Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.

Gratitude

Although many of us get swept up in all the hoopla around Thanksgiving – the turkey and trimmings, the football games, the parades, and yes, even the holiday shopping – it behooves us to pause and remember what the holiday is really about: giving thanks, expressing gratitude for all that is good in our lives.

This recent Time magazine article highlights several benefits to our health and wellbeing from practicing gratitude, including being more patient and experiencing long-lasting happiness. Amazing how a few small acts, like saying thank you to your partner for washing the dishes or writing down three good things that happened to you each day, can reap such big benefits.

In the spirit of the holiday, I’d like to take a moment to share the top 5 things I am grateful for, today and every day:

  • My family, near and far, for keeping me grounded and helping me succeed.
  • My friends, for the joy and laughter as well as the hugs and support.
  • My home, for providing warmth, comfort and shelter.
  • My morning quiet time, when I can turn inward and just be.
  • My Nia practice, for helping me rediscover the joy of movement.

And one – actually two – more things, just for fun – my feline “goddesses,” Artemis and Athena (below left and right, respectively). These little kitties remind me every day to look at the world with wonder and curiosity – to see everything as if for the first time. They teach me patience by often testing my patience, but who can resist their sweet little faces?

I wish you and your loved ones a Happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

cat pic

 

 

Physical Environment

Some people may be surprised to see physical environment as one of the self-care areas on the Wheel of Health. However, the spaces that we live, work and play in can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing – either positively or negatively. There are three major areas that fall under this category: your community, your workplace and your home. I will explore each of these briefly and invite you to consider those aspects of your environment that you can most easily influence to support and nurture your health.

Community

Think about the town or city where you live. There are a number of factors that can affect your health and wellness. For example, local climate may play a role. If you live in the northern US, you may not get enough sunlight during the winter months to make adequate amounts of Vitamin D. You could also be more prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. It may also be more difficult to stay active when winter weather hampers your exercise plans.

If you live in a warmer climate, you need to consider taking precautions against the sun and heat. For example, you may want to use sunscreen when you are outdoors, stay well-hydrated and limit outdoor activity when air quality is poor. The local climate can also impact health issues such as seasonal allergies. There may be certain types of plants or trees that grow in your geographic area that irritate your sinuses. Minor cases are often treatable with medications, but more severe allergies may prompt you to consider moving to a different geographic location to avoid the trigger(s).

There are often different health issues in urban vs. rural areas. City residents may face higher levels of stress due to concerns about crime, violence or traffic congestion. On the other hand, cultural norms in more rural areas may contribute to higher rates of tobacco use or less nutritious diets. Rural residents may also have to travel further to obtain routine or emergency medical care. There are advantages and disadvantages to both settings, so you will want to carefully consider which environment will foster your health and wellbeing.

 Workplace

If you work in an office, it is likely you spend a good portion of your day in that environment. Although we may have limited control over the buildings we work in, our personal work spaces can be created to nurture our wellbeing.  Creating a healthy environment in your office space can have a positive impact on your physical body as well as your emotional satisfaction with going to work every day. There are a few factors to consider such as:

Ergonomics: You want to be sure that your office furniture and equipment supports body mechanics and does not contribute to potential health issues, such as musculoskeletal pain or eye strain. The Human Resources department at your workplace should be able to assess your workstation and assist you with making it as safe and comfortable as possible. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) also has some helpful resources here.

Surroundings: There are several strategies you can use to make your work station or office as pleasant as possible. For example, consider adding green plants to brighten up your space and improve air quality. Play soothing music or purchase a small water fountain to listen to the sound of running water. Decorate your workstation with photos and keepsakes that inspire you. Add a desk lamp to avoid or reduce the need for fluorescent lighting. And finally, do your best to avoid clutter by implementing a file system and/or other organizational tools. Allot some time at the end of each day to tidy up your desk and office space.

