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!

Nutrition – Part 1: What to eat

Ahh, nutrition – probably one of the most debated areas on the Wheel of Health. There is so much that can be written about eating a “healthy diet” but given that the recommendations seem to change daily, where does one start? Eggs are bad for you. Whoops, now they’re good for you! Eat low fat foods. Nope, now you need healthy fats. No wonder so many people are confused and frustrated – and therefore, reach for the quickest, most convenient thing they can eat regardless of its nutritional value. Who has time to figure it out, right?

Let me start by stating that I do not have a degree in nutrition and I am not a registered or licensed dietician so I will not be dispensing any specific dietary advice. My goal with this post is to help weed through much of the conflicting information out there and present some basic guidelines that most of the experts do agree on when it comes to the food we put in our bodies. I am of the firm belief that everybody – and every BODY – is unique and thus, what works for one person will not work for someone else. The bottom line is choosing foods that nourish and strengthen your body and mind.

What the experts say

It’s probably no surprise that even the experts can’t agree on what specific diet is best for us. However, in a review of the health benefits of many popular diets (think low fat, low carb, vegan, Mediterranean, paleo and so on), there were a few general patterns that rose to the top. In a nutshell, they include:

  • Eat minimally processed foods direct from nature
  • Eat mostly plants
  • If eating animal foods, choose ones that were raised on plant foods

(Of note, the authors point out that these dietary guidelines are beneficial not just to humans, but other species as well as the environment around us. A win-win-win if you are equally concerned about animal welfare as well as the impact of farming on the earth.) The well-known author/journalist Michael Pollan wasn’t too far off when he summed it up in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” And to clarify, he meant eat real food like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and lean meat. Or as he so simply states it: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Some small steps to get started

I know what you’re probably thinking – easier said than done, especially if you work full-time, have a family to take care of and don’t want to (or can’t) spend hours focused on planning and preparing healthy meals! The good news is that it does not have to be hard. There is a plethora of resources available for anyone who is looking for a little help in this arena. I have listed a few of my personal favorites near the bottom of this post, but here are a few simple guidelines to help you get started:

  • Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat, which is pretty much anything that comes in a box or package with a food label on it. And if that food label has more than 5 ingredients or a bunch of ingredients you can’t pronounce, put it back on the shelf.

 

  • One way to help reduce the amount of processed foods you eat is to avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store as that is where most processed foods are found. You may already be familiar with the advice to shop the perimeter of the store, where most of the fresh foods are located (e.g., produce, fresh meats). Good advice and a great place to start.

 

  • Many of us could benefit from increasing our fruit and vegetable intake. Both the USDA MyPlate and the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate recommend that half your plate at meals consist of healthy fruits and vegetables (unfortunately, potatoes and French fries don’t count). There are so many choices when it comes to produce – experiment and find what works best for you, whether it is munching on raw veggies as a snack, drinking a fruit smoothie for breakfast, or adding a salad of leafy dark greens as a mainstay of your lunch and dinner. Even the pickiest of eaters can find a few fruits and veggies that they like.

Resources to help you take a deeper dive

As someone who is responsible for the bulk of meal planning and grocery shopping for my family, I understand that it may feel daunting to figure out how to put these recommendations into action. Thus, I have compiled a few resources that have really helped me in this arena. As I mentioned earlier, everyone is different so these may or may not work for you, but I pass them along as food for thought (pun intended).

There are many books and websites out there related to the “real food” movement, but one of my favorites is 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake (the website and the related cookbooks). The reason it resonates with me is because it is a real family that made a pledge to reduce – or actually, eliminate – the amount of processed foods they ate and they were successful, even with two young children. My family has not yet taken the plunge to completely eliminate processed foods, but we have been inspired to reduce the processed foods in our diet and cook and eat more real, whole foods. I have one of Lisa’s cookbooks, which has many simple, healthy recipes (a key for me as I am not all that confident in the kitchen). Her website is also chock full of healthy recipes and meal plans for those who need a little extra help in the kitchen.

Given that my family’s quest to eat a truly healthy diet is still a work in progress, and we stumble from time to time with less than optimal choices, I have found comfort in the “good-better-best” approach when it comes to decisions about what to eat. I am not sure who gets credit for this principle, but I found a neat infographic on the Weed ‘Em and Reap website. In essence, this approach is about “doing the best you can with what you have” – which is all we can really ask, right? Maybe you’ll never live in the “best” column, but if you can make some small changes that bump you from bad to good or good to better in a couple of the food areas, that is reason to celebrate. Every little bit helps.

