In an over simplified definition of inflammation, you could say it is your body’s way of fighting off something that could potentially harm it. Inflammation is actually necessary for you to have a healthful life. When you cut your finger or scrape your knee, your body turns on its acute inflammation response to heal the area. The same idea can be translated into your diet. Every meal you eat triggers inflammation in your gut. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When you eat a meal, although you are (hopefully) taking in lots of good nutrients, you are also consuming bacteria. Your body is responsible for taking in all of the good stuff you feed it, fighting off the bacteria and discarding the bad stuff. In a recent study, scientists have discovered that the efficiency of your immune system and metabolism is highly dependent on the ratio of nutrients and bacteria that you are eating. The less nutrients you consume, the harder it is for your body to fight off bad bacteria in your gut and you’re stuck in a constant state of inflammation.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of industrial agriculture today, we are seeing a steady decline in the nutritional value of the foods we eat. Our soil is poisoned with chemicals used to improve plant growth and kill certain organisms that harm it. The bad news is that these chemicals tend to remain in the soil for long periods of time, killing communities of organisms in the soil that are beneficial to us and the quality of the food we eat. The food we eat today, even the organic ones, are less nutritious than the food our parents and grandparents ate. You can imagine how hard it can be to consume the right ratio of nutrients to ensure our body is not in a constant state of alert.
This leads me to my next point: what effects does chronic inflammation have on our bodies? The human body is very smart. It learns to adjust and adapt for survival. When your body goes from an acute state of inflammation to a chronic one, it knows that it needs to make adjustments to keep going. These adjustments can lead to acute, as well as chronic, diseases.
Some Diseases Linked to Chronic Inflammation:
• Type 2 Diabetes
• Rheumatoid Arthritis
• Crohn’s Disease
• Some cancers
• Fatty liver
• Metabolic syndrome
• Heart disease
Some Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation:
• Body aches
• Frequent infections
• Weight gain/loss
• GI complications (diarrhea, acid reflux, constipation)
Although not all inflammation is related to diet, following a healthful anti-inflammatory diet is a great way to decrease symptoms associated with chronic inflammation. After all, your gut and your immune system are closely related. Your gut health is the captain leading the direction of your overall health. I recently purchased an amazing book which I will recommend in the books section of my blog this week. It has tasteful anti-inflammatory recipes and includes a lot of great information for beginners.
Now, let’s get to the point
Foods that Worsen Inflammation:
1. Processed and Red Meat
Ideally, you want to decrease your meat consumption. If you want to savor meat here and there, make sure you are buying organic, grass-fed meat. The quality of the meat you eat is very important. Skip out on the processed options. A good brand to look into is Nature’s Rancher.
For decades we have been blaming fat for obesity. The real threat has always been sugar! We need good fats for our brain to function properly. Ditch sugar (even brown sugar) or any form of sugar substitute like Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, and for the love of everything that is good in this world STAY AWAY FROM HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP! Consider sweetening your coffee with honey.
3. Processed Foods
This one is the hardest. In reality, the options of foods you can eat is a lot greater than what you can’t eat. The issue is that every supermarket you walk into is selling primarily processed foods. You probably have been eating processed foods your entire life. A good way to know if what you’re buying is processed or not is to check the label. If the ingredients list is full of junk that you can’t even pronounce, drop it! Also, try to buy foods that aren’t pre-packaged and full of sodium, saturated fats and added sugars.
4. Refined Grains
This is the stuff we all hold so close to our hearts and have a hard time letting go of. Some examples of refined grains are white rice, flour, white bread, pasta, cookies, and cereal. These grains are modified from their natural form. They are literally stripped of all of their vitamins, fiber, and pretty much anything that is good for you. A delicious substitute for pasta is lentil pasta and for rice is quinoa.
Cutting dairy out of my life has changed me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. Dairy is a huge food allergen and it’s no surprise that a lot of people are considering alternatives. There is a common misconception that drinking milk leads to having strong bones. A 1997 study that investigated the effects of milk on bone strength discovered that drinking milk actually has the opposite effect than what is considered popular belief today. In fact, the women in the study that drank 2 glasses of milk per day for 12 years, had a 50% higher chance of suffering from a bone fracture compared to the women who consumed 1 glass or less of milk per week. Don’t panic if you love milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter. There are various delicious vegan substitutes for dairy products. Some of my favorite alternatives include Violife cheese, Califia Farms butter and almond milk, and Forager yogurt.
6. Plant-Based Oils
Some oils to avoid include corn, sunflower and soy oils. These oils contain very high levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6s. Coconut oil is a good substitute but it is high in saturated fats, so you should consume it with moderation. The best substitute is olive oil.
Foods that Fight Inflammation:
1. Fruits and Vegetables
When buying fruits and vegetables, keep the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen guidelines in mind. Try to buy organic if you can. If you have to chose which produce to buy organic, follow the list. Specifically, berries, watermelon, apples, and pineapple have high levels of phytonutrients making them strong anti-inflammatory options. Try to consume fruits that have high-antioxidant vitamin C such as citrus fruits. Also, season your dishes with garlic and onions because they are beneficial to your immune system.
2. Whole Grains
Examples include quinoa, brown rice, popcorn, oatmeal, amaranth, millet, buckwheat and teff. These grains are rich in fiber, micronutrients, protein and antioxidants. Don’t be fooled, they are also flavorful!
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Dorothy Calimeris, RDN calls these “All Star Anti-Inflammatoriy Agents” in her book The Complete Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Beginners. Foods that contain this type of unsaturated fat include salmon, sardines, walnuts, pine nuts, and seeds like hemp, chia & flax.
These kinds of foods are good for your digestive and immune health. Examples include pickles and sauerkraut. They are abundant in good gut bacteria. These are bacteria that your digestive system needs to properly function. Due to the overuse of antibiotics in our foods and healthcare system, many of us suffer from a gut microbial deficiency. These foods help in balancing the microbial communities in your gut. The good guys vs. bad guys ratio.
5. Herbs and Spices
Of course, I won’t leave you without telling you what to season your delicious meals with. Eating healthy doesn’t mean sacrifice flavor. Great spices and herbs to add to your kitchen are turmeric, ginger, saffron, thyme, rosemary, and basil. These options smell and taste great!
I know this all seems like a lot to take in. It can be at first. Take it one day at a time and embrace the trial and error phase. Purchase anti-inflammatory recipe books or downloads similar apps. You will realize that the hassle of readjusting and retraining your brain is well worth the benefits you will experience. You will notice that your meals won’t drag you down. You will be satisfied for longer and feel energized after you eat. Food isn’t meant to make you tired. You are providing your body with nutrients that it craves to survive. If you feel sluggish or tired after a meal, it’s a good indication that you aren’t feeding your body what it needs. You may also experience weight loss, a decrease in anxiety levels and a boost in your health.