Movement/Activity: By now, many of you have probably heard the new mantra that “sitting is the new smoking,” as studies have demonstrated that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality. If you have a job that requires you to sit at a computer most of the day, find ways to build movement into your day. We can all benefit from taking breaks during the work day – whether to stretch, take a short walk or just take a few deep breaths away from our work station. Taking a break allows us to come back to the job at hand with renewed energy and sense of purpose.

Home

No matter what type of dwelling you live in, your home can be a haven for your health, offering support to your body, mind and soul. However, it can also contribute to health problems if we are not careful. There are a few factors to consider when assessing the safety and comfort of your home, including:

Air quality: It is important to have a home that is well ventilated (i.e., one that allows for the exchange of indoor and outdoor air).  Without proper ventilation, an insulated and airtight house may seal in harmful pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, and moisture that can damage a house.  Click here for a helpful guide to home ventilation. There are several reasons to remove your shoes once inside your home, primarily because they can track in dirt, pesticides and other pollutants. When buying new carpet, furniture or paint, consider products with low chemical emissions to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

Water quality: The water available for drinking in your home can contain a variety of contaminants that may adversely impact your health. You can learn about the quality of your community’s tap water by visiting this website and entering your zip code. If you have a private well, contact your city or county government to have it tested regularly for any potential contaminants. There are certified filters that can remove harmful contaminants from your water.

Aesthetics: Although we often can’t control the environment outside our homes, we have more control over the inside of them. Explore what changes you could make so that each room is a more nurturing, supportive place for you. Feel free to experiment with color, material, scent, music or the overall layout of rooms so that these spaces satisfy your senses. Consider assessing how the color impacts your mood, or whether there is adequate lighting and pleasant smells.

There is one other topic related to aesthetics I would like to address and that is clutter. Clearing clutter is first and foremost a safety issue, as it can reduce the risk of falls and help eliminate germs. However, clutter can also have a subtler impact on us mentally and emotionally. Having too much “stuff” in your living space can drag you down, physically and mentally. Common challenges include excess paper, clothing, and “collections” of favorite objects. Here are some helpful strategies for reducing clutter:

  • Follow the “one in, one out” rule – every time a new item comes into your home, a similar item must leave. For example, if you buy a new jacket, donate or sell a used one that you no longer need. Some people even take this a step further and remove two items for every new one that comes in.

 

  • Create a place for everything. Once all items have a home, it will be easier to put things away regularly.

 

  • Schedule time to regularly go through things and purge as needed. This can be daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – whatever timeframe works best for you.

 

  • If you have trouble dealing with clutter on your own, consider hiring a professional organizer. You can click here to find one in your area.

 

As you can see, there are many ways that your physical environment plays a role in your health and wellbeing! I encourage you to take some time to assess how the places you live, work and play are impacting your health.

Spirituality

For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.

Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong.  For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.

The relationship between spirituality and health

There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:

Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.

A spiritual community can improve your life.  Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.

Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.

Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.

(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Please visit their site for references, if interested.)

Finding spirituality in every day moments 

As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently.  It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.

A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.

And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.

Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.

National Board Certification for Health & Wellness Coaches

I’m taking a brief detour from my journey around the Wheel of Health to share some exciting news! I found out yesterday that I passed the new national certification exam for health and wellness coaches. I am now officially a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach (or NBC-HWC, for short). I am very proud to be one of the inaugural coaches to hold this distinction – and I want to share a few thoughts on why this national certification is so important.

Until now, anyone could essentially hang a shingle and call themselves a health coach regardless of whether they have had any education, training or experience as a coach. There are many individuals who are passionate about health and wellness, and long to share that passion with others based on their own experience and self-study. I think that passion is wonderful and that’s where I started back as a young adult in high school and college, taking ownership of my health and wellbeing for the first time.  However, I quickly realized that there was a lot that I did not know when it came to health and the science of behavior change, so I chose to pursue formal education and training in that profession.

