Inflammation, more importantly low-grade chronic inflammation, is a big deal these days, and let’s face it, we probably all have it.
I know I do. I have a number of health issues associated with inflammation – from allergies, to joint pain, to thyroid problems…the list is too long for someone who’s in her early 30’s.
In case you’re wondering – I don’t drink, smoke or eat like a truck driver. And hey, I don’t even think I stress a lot or don’t sleep enough. Yet. Chronic inflammation is apparently there, making me feel and look worse than I could without it.
Now I don’t know if you have chronic inflammation, but if you 1) are feeling tired even though you’ve slept enough, 2) are overweight, 3) have an allergy or autoimmune disease, 4) have pain or 5) have red itchy skin, then maybe you do have chronic inflammation as well.
In this case the most simple thing we can do is to change the way we eat. Some studies show that when we eat a certain way chronic inflammation goes away (and that rhymes!). If it doesn’t completely go away, at least it will be reduced.
Why do we need to reduce chronic inflammation?
The reason we want to reduce chronic inflammation is that it’s one of the common denominators for many diseases. For example cancer, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, depression, arthritis, acne, psoriasis are all diseases that are associated with increased levels of inflammation in the body.
Whether inflammation is the root cause or just a “symptom” of all these diseases is not clear, but it’s definitely not helping.
Well it’s because chronic inflammation in the end leads to the damage and loss of functionality of our organs. Which as is not a good thing (to say the least).
Now even if you don’t have any of these health issues, these anti-inflammation diet tips will help you stay healthy and feel and look great.
To reduce inflammation in the body through diet we’ll need to stuff our plates with anti-inflammatory foods and avoid or keep pro-inflammatory foods to a minimum. Makes sense right? Okay, we’ll start with the anti-inflammatory foods, then we’ll see which are the pro-inflammatory foods – the foods we need to avoid. Now, some people will simplify inflammation to just your gut, but systemic inflammation goes beyond local inflammation that you might have in your gut. It’s definitely true you need to avoid foods you’re allergic or intolerant to, no doubt about it. But for all of us – even those without any food allergies or intolerances, there are a
And finally we’ll get to the cooking methods and eating habits – these two are just as important as what you actually eat.
These are the three groups of foods you need to eat more often in order to reduce inflammation.
Yes: Foods high in omega-3’s
Omega’3 fatty acids are essential for us humans – they’re important for fetal growth and development and in adults for brain, cardiovascular and skin health.
They’re even shown to be important in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases like osteoarthritis.
Another magic trick omega-3 fatty acids are capable of is reducing inflammation.
They do this in part by competing with the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids for the “love” of 2 enzymes involved in inflammation. When there are enough omega-3’s in the body they can win this competition, when there aren’t…well omega-6’s win and increase inflammation.
Where are they?
The problem with omega-3 fatty acids is that they’re rare to find. I’ll probably be more successful digging out truffles from dirt in the park than finding good food sources of omega-3’s. However if you consume daily flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds or hemp seeds you should be able to raise your omega-3 levels.
Now. It’s important to note that these plant sources provide only ALA (alpha linolenic acid) – the shorter among the omega-3 fatty acids.
We actually don’t use ALA that much in the body. What we use are her longer omega-3 friends EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). And we can make them both out of ALA, but unfortunately to a limited extent. I read somewhere (and I don’t remember anymore where <- having a minor panic attack here) that if the consumption of ALA is high enough we might be able to make enough of the functional omega-3’s EPA and DHA.
But to be on the safe site you need to get EPA and DHA directly from your diet.
These two fatty acids are not found in plant food sources, but are present in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Because fish is not toxin-free these days, it’s recommended to have fish twice a week (so not every day). For vegetarians and vegans supplementation with fish oil is recommended.
So to summarize this mini-novel: Eat omega-3-rich foods like salmon/mackerel twice a week and flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds or chia seeds daily.
Yes: Foods rich in polyphenols
Say that out loud: Polyphenols. Sounds so chemical, I’m getting a headache. Okay, I’m lying. It’s easy to pronounce and luckily for us these amazing molecules are easy to find.
In fact when we eat a “balanced diet” (whatever that means) we can get up to 1g per day, which is about 10 times higher than vitamin C and 100 higher than beta carotene intake. This is a good thing as polyphenols have tons of health benefits.
They have antioxidant and anti-aging properties and are shown to prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders, diabetes and allergies. Plus let’s not forget the reason we’re here: they’re also anti-inflammatory.
