Seemingly every day, a new headline suggests inflammation is the root cause of disease. And while some inflammation is necessary – and healthy – most people are battling chronic inflammation, which isn’t healthy.
If you get injured or sick, your immune system launches an inflammatory response for protection. Trouble is, over time, unresolved inflammation can wreak havoc on your body, and even contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma, or diabetes.
What Causes Inflammation?
Poor diet, environmental toxins, and stress contribute to inflammatory processes. And since we live in a convenience food culture that prioritizes bacon, sugar, and chips over blueberries and spinach, it’s no surprise that we are suffering. Our dietary decisions lead to inflammation, weight gain, and pain.
“I think of it like a fire,” says Maria Conley, RDN, a functional nutritionist at Henry Ford Health System. “You can help squelch that fire by improving your diet, getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, and managing stress using healthy coping strategies.” Diet, especially, is key.
What to Eat
1. Fiber. Research suggests eating a fiber-rich diet protects against inflammation. The bacteria in our guts metabolize fiber to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which decrease inflammatory processes and boost the immune system. But there are plenty of other reasons to load up on fiber: It fills you up, keeps blood sugar levels in check, and helps combat chronic diseases ranging from stroke to diabetes.
2. Plant-based proteins. Nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans) are great alternatives to meat and poultry. Opting for soy? Choose whole soy foods, such as edamame or tofu, instead of highly processed foods like soy burgers, soy hotdogs, and soy-based frozen meals.
3. Colorful fruits and veggies. Aim for at least seven servings of non-starchy fruits and vegetables daily. Good examples include beets, berries, tomatoes, cherries, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, and garlic. The more color, the better, since different colors supply different nutrients.
4. Herbs and spices. Many spices have anti-inflammatory properties, including turmeric, ginger, basil, cinnamon, cayenne, and oregano. A bonus: Replacing salt and sugar with herbs and spices is not only better for you, but also tastier, too.
5. Omega-3s. Omega-3s are heart-healthy, mood-boosting, and anti-inflammatory. Good sources include salmon, tuna, and sardines. You can also get omega-3s from plant sources, including walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
What to Restrict
1. Sugar. Refined foods, such as cookies, cakes, white bread, and sweets, increase blood sugar levels and may lead to bacterial overgrowth in the gut, which in turn causes inflammation.
2. Saturated and trans-fat. Saturated fats and trans fats linger in the body and release inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream. Meat, dairy products, baked goods, butter, and margarine are the usual suspects.
3. Refined grains. The Western food supply emphasizes refined grains over nutrient-rich whole grains. Even breads that are labeled “wheat” are often stripped of nutrients and made with only enriched grains.
4. Meat. The saturated fat in meat can turn on inflammatory processes. Can’t resist? Choose lean, grass-fed organic meat to reduce environmental toxins.
5. Grilled or charred foods. Foods that are grilled have more pro-inflammatory end products. This is especially true of fatty cuts of meat. So instead of firing up the barbeque to grill or blacken your favorite foods, turn to your stovetop or oven. Broiling, steaming, and baking are all good options.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic disease, it’s often a signal of dysfunction – your body is overloaded. While some inflammation is inevitable, the standard diet leaves too much room on the plate for meat and dairy products, refined foods, and foods cooked in excessive amounts of oil.
“Making healthy lifestyle choices such as eating meals centered around plant foods, living an active lifestyle, and managing stress can help support the body’s inflammatory processes and reduce chronic inflammation overall,” says Conley. Her advice: Eat less, eat slower and move more.
Credit: Henry Ford Health System