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!