Polyphenols are literally in every plant food you can imagine. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes – they all have them. And for those of us who love olive oil and wine – they are there as well.
Now before you start drinking wine with breakfast, lunch and dinner, consider your other choices as well and know that too much wine can actually suppress your immune system. Make smart choices.
The point is, to reduce inflammation in the body: Eat as many vegetables as you can.
And add some fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains as well. Most of these foods are also rich in vitamin E & C, zinc and fiber – all shown to be anti-inflammatory as well.
Tip: Another great way to get some extra polyphenols that cost almost no money and no calories is drinking tea. Great choices are green tea, rosehip, ginger, nettle, peppermint or even cinnamon tea – all these are anti-inflammatory.
Yes: Spices and herbs
These kinda go under the polyphenol-rich foods, but spices and herbs are in another category in my book. They’re very powerful antioxidants, have detoxifying, anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s no wonder people have been using them as healing plants for thousands of years.
Adding some garlic, cinnamon, ginger, mint, rosemary, basil, turmeric and many others to your diet is easy and can really make a difference for your health.
Plus these herbs and spices can make any dish taste really good.
For example you can add some cinnamon to your breakfast, some ginger to your smoothies, some fresh herbs & turmeric to your dinner…possibilities are really endless.
These are the groups of foods you definitely need to avoid in order to reduce inflammation in the body.
No: Refined Carbohydrates/ Foods with High Glycemic Load
Carbs. We all have a love/hate relationship with them. We love their taste, but we hate how fat they make us.
I personally love them, pizza is my best friend. Not just on rainy days, always. 4eva. Can eat pizza all day every day.
But. They cause inflammation. Big time inflammation.
Foods that contain processed grains (like white flour), potato products and sweets have a high glycemic load. You can find a list with the glycemic index of over 100 foods here. In general anything below 55 is considered low-glycemic. These kind of foods were shown to increase the levels of C-reactive protein in middle aged women.
If you have ever done a blood test you might have noticed the C-reactive protein (or CRP) in your results. This protein is made in the liver and is a marker of inflammation. Which means the levels of C-reactive protein rise, when inflammation increases.
Now, a lot of people will tell you to eat no carbs at all and that’s the only way to survive this life.
Let’s be clear. Carbs, as in carbs in whole foods are not bad. They come with all the fiber, some protein, some fat and are not harmful.
The fiber in those kinds of carbs (whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables) is what the good bacteria in your gut loves. Those bacteria need this kind of food to grow. Which leads to what? Improved digestion and immunity. Not inflammation.
Of course, if you do have coeliac disease or can’t tolerate gluten, then avoid foods that contain gluten, because that actually increases inflammation in the body. If you don’t know whether or not you have a gluten intolerance, stay away from foods that contain gluten for 30 days. Then introduce them back into your diet. If you notice you feel different or worse – just cut them out of your diet. Substitutions are easy.
No: Omega-6 rich foods (Too many of them)
You know how I told you we need omega-3’s for brain health and fetal growth and development?
Well omega-6 fatty acids are similar to omega-3 fatty acids in that. We need them for brain health and also to look pretty as they’re important for skin health and hair growth.
Now the good news is that omega-6 fatty acids are available abundantly in our food, so you’re probably getting enough of them without even knowing or trying.
The bad news is…there are just too many of them in that damn “Western” diet.
So many that you’re probably getting much more than enough. In fact some statistics suggest we are consuming up to 6 times more linoleic acid than what we should (that’s the omega-6 fatty acid found in most foods).
And no wonder, those fatty acids are everywhere – in red meat, vegetable and seed oils (corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil), most fast foods.
Okay, so you’re getting too much of those omega-6s big deal! Nobody would judge you if you’re getting too much vitamin C, right? What’s the harm in getting too many omega-6’s?
Well the bad part about this is that consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids makes your body produce increased amounts of pro-inflammatory molecules. When you produce these pro-inflammatory molecules all the time (by naively eating way too many omega-6’s daily) you develop chronic inflammation.
Now it’s true that not all omega-6 fatty acids are inflammatory. But most of them are.
The one thing, that’s more important than how many omega-6’s you’re getting is their ratio to the omega-3’s you’re eating. You want to keep that ratio low. Meaning you get enough of both of them, but not way too many omega-6’s and too little omega-3’s.
No: Saturated fats
Just when saturated fats started getting some good publicity I’m doing this. Horrible person, I know. But I just can’t keep this information to myself anymore.
