Inflammation is a normal healthy process with a very important purpose – to protect our bodies from illness and injury. When you cut your finger, it turns red and starts to swell. Our immune system kicks in to fight infection. Inflammation can be a good thing! However, when the modern world bombards us with assaults from stress, chemical injury and inflammatory food triggers, many of us experience a constant low-level inflammation. Chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases – there aren’t many chronic diseases that aren’t caused by inflammation. The good news is that there is protection found in the healthy foods we eat. Here are a few tips to help you “put out the fire” and fight inflammation with diet.
Stop feeding the fire. Before you can put out the fire, you need to eliminate or significantly reduce foods that fuel the fire. Elevated blood sugar and insulin levels are inflammatory triggers, so it’s important to keep your intake of “fast” sugars and refined carbohydrates such as white flour to a minimum. Trans fats actually inhibit the anti-inflammatory pathway in our bodies, so should also be avoided. These include stick margarines, vegetable shortenings, and are labeled as “partially hydrogenated oil” in many processed foods. Minimize intake of grain-fed meats due to the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fat content (compared to grass-fed or pastured). Finally, consider eliminating foods you might be allergic or sensitive to, because each time you eat these foods your body kicks off an inflammatory response.
Consider the types and amount of fat you’re eating. Very simply, inflammation is regulated by a group of hormones called prostaglandins. These hormones are made from fatty acids, with some fatty acids making pro-inflammatory and others making anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This means the types of fats you are (or are not) eating help determine the health of your inflammatory response. Anti-inflammatory fats are the fats found in nuts and seeds of all kinds, olive oil and avocado. These are all good sources of monounsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fats are also anti-inflammatory. We need about a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (most people get around 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3!). You want to eat more omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) found in wild salmon and other cold-water fatty fish such as anchovies. For many people, taking a high-quality fish oil supplement is a great way to boost omega-3 intake.
Add more color and zing to your diet! Eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies is widely known for imparting many health benefits, including powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation. Brightly-colored berries are high in anthocyanins, a potent antioxidant. Buy organic when possible in order to minimize exposure to pesticide residue. At least consider buying the organic version of the 12 most contaminated produce items. Dark chocolate is a treat to enjoy and also happens to contain significant amounts of polyphenols and catechins, similar to green tea, known for their anti-inflammatory properties. The darker the chocolate (more cacao content) the better. Consider a Zing bar as an excellent choice while on-the-go. Cranberries, blueberries, nuts such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and organic, fair trade dark chocolate are just some of the tasty ingredients found in Zing bars that fit the anti-inflammatory bill.
Savor your food. Overall stress contributes to chronic inflammation, and this can include stressing too much about what to eat or not eat. Being too strict or feeling guilty about foods that bring you pleasure just because you have heard they are “bad” can take all the enjoyment out of eating, so don’t insist on perfection when it comes to your diet! As much as you can, begin the practice of sitting down when you eat your meals, chewing and savoring each bite completely. And please stop eating over the kitchen sink!
We’d love to know, what anti-inflammatory foods do you include on a daily basis?
Erin Hugus, MS, CN has a Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Erin is an expert in Diabetes care and is passionate about empowering people with realistic strategies for optimal health. She takes great pleasure in her time spent in the kitchen and loves cooking nourishing meals for her family.