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Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself against harmful agents—injury, toxins, infection. When cells are damaged, an inflammatory response is triggered from the immune system to safeguard those cells as they heal. A brief period of acute inflammation to repair injured cells is a necessary and healthy process.
But inflammation becomes troublesome when it becomes a long-term, or chronic, condition. Chronic inflammation is closely associated with many medical disorders, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and several types of cancer.
While many things can contribute to the development of inflammation-related disease, including environmental factors and genetic predisposition, one very effective way to help fight harmful chronic inflammation is with a healthy diet.
Today’s typical American diet is filled with foods that can encourage excess inflammation within the body, including red meat and processed meat products, as well as refined carbohydrates such as white flour, white sugar, and corn syrup.
Sodium can create problems as well, by encouraging high blood pressure, another disease that can cause inflammation. Excess weight can also directly contribute to hypertension, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, all triggering chronic inflammation within the body.
By choosing an anti-inflammatory diet—making the right food choices and moderating intake—and by staying active, people can take positive steps to help avoid, and possibly help manage, chronic inflammatory conditions. Here are some tips:
• Limit Animal-Based Foods
Animal products—red meat, processed meats, dairy—almost invariably promote inflammation within the body and, in general, should be consumed in smaller amounts. Choose pepperoni pizza or a cheeseburger and fries as an occasional treat, not as part of your daily diet.
• Get Most of Your Calories from Plants
A healthy diet emphasizes plant-based foods, which are naturally low in calories and help to discourage unhealthful weight gain. Plant-based foods contain vital complex nutrients, such as:
◦ Fiber, which helps the digestive system process and move foods efficiently.
◦ Antioxidants, which can neutralize free radicals thought to trigger a range of medical conditions from cancer to cardiovascular disease.
◦ Vitamins and minerals, which aid the digestive process; some, like vitamins C and E, are also antioxidants.
◦ Natural sugars that are processed more slowly in the body than refined sugars, which spike blood sugar levels and can make your liver work harder.
◦ Phytochemicals, a large group of compounds that research suggests can help prevent disease. Phytochemicals occur naturally in grapes, berries, tomatoes, apples, onions, grapefruit, soybeans, and even tea, coffee, and chocolate. Some are anti-inflammatory, some are antioxidants, and some can even have a positive impact on blood pressure and cholesterol.
Chronic inflammation is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, and some cancers. A healthy anti-inflammatory diet can help keep chronic inflammation under control. More from dietitian Ellie Kelsey. https://bit.ly/3cGdWvq via @MedStarWHC
• Consume Whole Foods
Not all plant-based foods are created equal. Potato chips and tortilla chips may technically be plant-based, but they are also highly processed, which strips away many of their complex nutrients. The harmful additives they contain are also detrimental.
Strive to get most of your calories from whole, plant-based foods—fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
• Avoid Saturated Fats
Certain fats can be a positive anti-inflammatory addition to your diet, particularly the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil, nuts, and oily fish. Monounsaturated fats, also found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts, are also anti-inflammatory and good for heart health.
Saturated fats found in animal products are considered to be harmful for your health for many reasons and should be limited. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats found in meat, dairy, corn oil, and soybean oil can cause harmful inflammation. Americans eat up to sixteen times more omega-6s than omega-3s—a very unhealthy ratio and a likely contributor to inflammation and inflammatory diseases. Fat consumption should be limited, of course, but the fat we do consume should come mostly from omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.
• Food Labels Can Be Misleading
Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation exists when it comes to nutrition, dieting, and healthy food. Food labels focus primarily on getting the consumer to buy the product, and health claims on labels can be misleading.
For example, a food item labeled “trans-fat free” may nevertheless still be a highly processed food. The words “all natural” are not regulated by any governing body and often are present on processed foods. The phrase “fat free” is another red flag: when fat is removed, manufacturers typically add another element to improve flavor; for example, fat-free salad dressing may contain a lot of sugar instead.
• Practice Balanced Eating
The Mediterranean diet is probably the most beneficial dietary plan to follow. It includes a wide array of anti-inflammatory foods—olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish—with less emphasis on meats and refined carbs.
A multitude of research has pointed to the benefits of this diet in reducing inflammation; for example, one study showed that people with rheumatoid arthritis who followed the Mediterranean diet for 10 weeks reported much less pain and stiffness.
• Start Slowly
Begin an anti-inflammatory diet regimen by replacing one snack a day with a snack of fruit or a vegetable—perhaps hummus or a piece of fruit, rather than cheese and crackers. Then, increase it to two fruit/vegetable snacks a day. As you grow more accustomed to plant-based snacking, begin consuming one plant-based main meal every day, then two. This approach is a healthy and sustainable way to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods into your diet.
• Try Anti-Inflammatory Seasonings
Spice things up by adding garlic, onion, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and hot chili peppers—all with anti-inflammatory properties—to your food. But be sensible: sprinkling ginger on a hot dog won’t make the hot dog itself healthy!