Saturated fats are found in red meat, milk and dairy foods like cheese, butter, the holy coconut oil and anything that’s made with them. To summarize it – those are the fatty foods that get solid when cold and melt when warm. Those are also the fatty foods (aside from coconut oil) known to increase the risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
And it turns out saturated fats are all also pro-inflammatory, even if not as pro-inflamamtory as the omega-6’s.
Now these fats work in a different way than the omega-6’s. While omega-6’s can themselves be converted to pro-inflammatory molecules, the saturated fats can trigger a response in certain immune cells which then start making pro-inflammatory molecules.
This means – one type is very straight forward (omega-6), the other one takes a little detour, but it still reaches its goal (saturated fats).
The point is: reduce the intake of saturated fats – just because something is not as bad as we thought, doesn’t mean we should go crazy.
Not to Forget: Common allergens
I have always wondered why so many people avoid gluten. I seriously never got it – most of them don’t even have gluten-intolerance!
However, I do think it’s a good idea now, for one reason: to find out whether or not you have ANY reaction to gluten. Because if you eat constantly a food that you’re allergic to/can’t tolerate, then your immune system is constantly on guard, fighting against something (gluten) that is actually not harmful. And then those attacks go against the body’s own tissues.
So without realizing, you might also have a mild food allergy/intolerance that is making you feel miserable. Avoiding the most common allergens like gluten, soy, dairy, eggs and peanuts for a few weeks might help you discover which foods are causing your problems. Now I have a big problem with this, because I apparently am OBSESSED with anything that has gluten in it. Or peanuts. But I’m doing this diet change in a couple of weeks.
If you want to do this as well, cut out the above mentioned “allergen”-foods for 3 weeks out of your diet. Then you start adding them ONE at a time. If you notice a reaction after eating that food (experts say more than 48h) – you know – this food is causing you trouble and you need to stop eating it. Then you add the next food and so on until you know what you can and what you shouldn’t eat.
As for the how…
What you eat is not everything, how you cook and eat is also important for the development and prevention of chronic inflammation.
Now you know what you need to eat and you’re already imagining how you’re going to be blending green smoothies all week long.
But after a while when you decide to come back to the real world and eat food again, here is the one tip you need to keep in mind: Avoid cooking at high temperatures.
More importantly, avoid cooking with the lack of water.
Anything that makes water disappear from your food is bad news. Grilled meat? French fries? Baked potatoes? All bad news.
Not because nutrients disappear into a mysterious land and never come back.
The reason is that when we cook at high temperatures (you know those that make your food nicely crisp and brown) a ton of harmful molecules are formed in our food.
Among those: Advanced glycation end-products.
These can be formed inside the body, when we eat too much sugar, but also outside the body when we overcook. When advanced glycation end-products enter the body they cause oxidative stress and inflammation plus a number of other damages. So when you change what you eat, change the way you prepare it as well.
The best ways to prepare your food are: steaming or eating more raw foods. In general, any food preparation that keeps the food moisture in, would be better than direct/dry heat like frying, grilling or even baking.
How MUCH you eat
Remember, whatever you don’t spend as energy, you will metabolize and store as fat. This process alone increases the amount of free radicals, which in turn causes inflammation.
So even if you only ate spinach, if you eat too much of it, your inflammation might not go down. That’s a great example, I know. But you get the point.
Whatever you eat – don’t overeat, this is key!
If you’ve been taking some notes you’d notice that to reduce inflammation with diet you need to eat mostly nutrient dense foods with less calories, that are also low in sugar (yes, I’m talking about vegetables). Then eat other foods like fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, lean meats/fish and add some olive oil and wine (in moderation).
I know: easier said than done. Right now I am also struggling with changing my diet (after eating horribly during winter), but I’m starting to like eating healthy again.
But the point is to start somewhere and to stick to it long-term. If you can’t follow all the advice, at least start eating vegetables with every meal and adding some flax seeds to your daily diet.
To get you started check out this guide on how to make an anti-inflammatory smoothie and these 5 highly anti-inflammatory foods you need to eat daily.
Some of my sources
- Bioactive compounds and cancer (Book)
- So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? (Article)
- Polyphenols in Human Health and Disease. (Book)
- Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. (Article)
- Obesity, inflammation and cancer (Book)
- Wild type food in health promotion and disease prevention (Book)
- Metabolic Syndrome and Complications of Pregnancy (Book)