There's a lot of talk about inflammation and anti-inflammatory diets — but there's also a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding these nutrition buzz words. Many people aren't quite clear on what inflammation is and why we should be concerned about it. And then there are the plentiful myths about which foods affect inflammation. Here's what you need to know.
In general, inflammation happens when your body reacts to something abnormal. Acute inflammation, which happens after an injury or infection, is an orderly, healthy process. Your immune system mobilizes to destroy foreign invaders and clean up damaged tissue, then quiets back down. Chronic, or systemic, inflammation is an unhealthy, chaotic process. It happens when your immune system is persistently on high alert and ends up damaging your body. Instigators include an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, unmanaged stress and lack of sleep, along with environmental pollutants.
Chronic inflammation contributes to many long-term diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. In fact, reducing inflammation may lower the risk of heart attack and stroke even when blood cholesterol is not at optimal levels.
Diet and lifestyle shifts are the best way to prevent or reduce chronic inflammation. Research has shown that eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can lower the risk of chronic disease, as well as promote gut and brain health, and slow skin aging. In other words, an anti-inflammatory diet may help add years to your life and life to your years. There's no single anti-inflammatory diet, but the traditional Mediterranean diet is a good model to follow, with loads of science to back it up. In general, think whole, minimally processed foods.
Fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds for the healthy fats. For fish, salmon takes top honors for inflammation-busting omega-3 fats, but sardines, mackerel, anchovies and trout are other good choices. Aim to eat at least two fish meals per week. If you just don't have a taste for fish, consider taking a good quality fish oil supplement. Of the nuts, walnuts have the most research showing an anti-inflammatory effect, but almonds are another excellent choice. Olive oil — a key component of the Mediterranean diet — is high in antioxidants, as well as healthy monounsaturated fats.
Fruit and non-starchy vegetables for fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. You can't go wrong by making at least half of your plate non-starchy vegetables. Top picks are leafy greens — kale, spinach and Swiss chard to name a few — and the cruciferous family, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. Garlic and onions are anti-inflammatory powerhouses, too. For fruit, berries, tart cherries and oranges have the strongest effect on inflammation.
Whole grains, beans and lentils for fiber and nutrients. Focus on intact whole grains such as oats, quinoa, farro and brown rice (to name a few) rather than loading up on foods made with whole grain flour, such as bread, tortillas and crackers. Although many anti-inflammatory diets claim that whole grains and pulses — beans, peas and lentils — increase inflammation, research shows otherwise. Pulses are high in fiber and magnesium, and magnesium has been shown to help reduce inflammation.
Sugar and refined grains (white flour). Foods and beverages that are high in sugar and white flour can spike your blood sugar, leading to inflammation.
Less healthy fats from red meat and fried foods. In excess, saturated fat (found in animal foods, palm oil and coconut oil) can increase inflammation, and fried foods contain high levels of highly inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
Even the healthiest diet in the world can't make up for a lifestyle that's marked by high stress and lack of sleep.
Regular physical activity has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, plus it can help you manage stress and improve sleep quality.
What's the deal with nightshade vegetables — tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and potatoes — allegedly being inflammatory? The devil is in the details. Nightshades contain substances called alkaloids that are toxic — and inflammatory — in high quantities. But even the most ardent tomato devotee isn't going to eat enough to matter. Not only is there no notable research linking nightshades to chronic inflammation, but nightshade vegetables are part of the traditional — and anti-inflammatory — Mediterranean diet. Additionally, tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant phytonutrient.
Unfortunately, the fact that some individuals with specific inflammation-related health conditions have adverse reactions to nightshades has contributed to a belief that we should all avoid nightshades. Not so. If you have an actual allergy, intolerance or sensitivity to a certain food, then yes, that food is inflammatory for you. That goes for gluten and dairy, too, which are often falsely blamed for contributing to inflammation.
Even though excess sugar and refined grains may promote inflammation, a cupcake isn't going to kill you. Watch out for eating plans that shun even a shred of sugar, or ban whole food groups. Not only can this deprive you of pleasurable and nutritious variety, but it can trigger disordered eating habits. And be aware that diets claiming they can reverse autoimmune disease are not supported by robust science.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.
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