I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in Public Health, with a concentration in Health Behavior and Health Education, and I have held the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) credential since 1998. I have always identified as a health educator even when my official title may not have reflected that role. A few years ago, I decided to pursue additional training as a health coach. I have to admit that before I completed my coach training at Duke Integrative Medicine, I thought a health coach was essentially the same thing as a health educator. I would advise people about how to improve their health. I would share resources and essentially tell them what changes they needed to make around their diet, exercise, sleep and so on to be healthy. Boy, was I wrong.

My health coach training was eye-opening, even for someone who has been in the healthcare field for 20 years. I learned that coaching is a client-centered process – that the client is the expert on his or her own health, not me. As a coach, I am the expert in the process of health behavior change, but I am here as a partner and a guide for my clients. I help them define their personal vision of optimal health, create goals and action steps to achieve that vision, and provide support and encouragement as they incorporate new health behaviors into their lives. I don’t tell them what to do to be healthy, I empower them to find the answers within themselves. And I do this mostly by listening carefully and asking key questions to help reveal those answers. Simple, yet so powerful.

I share all this to help you understand that there is still great variability among health coaches right now, as these new national certification standards are just starting to be implemented. For this reason, I encourage you to do your homework and review the credentials of any coach with whom you may consider working. Although this is not medical care, where you could be harmed if treated by a professional that does not meet minimum professional standards, it is in your best interest to work with a coach who has had adequate training. After all, you want to achieve the best outcome possible – to be in your best health – especially if you are paying out of pocket for your coaching experience.

The International Consortium for Health & Wellness Coaching (ICHWC) has been working since 2010 to create these national standards for health and wellness coaches. In 2016, they partnered with the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) to establish a national certification for individual health and wellness coaches. The NBME  has been credentialing medical professionals for 100 years, and they applied the same rigor to the health and wellness coach exam as they have for other medical professional credentialing exams. Therefore, this national certification will allow proficient coaches to stand apart from coaches who have not received adequate coach training or assessment of their coaching skills and knowledge.

You can learn more about the Consortium and the National Board Certification of Health & Wellness Coaches here. The Consortium will soon be creating an online registry to include all health and wellness coaches who are National Board Certified, making it easier to find a qualified coach to assist you on your journey to optimal health. After all, if you are going to invest in your health, why not choose a partner who can best help you succeed?

Personal and Professional Development

As I discussed in my previous post about the Wheel of Health, your wellbeing encompasses more than just physical health. Today we will explore the importance of personal and professional development on your journey to optimal health. For many people, these two areas are closely related, which is why I have chosen to discuss them together.

Personal and professional endeavors can be a source of enjoyment and energy, or emotional drain and stress. Some individuals have personal lives that are fulfilling with family, friends and hobbies that provide joy and meaning, while others have not yet reached the place of contentment they desire. The same may be true professionally – some people have careers that are meaningful and resonate with their purpose and values in life, whereas others struggle in demanding jobs that provide little personal or professional rewards. There are also many people who struggle to find balance across these two domains. Regardless of where you are personally and professionally, these areas of your life can affect your health either positively or negatively.

Like other areas on the Wheel of Health, Personal and Professional Development is very personal and varies from person to person. In general, we are referring to whatever gives you meaning and purpose in life – those activities that give you a sense of fulfillment and joy. It may be your family or your work (or both!); it may be continuously learning new things or volunteering through your church. It can be relationships with family, friends or colleagues at the office. Personal and professional development means exploring your own values and finding out what brings you joy and meaning.

Personal Development

For some people, personal development may be tied very closely to their professional pursuits. For others, it may be very distinct. For almost all of us, optimal health may best be achieved by balancing the two, which we will explore later in this post.

There are several areas of the Wheel of Health that relate to personal development, such as spirituality, relationships and communication, and mindful awareness.  However, personal development goes beyond the Wheel and can include topics such as music, art, reading, travel, gardening, and other hobbies and intellectual pursuits. Activities that bring us pleasure and satisfaction enhance our sense of contentment, joy and overall wellbeing. These may be “doing” activities such as those mentioned above, but they can also include “being” activities – for example, star-gazing, sitting on the beach, or meditating on a mountaintop. All of these things can be sources of deep personal development.