• Limit Alcohol and Avoid Tobacco
Research indicates that adding a moderate amount of red wine can discourage inflammation and protect heart health. On the other hand, too much alcohol can contribute to inflammation and liver disease and may encourage other poor food choices. And, of course, smoking and other forms of tobacco, like chewing tobacco, are detrimental to health in many ways, inflammation being just one of them.
• Eat When Hungry, Hydrate As Needed
If you tend to get irritable, shaky, or dizzy when you’re hungry, a small, healthy snack may help you remain stable. Rather than eating two or three big meals a day, split up your calories throughout the day to allow for these occasional healthy snacks.
While you get hydration from beverages and from many foods, drinking enough water is vital for health. To ensure that your hydration level is adequate, your urine should appear very pale yellow. If it darkens and becomes more intensely yellow, it is a sign of dehydration and a signal to consume more fluids, without caffeine or alcohol. Some other signs of dehydration are dry mouth, dizziness, and confusion.
• Keep Active
Exercise is an important partner to good nutrition. The more you move, the more calories you burn, which helps maintain healthy weight. Research on inflammation markers has proven that regular exercise can actually reduce inflammation.
Inflammation-Fighting Menu Options
Keep some of these anti-inflammatory tips in mind when you plan your menus.
Here are a few of my own menu ideas to get you started on healthful eating to help beat inflammation:
Healthy, Easy Food Swaps
• In place of milk, use macadamia nut milk (in my opinion, it is superior to other nut milks, low in sugar and high in mono-unsaturated fats).
• Rather than a beef burger, try a salmon burger.
• Instead of creamy salad dressing, choose olive oil and vinegar dressings.
• Swap chips for flaxseed crackers or sliced veggies.
• In place of milk chocolate, choose unsweetened dark chocolate or cacao.
• Rather than fruit juice, choose whole fruits.
• Instead of jam or jelly, try mashed whole berries.
• Try hummus instead of mayo on sandwiches.
• Instead of adding meat to your salads, choose chickpeas, hemp hearts, or beans.
• In place of soda, coffee, or energy drinks, drink green tea or matcha as a midday pick-me-up.
• Choose whole wheat bread over white (including burger buns).
Ellie’s Specialty Matcha Latte
• ½ cup macadamia nut milk
• ½ cup water
• 1 heaping teaspoon matcha powder
• Dash of cinnamon
Add all ingredients to a blender; blend well. Matcha can be a little bitter, so sweeten with a very small amount of raw honey, if needed. Drink hot or cold.
• 1–2 very large handfuls spinach
• ½ cup frozen strawberries, or four large fresh strawberries
• ½ cup frozen wild blueberries, or wild-picked from a farmer’s market
• 1 Tablespoon unsalted, unsweetened almond butter
• 1–1½ cups macadamia nut milk
• Large dash of cinnamon or turmeric
• 1 Tablespoon chia seed
Add all ingredients to a blender; blend well.
Morning Snack Option
Ellie’s Favorite PB&J
• 1 thin slice whole grain bread
• ½ Tablespoon almond or peanut butter
• ½ cup fruit (raspberries, blueberries, dark cherries)
Spread the almond or peanut butter on the bread. Mash the fruit on top (a healthy alternative to highly processed jam!). If you can’t have peanut butter, spread the mashed fruit alone.
Salad with Ellie’s Healthy Dressing
• 1–1½ cups kale
• Chopped red peppers
• Chopped cucumbers
• Halved cherry tomatoes
• 1 Tablespoon hummus
• ¼ cup of chickpeas
• Ellie’s Healthy Dressing: Mix ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, 2–3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard, some pepper, and a very small pinch of salt (if you have heart problems, skip the salt!). Add favorite herbs and spices. Use 1–2 Tablespoons of dressing to taste; refrigerate the rest for later.
Or Have a Sandwich!
• Two slices whole grain bread (the more grains and fiber, the better!)
• 1 Tablespoon hummus
• ¼ avocado
• 2–3 slices of apple (thin slices, skin on)
• 1 Tablespoon hemp hearts
• A light drizzle of honey mustard (made with honey, not refined sugar)
Afternoon Snack Options
• Flaxseed crackers or sliced veggies with 2 Tablespoons guacamole or hummus
• Sliced pineapple
• Small handful of nuts
• Spread a slice of whole grain toast with 1 Tablespoon hummus, ¼ avocado, 1 Tablespoon hemp hearts, and a light drizzle of dairy-free pesto (I make my own or use Trader Joe’s)
• 3–4 ounces of wild-caught salmon, cooked with rosemary and pepper
• Fresh spinach salad with ¼ cup quinoa, 1 Tablespoon chopped red pepper, 1 Tablespoon chopped red onion, and Ellie’s Dressing (above)
• 1 cup roasted broccoli
• Healthy “ice cream”: Place 1 cup frozen fruit and ½ cup macadamia nut milk in a blender. Add a sprinkle of cacao nibs after blending, for a healthy alternative to ice cream.
• Oatmeal cookies: Mash ripe bananas and mix with uncooked oats. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, for a healthy alternative to oatmeal cookies.
• Dark chocolate and red wine. Choose low-sugar dark chocolate, and limit red wine to one five-ounce glass, three times a week.