatory diet benefits” I also google “debunking anti-inflammatory diet”, which not many people embarking on the diet tend to do for themselves. They’re sick and in pain and they want to believe it will work, which I totally understand having been there myself.
There is shed loads of information online about anti-inflammatory foods and how eating such foods will cure everything from cancer to acne (in which case I’ve no idea why we poison people with chemotherapy – why not just feed them a wheelbarrow load of kale every day instead?). What few of these sites tell you is that inflammation isn’t a single bodily event with a single cause: there are various types of inflammation, causing a range of symptoms, affecting a range of bodily systems and from all sorts of causes. And not all inflammation is bad – shocker I know!
If you get strep throat your immune system leaps into action, inflammation being one of the symptoms caused by the immune response to bacteria, infection or trauma. Inflammation is a vital part of the healing process and we wouldn’t live very long without it. Nothing you eat, or don’t eat, is going to affect this type of acute inflammation which is a very good thing or people who lived on pizza and coke would be in serious trouble every time they cut their fingers.
Problems arise when inflammation becomes chronic, such as in Crohn’s Disease, or causes widespread and systemic damage like in Arthritis. But even in chronic inflammatory diseases the inflammatory pathway is different depending on the illness, eg. the inflammation in coronary heart disease is different to the inflammation in cancers, is different to the inflammation in Arthritis, is different to the inflammation in allergy induced Asthma, which is one of the reasons why we don’t give the same drugs to allergy patients that we give to cancer patients.
Many people with mast cell disease follow an anti-inflammatory diet the reason being that when mast cells degranulate or leak, the chemicals (or mediators) they release are those involved in inflammation. I can totally understand the logic, but there is no research to back the claims up that eating particular foods will tackle this type of inflammation as far as I could find. From my own personal experience I’ve had all the usual inflammatory markers measured, eg. ESR, CRP and PV, and they’ve all been absolutely normal. In addition I’ve had my poop measured for inflammation and absolutely nothing showed up. Having said all that, I have chronic gastritis (ie stomach inflammation) – now why didn’t that show up on the blood tests?!
Mast cell disease isn’t a chronic disease in the same way as Arthritis or heart disease. Mast cell disease is much more akin to an acute immune event, like having strep throat. Our mast cells constantly think we’re being attacked by a foreign invader and mount a response, including the release of inflammatory mediators. The problem being our mast cells are so twitchy they can do this to just about anything, which means we have many acute attacks (sometimes several a day) and our body hasn’t recovered from the last one before the next one arrives – a bit like being stung by a bee over and over and over again. And if eating anti-inflammatory foods has no effect on an acute event like strep throat I’m unconvinced it has any effect on the multiple acute events of MCAD or Mastocytosis, although I could be wrong (I often am 😉 ).
There isn’t even much agreement on what constitutes an anti-inflammatory food or diet in the first place – I got as confused reading about conflicting anti-inflammatory foods as I did about conflicting low histamine foods! Dairy foods are widely thought of as being inflammatory, yet this review of all the research to date found no such link (in fact one of the studies concluded just the opposite, that dairy lowered inflammation). You would think something like blueberries would be considered highly anti-inflammatory, but actually fruit contains high levels of sugars, which spike insulin, which is inflammatory. It’s actually really complicated!
We’re all different, with different genetic susceptibilities and make-ups and consequently we react to foods differently. For example over 90% of some East Asian communities are lactose intolerant, whereas only about 5% of people of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant. Around 50% of Asians have a toxic reaction to alcohol, which is virtually unheard of in Northern Europeans (we just drink wayyy too much and make idiots of ourselves instead!). It stands to reason that different people will have different reactions to foods based on their genetic make-up. So while one person finds eating certain foods makes them feel brilliant, another person eating the same foods will find no difference whatsoever, and I don’t see why so-called anti-inflammatory foods would be any different. There is no “one size fits all” diet.
It makes me laugh when I read comments online about people who’re following an anti-inflammatory diet (which usually excludes dairy and grains, who are so evil I have to wonder how we’ve managed to grow the world’s population to over 7 billion with a diet rich in them) and say how well they now feel, how much energy they have and that they’ve lost 2 stone (28lbs) in weight. What the hell were they eating that they were 2 stones overweight in the first place?! Obviously a pile of crap, so I’m not surprised now they’re eating fresh fruit and veg and some decent protein they feel better. It’s not rocket science. If I ate a diet which caused me to lose 2 stones in weight I’d be under 6 stones (84lbs) and probably in the hospital – losing weight would be unhealthy for me.
The whole thing is a lot to get my head round. I’m not dismissing anti-inflammatory diets in any way – most so-called anti-inflammatory foods are plant based in origin and eating any plant based food is going to be good for you in all sorts of ways. But neither can I say categorically which foods are anti-inflammatory and which aren’t, or how any food works on inflammation in the body. And from what I can gather neither can anyone else (though I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of comments telling me this person or that person has the definitive list of anti-inflammatory foods!). I personally have never had acne (in fact I’ve never had a single pimple in my whole life), or been overweight (despite zero exercise for 20 years), or had high blood pressure, or had any abnormal blood results for inflammation so if I do have significant inflammation it’s manifesting itself in fairly hidden ways but that’s not to say it’s not a problem for me. I don’t know. I don’t know lots of things and the science so far doesn’t sway me one way or the other. I’ll just continue to eat a balanced diet, containing as wide a range of foods as my reactions will allow so that all my bases (not just inflammation) are covered.