Professional Development

For many people, being involved in meaningful work can bring a profound sense of satisfaction and joy. You may have heard the saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” These individuals have a sense of meaning and purpose, knowing they are contributing to the world in a way that has significant meaning to them and a positive impact on others. However, there are others who find themselves in careers or work that drains them, and it can negatively impact their health. Many times, dealing with stress, dissatisfaction or boredom with one’s work leads individuals to make poor choices around food, alcohol or drugs.  I have worked with several clients who, through exploration of all areas of the Wheel of Health, realized that their job was the root cause of their health problems, such as weight gain or lack of sleep. They chose to focus on finding new work that was less demanding and would allow them to prioritize their health and wellbeing.

Professional development can also entail taking stock of where you are and where you want to go in your professional endeavors. Perhaps it means going back to school for an advanced degree to move up the ladder at work – or shifting roles within your given profession to allow for more time with your family. For others, it may mean a complete change in career focus to better align with their values and goals.

Balancing Personal and Professional Development

Many people find it challenging to balance their personal goals with the demands of their professional endeavors. Finding enough time and energy to focus on both can be stressful. Often times, the demands of full-time work can leave us with little time or energy for family and our personal pursuits. For others who have given up careers to raise a family or pursue other goals, they may find that they miss feeling “productive” or that their skills are going to waste.

Being mindfully aware of how you have structured your life and the impact it is having on your physical, mental and emotional health can help you achieve optimal health. It is helpful to assess where you are with personal, career or life goals, particularly at times of transition or milestones. These may include work-life balance, financial goals, and personal growth that will support optimal wellbeing. Regular assessment of your goals can also reinforce healthy behavior choices.

Below are some questions that can help you develop greater awareness of how your personal and professional endeavors are fostering or hindering your optimal health. Feel free to choose the questions that are most relevant for you. Take time to reflect deeply, perhaps writing down your responses or sharing them with someone you trust.

  • If money and time were no object, what would you love to do that would bring you a profound sense of satisfaction, joy and/or purpose?

 

  • How balanced are your work (what you do to earn a living) and your personal interests? What would you need to do to bring them more into balance?

 

  • If you continue with your current balance of personal and professional development, including time and energy spent on each, how will your life be 5 years from now? 10 years from now?

 

  • Is there a dream that you would like to resurrect and pursue? How are you stopping yourself? What are some first steps you could take to start pursuing that dream?

 

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

I had the opportunity to attend a program at Duke Integrative Medicine last week focused on Decoding the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Before we move on from the topic of nutrition, I thought I would share a few highlights from this program that may be helpful on your healthy eating journey.

Inflammation: acute vs. chronic

 You’ve probably heard or read about eating a diet that reduces chronic inflammation in the body, but why is this so important? As you may know, there are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to heal an injury or fight an infection – and it’s a good thing. It’s meant to be short-term and stop after the injury or infection is gone. However, research has shown that many of us are now subject to chronic, or ongoing, inflammation that is linked to several preventable chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. One example of how this works: if you have fat build up in the walls of your heart’s arteries, the body responds by sending inflammatory chemicals, as it sees this as an “injury” to the heart. This ongoing inflammatory response could trigger a blood clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

Why diet matters

You may be wondering what food has to do with inflammation and chronic diseases. We now know that diet plays a critical role –  the types of food you eat affect how much inflammation you have.  There are some foods that can cause this inflammatory response (“prooxidants”) and some foods that help prevent it (“antioxidants”). The recommendations are probably not surprising, and my goal is to offer an overview of the general recommendations about what foods to eat and which to avoid if you want to reduce chronic inflammation in your body.

Basic recommendations of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

  • Eat whole foods which are minimally processed before purchase. Once again, we are back to the advice that if it comes in a box or bag and has more than five or so ingredients on the label, it’s best to put it back on the shelf and keep shopping. Keep reading to learn more about which whole foods are best for reducing chronic inflammation in the body.

