© John Dean - Dreamstime.com
Dreamstime M 145024742

Can we combat inflammation with food?

July 1, 2019
We're used to counseling our patients about nutrition—why not incorporate new information about how certain foods encourage or discourage systemic inflammation?

Fast food drive-thrus. Doughnut days at work. Grabbing a gigantic muffin as you head out the door, corralling the kids into the car, and rushing off to start the day. Coffee drinks sweetened with cane sugar, and sugary flavorings for every season. Sound familiar? Fast, convenient, prepared foods have become a way of life for us in North America.

The CDC states that, “On any given day in the United States, an estimated 36.6% or approximately 84.8 million adults consume fast food.”1 Fast food is higher in sugar, trans fats, and salt than almost any food we cook in our homes. In fact, a study reported in the British Medical Journal pointed out for the first time that processed food is the main source of added sugar in the American diet. And nearly 60% of the daily calories we consume are ultra-processed.2 Yikes!

We all aren’t surprised to hear that this kind of eating is a leading cause of the burgeoning obesity crisis in this country, but did you know that it is also one of the main culprits in systemic inflammation? Junk food keeps our bodies inflamed on the inside.

Why should we care?

As oral health professionals, we know that periodontal disease is classified as an inflammatory disease.3 We are all commonly aware that this has to do with biofilm, bacteria, and host response. However, at the core, the real offender is the inflammatory stress and the burden the disease puts on the host, and the inflammatory response the bacteria sets up within the mouth and rest of the body.

After years of a trickle of research around oral and systemic connections, we now have an avalanche of data about the main connector and culprit of it all: inflammation. Inflammation can be pegged as responsible for everything from aging skin to cancers, and autoimmune diseases.4 The more we learn about inflammatory processes and actions, the louder the message becomes: reducing inflammation must be an integral part of treating disease and maintaining health.

In all the courses I teach, whether the issues are focused on women’s health, workplace burnout, or understanding cannabis use in our patients, I focus on simple self-care strategies that empower the individual to know, to act, to change, and to feel better. Dental professionals are experts at the treatment of periodontal diseases clinically, but what can we do systemically?

What if we could make simple lifestyle changes in our diets and exercise that would reduce inflammation and its damaging effects on our brains and bodies? Can nutrition as a lifestyle intervention reduce systemic inflammation? Can we really affect our health at a systematic level simply by consuming less fast food and more foods such as chocolate, blueberries, and wine?

It turns out that there is a plethora of science supporting food as an anti-inflammatory strategy.5,6 This is good news for us as practitioners, and for the patients we serve. To this end, I’m teaching a course at this year’s RDH Under One Roof conference that will look at current science and address both clinical and nutritional prevention strategies regarding inflammation. It’s a general session, so anyone who is registered can attend.

After all, nutrition is part of the oral health care provider’s training. We are familiar with foods that put one at higher risk for caries and that lower pH in the mouth. Foods also contribute to the health and disease states of our bodies. The Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the University of South Carolina has created the Dietary Inflammatory Index, a literature-derived dietary tool that assesses the inflammatory potential of one's diet and is based on conclusions from nearly 2,000 research articles.7

Disease prevention must include an assessment of our daily eating habits, and then, taking action to increase health and lower the bodies’ total inflammatory burden. We can make simple changes to our diets to lower chronic inflammation and work to prevent oral and systemic disease. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet will simply enable us to feel better in our daily lives. Any plan that includes chocolate, blueberries and wine is one I want to know more about!


  1. Fryar CD, Hughes JP, Herrick KA, Ahluwalia N. Fast Food Consumption Among Adults in the United States, 2013–2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db322.htm. Published October 2018.
  2. Martínez Steele, Baraldi LG, Louzada ML, Moubarac JC, Mozaffarian D, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016;6(3):e009892. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892.
  3. Newman MG, Takei HH, Carranza FA. Carranza’s Clinical Periodontology, 9th ed. Philadelpha, PA: W.B. Saunders Company; 2002.
  4. Key TJ, Schatzkin A, Willett WC, Allen NE, Spencer EA, Travis RC. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of cancer. Public Health Nutr. 2004 Feb;7(1A):187-200.
  5. Overview of the Dietary Inflammatory Index. Connecting Health Innovations website. http://chi-llc.net/about/dii-scale/.
  6. Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Pyramid. Weil website. https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/anti-inflammatory-diet-pyramid/.
  7. Steck S. The Dietary Inflammatory Index: A new tool for assessing inflammatory potential of diet and associations with cancer. American Institute for Cancer Research website. https://www.aicr.org/assets/docs/pdf/research/rescon2014/steck_dietary-inflammatory-index.pdf.

Kelli Swanson Jaecks, MA, RDH, has a mission to empower people to optimal health through education and entertainment. She is a prolific blogger and author. Kelli holds a Master’s degree from Oregon State University in Communication and Adult Education, where she taught Leadership and Public Speaking. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene from Oregon Health Sciences University in 1996.