Eliminating Inflammatory Foods Could Prevent Cardiovascular Disease, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Diets high in red and processed meat, refined grains, and sugary beverages may increase risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a recent study.
  • These foods were singled out because they tend to raise inflammation in the body, which can have a negative impact on the cardiovascular system.
  • Inflammation doesn't just affect the heart. It can have negative effects on all systems of the body, so eliminating inflammatory foods is a whole-body wellness strategy.

Diets high in anti-inflammatory foods may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Researchers looked at over 210,000 men and women included in two major health studies that encompassed about 32 years of data. They found individuals who ate more inflammatory foods had a 46% higher risk of coronary heart disease, a 38% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 28% higher risk of stroke compared to people who ate anti-inflammatory diets.

Barbie Cervoni, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, explains that, "Chronic inflammation can increase the risk of various diseases, including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and diabetes. It's important for people to understand that what we eat can influence inflammation, either by inhibiting it or promoting it."

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Those who were at lower risk tended to consume foods considered anti-inflammatory, which means they have higher levels of antioxidants, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and fiber, which help combat inflammation. These foods included:

  • Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, cabbage, and arugula
  • Yellow vegetables like pumpkin, yellow peppers, beans, and carrots
  • Whole grains
  • Coffee, tea, and wine

"Scientific evidence from laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological studies links nutrients with the inflammatory process. Simple carbohydrates, foods high in saturated fat, and trans fatty acids have been associated with inflammation. Meanwhile, foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, [antioxidants], flavonoids and lignans, prebiotics, and probiotics have been known to reduce inflammation," says Cervoni.

Barbie Cervoni, RD

Studies have shown that people who consume the highest amounts of fruits...and vegetables daily...have less inflammatory biomarkers. Therefore, choosing anti-inflammatory foods more often can help to decrease and prevent inflammation.

— Barbie Cervoni, RD

What the anti-inflammatory diets tended to exclude were refined grains, organ meat, and sugary beverages like soda. The researchers added that red meat and processed meat—such as deli selections or hot dogs—were also considered inflammatory, and they were not part of the regular diets for those who had lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

"Diet plays an important role in cardiovascular disease development," says the study's lead author, Jun Li, MD, PhD, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Our study is among the first to link a food-based dietary inflammation index with cardiovascular disease incidence."

And while the list of foods that cause inflammation in the body may seem daunting, there are steps you can take to decrease inflammation that aren't a big deal at all. Cervoni says, "Studies have shown that people who consume the highest amounts of fruits (more than 2 servings) and vegetables daily (more than 3 servings) have less inflammatory biomarkers."

She continues, "Therefore, choosing anti-inflammatory foods more often can help to decrease and prevent inflammation. It doesn't mean you can never eat red meat or sweets again, rather that you want to consume these foods less often and choose whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, more often. A good place to start is to aim to eat one serving of a fruit or vegetable at each meal."

Your Body on Inflammation

Inflammation is a normal part of the body's rapid response to injuries, but sometimes, the mechanism to stand down isn't quite as fast.

That can lead to issues like higher health risks—chronic inflammation is associated with dementia, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and asthma, among other problems—as well as slower healing from injuries. It can even have a profound impact on mental health.

Grant Shields, PhD

Inflammation has been implicated in a wide array of issues...lowering inflammation throughout the body and brain can have a significant effect on everything from immune system function to mental clarity and overall resilience.

— Grant Shields, PhD

A meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Immunology highlights that while many factors play a role in the development of depression, there have been links to increased inflammatory activation of the immune system, which affects the central nervous system. Those researchers note that therapeutic interventions have been shown to decrease inflammation.

"Inflammation has been implicated in a wide array of issues," says an author of that study, Grant Shields, PhD, at the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California, Davis. "The main takeaway in research that focuses on it is that lowering inflammation throughout the body and brain can have a significant effect on everything from immune system function to mental clarity and overall resilience."

Non-Diet Contributors to Inflammation

In addition to what you eat, there are other ways inflammation could be created in the body, which means taking a broader approach to wellness can be helpful—not just for preventing cardiovascular disease, but also for boosting a range of effects, including:

  • Better digestion
  • Improved hormone regulation
  • Deeper sleep
  • Better cognitive function
  • Lower risk of chronic disease

The recent study highlights one major inflammation contributor, which is smoking. Tobacco use causes a higher cardiovascular disease risk level, so even if you're eating anti-inflammatory foods, your risk will still be elevated if you're a smoker.

Other contributors to inflammation that don't involve food include:

Although the recent study noted that coffee and wine were on the anti-inflammatory list, they can also tip toward lowering heart protection if used in excess. For example, a research review in Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that both coffee and alcohol consumed in higher doses can have a pro-inflammatory effect.

In that research, reviewers noted that medications used to reduce inflammation may only be partially effective if behavioral and lifestyle factors are still increasing inflammation regularly.

What This Means For You

Overall, getting more anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, getting enough quality sleep, and working on ways to lower stress levels can all combine to benefit not just your heart, but every aspect of your health.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Li J, Lee DH, Hu J, et al. Dietary inflammatory potential and risk of cardiovascular disease among men and women in the U.S. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020;76(19):2181-2193. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2020.09.535

  2. Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life spanNature Med. 2019;25(12):1822-1832. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0

  3. Shields GS, Spahr CM, Slavich GM. Psychosocial interventions and immune system function: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trialsJAMA Psychiatry. 2020;77(10):1031-43. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.0431

  4. O'Connor MF, Irwin MR. Links between behavioral factors and inflammationClin Pharmacol Ther. 2010;87(4):479-482. doi:10.1038/clpt.2009.255

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.