Ever heard of anti-inflammatory diets? As a consumer, it can be so difficult to discern between quality information about healthy eating patterns and the frivolous fad diets that emerge when it comes to your nutritional health and wellness.
Whether you’ve read about it online, heard it from a friend, or picked up a book about it, this is an eating pattern that’s worth taking a second look at. Before we dive into the details of eating for inflammation, let’s take a look at exactly what inflammation is and why it’s such an important concept for our long-term health.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation refers to the process by which your body, or more specifically your immune system, attacks anything that it recognizes as foreign in order to protect your health. Have you ever stubbed your toe and felt that blood-rushing, heat-producing sensation that starts almost immediately? That’s just one example of short-term or acute inflammation.
There’s also the more long-term or chronic form of inflammation. This is the type that we’re trying to address when we are eating for inflammation. Chronic inflammation exists even in the absence of foreign attackers in the body. It can be due to environmental exposures, stress, the aging process, and even poor nutritional habits. It’s often referred to as systemic inflammation, in that it’s occurring throughout the body rather than just in one place. Studies have shown that day in, day out inflammation is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.
But not to worry! Eating for inflammation will help your body work like a well-greased machine (We’ll get to this pin shortly…). Before we get started, here are two useful definitions to keep in mind:
- Pro-inflammatory: causes or exacerbates inflammation
- Anti-inflammatory: prevents or reduces inflammation
Here are foods that when eaten regularly, have been shown to create a pro-inflammatory state, putting the body at higher risk for chronic disease.
Refined carbohydrates and sugary foods
These are carbohydrate foods that have been altered from their natural, whole, state, or foods to which sugars have been added. Think of refined-flour products such as bagels and muffins, sugary cereals, sweetened beverages and dessert foods.
The why: our bodies rapidly digest and absorb refined carbohydrates, resulting in rapidly increasing blood glucose levels that trigger a rapid insulin response. To put it simply, chronically high insulin levels are associated with increased inflammation. And the tip of the iceberg: these refined carbs are typically low in fiber and B vitamins, offering little nutritional benefit to your diet.
Specifically, trans fats and omega 6 polyunsaturated fats. Trans fats show up in our diet in the form of fried greasy foods, commercially baked goods, frozen pizza, and stick margarine. Omega 6s make their way into our diets primarily through store-bought convenience foods as well as via our choice of cooking oils. Soy, corn, safflower, and grape seed oil are some of the more common examples of high-omega 6 oils. Now, we know that trans fats are poor for our health, that’s kind of old news. But you might be thinking: aren’t unsaturated fats like oils the ones that are supposed to be good for me?
The why: While omega 3 and 6 fats are both essential to the body, they play different roles: the former is anti-inflammatory while the later is naturally pro-inflammatory. Therefore, it is important to maintain a healthy balance of omega 6 to 3 for optimal health, in a ratio of 4:1 or lower. The reality, however, is that Western diets come in at a ratio of 15:1 and beyond, because of our excessive intake of omega 6 fats (through highly processed oils and foods) and our insufficient intake of omega 3s, leaving the body in an undesirable, pro-inflammatory state.
Anti-inflammatory foods to pick up
Brightly coloured foods from the plant kingdom are highly anti-inflammatory. Here are some key foods to load-up on regularly:
Fruits & Vegetables
Strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cherries, tomatoes and leafy greens (spinach, collards, kale). Since your body is in a constant flux, you want to eat these foods regularly throughout the day, to maximize their anti-inflammatory benefit.
The why: There are countless benefits of eating fruits and vegetable, their anti-inflammatory properties being just another reason to add to the list. The specific foods mentioned above have been shown to have particularly strong anti-inflammatory effects due to their high content in antioxidants and flavonoids, powerful plant compounds, that fight inflammation where it all starts, at the cellular level.
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, walnuts, cashews, hemp seeds, and flax seeds are the most commonly known inflammation fighters, but other nuts and seeds share these properties as well. So go nutty: incorporate both nuts and seeds into your weekly routine to reap the benefits.
The why: Not only are they sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients similar to fruits and veggies, but they also pack inflammation-fighting monounsaturated and omega 3 fats, that will contribute to a healthy dietary fat profile in the body.
Salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, and sardines. These fatty fish are another rich source of omega 3 fats and will get you on track to meeting your omega 3 requirements.
The why: It’s important to know that the type of omega 3s that we get from fish are slightly different than those that come from nuts and seeds. Though both beneficial, the omega 3s from plant foods need to be converted in the body before we can benefit from their powers, whereas the fats coming from fish are all ready to go as soon as we take a bite.
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that research has shown to possess potent anti-inflammatory properties. Enjoy this natural and powerful anti-inflammatory agent regularly, steeped into a tea, added to smoothies or in your scrambled eggs.
The why: Turmeric’s important properties stem from the compound curcumin, which naturally reduces inflammation in the body. Don’t forget to add a crack of black pepper, as this increases your body’s uptake of the compound, which would otherwise have a difficult time finding its way into the bloodstream.
Inflammation-fighting action steps
Here are some practical tips to guide you:
- Make the move towards whole grain. Whole grain breads and pastas, brown or black rice, rolled or steel-cut oats. These fiber and nutrient-rich grains will be digested slower, preventing those post-meal spikes in blood sugar.
- Swap safflower, grapeseed, and other omega 6-containing oils for olive oil or avocado oil in sautéing, roasting, and salad dressings to help keep your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio in check.
- Spoon some hemp seeds over your morning oatmeal, munch on an apple with some peanut butter, or snack on cherry tomatoes and almonds. Build your snacks and meals with fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds to make sure your anti-inflammatory army is well-equipped.
- Enjoy 2 servings of fatty fish as part of your weekly menu. Grill salmon, bake mackerel or reach for sardines canned in water to meet your needs.
In a nutshell: Our body’s inflammatory response plays the role of both friend and foe. There are critical times when we rely on our body’s defense mechanisms to keep us healthy and strong and others when it is in our best interest to fight back against it. Doctor visits and trips to the pharmacy aren’t the keys to fighting inflammation. The secret lies right at home, in your refrigerator.
By Katie Cohen-Olivenstein