 

  • Choose a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. You have probably heard the expression “eat the rainbow” meaning select fruits and veggies from all the color families, from red to violet (don’t forget white too). The reason behind this approach is each color provides particular nutrients that help your body function at its best. For example, orange-hued fruits and veggies offer plenty of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, plus vitamin A and often vitamin C. These nutrients help with eyesight, immune function and healthy skin. Choices include butternut squash, oranges, carrots, mangoes, pumpkins, sweet potato, and cantaloupe. Click here for more examples of how to eat the rainbow.

 

  • Choose whole grains over refined grains, including non-wheat grains. This may be one of the most challenging changes for most people as it means limiting foods made with refined grains such as white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes, and replacing them with healthier options such as whole wheat bread and brown rice. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants, B vitamins and they are high in fiber, which is great for digestion and regularity. There are many choices when it comes to whole grains, so if you cannot or prefer not to eat wheat or gluten, you can select grains such as quinoa, millet, whole oats, or buckwheat.

 

  • Rethink your protein sources. If you choose to eat meat, opt for fatty fish such as Wild Alaskan salmon; organic, grass-fed lean meats; or skinless poultry from organic, cage-free chickens. If you eat eggs, choose omega-3-enriched eggs or organic eggs from free-range chickens. However, not all protein has to come from animal sources. Consider replacing some meat options with plant-based proteins including beans, nuts and seeds. Some examples include black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lentils (note: you can use canned versions, just drain and rinse them before use). Beans are rich in folic acid, magnesium, potassium and soluble fiber. You can eat them either whole or pureed into spreads like hummus.

 

  • Eat foods rich in essential fatty acids. Did you know there are certain fatty acids, needed for cell membrane integrity and chemical transport, that your body cannot make on its own? These include the omega-3 and omega-6 dietary fats. Each of these has a number of health benefits for your body. However, it’s important to get the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet as an imbalance may contribute to a number of chronic diseases. Although omega-6 fatty acids have many helpful benefits, they also have some prooxidant or pro-inflammatory effects; thus, the need to limit them in our diet. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, for most of us that ratio is between 10:1 and 50:1, so we need to try to reduce our omega-6 intake and increase our omega-3 intake. Below are some examples of each:

 

  • The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. If you cannot or prefer not to eat fish, alternative sources include chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds – or you can take a fish oil supplement.

 

  • The most common sources of omega-6 fats are refined vegetable oils, such as soybean and corn, and foods cooked in those vegetable oils. In addition, these fats are found in foods like mayonnaise, walnuts, sunflower seeds, almonds and cashew nuts. You may now see why the standard American diet contains more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.

 

Before moving on from fats, let’s take a moment to discuss the “bad” fats that you want to reduce or preferably eliminate from your diet due to their harmful effects. There are two types of fat that should be eaten sparingly: saturated and trans fatty acids (or trans fats). Both can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease.  Saturated fats are found in animal products (e.g., meat, poultry skin, butter, and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as coconut and palm oils. Trans fats are used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some margarines. Bottom line: you want to reduce your intake of these two types of fat as much as possible in favor of the healthier fats discussed above.

Some of you may be wondering where dairy products fit into this diet. We discussed some dairy products such as eggs and butter. In general, the recommendation is to limit whole-fat dairy products, and choose high-quality natural cheeses, such as Swiss or Parmesan, and yogurt (just be careful of products with high sugar content). When it comes to dairy products, this is one area where you may want to listen to your body and how it handles dairy products. For some, dairy can have inflammatory effects particularly in the gastrointestinal area and/or in the sinuses. If that is the case, consider dairy alternatives such as milk and cheeses made with soy, or almond.

I hope this information helps take some of the mystery out of the anti-inflammatory diet. If you believe your current diet needs improvement based on these recommendations, just remember that you can succeed by taking small steps, one at a time. You don’t have to completely revamp your entire diet overnight. Start with one recommendation and choose one small change you can make this week. Good luck!