Finally, if you feel overwhelmed by the time and effort you think it might take to implement changes in your diet and seek a supportive community to help you on this journey, you may want to look into The New School Kitchen, or NSK as we members like to call it. The New School Kitchen is an interactive, video-based monthly membership program designed to help you “rock your cooking and eating without hating your family or life” as owner/creator Ryanna Battiste describes it. I have been a member since NSK was launched in August 2016 and it has been a huge help with meal planning and meal preparation centered around eating tasty, healthy real food. Members have access to everything from meal planning tips to healthy recipes to cooking demonstration videos. There is also a private Facebook group where members can ask questions, share resources and support one another along this real food journey. Most recently, the NSK has added the option of working with a health coach either individually or as a group. The beauty of the NSK is that it is self-paced – you determine when and how to engage and work at whatever pace suits your needs. Membership is only $21/month and you can cancel your subscription at any time.

(Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, Ryanna is a fellow Certified Integrative Health Coach – we did our training together at Duke Integrative Medicine. However, I am not getting compensated to promote NSK – in fact, she doesn’t even know that I am mentioning her business in this blog post. I hired Ryanna as my coach a couple of years ago when I decided to work on reducing dairy in my diet after years of suspecting that I had an intolerance. I can personally vouch for her integrity, wisdom and professionalism as a health coach. She is an amazing woman and to me, has created one of the most innovative approaches to healthy eating with The New School Kitchen. She is also just a ton of fun to watch in her videos as she’s not afraid to be real and share the ups and downs of her own real food journey.)

Whew, that was a lot to cover! Next time, we’ll move beyond what to eat and focus on how to eat – mindful eating, one of my favorite subjects!

 

Movement, Exercise and Rest – Part 2

This is the second post related to this area of the Wheel of Health. Previously, I discussed Exercise and Movement. Today, I will focus on Rest/Sleep and why it is just as important for your overall wellbeing.

Rest/Sleep

While movement and exercise are important for good health, so are rest and sleep. Our bodies need down time to recover from physical activity. Although sleep needs vary by person, in general the recommendation is 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for adults. However, almost a third of adults in the United States report sleeping less than 7 hours per night. If we don’t sleep enough, the body can’t complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. We also wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully in work, school and social activities.

The quality of sleep matters as much as the quantity. Many of us are so busy that we find it difficult to “turn off” when it is time to sleep, resulting in sleep that does not restore us. We’re likely to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping soundly.

If you struggle with getting a good night’s sleep, consider these sleep hygiene recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Even on weekends, avoid going to bed or waking up more than an hour later than usual.
  • Use bright light to help manage your internal “body clock”. This means avoiding bright lights in the evening and exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime ritual such as taking a warm bath, reading a calming book, lighting candles or listening to soft music.
  • Create an environment that is conducive to sleep. The bedroom should be quiet, dark and cool. Consider removing work materials, televisions, computers and other electronic devices. Be sure that your mattress and pillow are comfortable.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, particularly later in the day.
  • Regular exercise can help with sleep, but avoid moderate to intense workouts close to bedtime as they can have the opposite effect.

If you try some or all of these methods and still struggle to get adequate sleep, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional. S/he may recommend a sleep study to determine if there are underlying medical issues that are interfering with your sleep.

In addition to adequate sleep, it is also important to allow yourself time to rest and relax (good old “R&R”). That might mean walking in the woods. Or fishing. Or lying on the couch with a good book. Whatever you find calming and restorative. This applies to taking breaks during the work day too. Many of us may find it difficult to do so in our culture that emphasizes working long hours and being plugged in 24/7, but a growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion. So, let go of the guilt and make time for yourself. You won’t regret it.

ann lamott quote

 

Finding Nia and The Joy of Movement

Before I move on from exercise and movement, I want to share my experience with Nia. What is Nia, you ask? I’ll get to that in a minute, but I want to start by letting you in on a little secret – I don’t really like to exercise. I know –  shocking, right?! Many people have the false belief that health coaches and other wellness professionals work out for hours on end, eat only healthy foods and never struggle with the temptations that others battle every day. WRONG. We’re human too and are faced with making the same choices as everyone else regarding food, exercise and other lifestyle behaviors.

Exercise as “work”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I struggled with being overweight as a young adult. Becoming active in school sports helped me shed the excess pounds, but from that point on, I believed that I had to exercise to stay thin. In college, I took advantage of the campus fitness center and found a walking buddy. After college, I joined the local gym and spent many hours in aerobics classes, or on the treadmill. Occasionally, I worked up the nerve to use the weight machines or lightweight dumbbells to add some strength training. After my daughter was born, I bought a treadmill and some hand weights so I could exercise at home. I also found a series of walk at home DVDs and dabbled in some yoga and Pilates. But the whole time, from college forward, there was always this underlying sense of dread – that exercise was a chore, one more thing to check off on my daily to do list. Until I found Nia – and (re)discovered the joy of movement.

The Nia Technique®

The Nia Technique® is a holistic fitness practice addressing body, mind and soul. Nia combines movements and philosophies from martial arts, dance arts and healing arts, such as yoga, to help tone your body while transforming your mind. The classes are non-impact, practiced barefoot, and adaptable to individual needs and abilities.

I first learned about Nia through my wonderful massage therapist (and Nia teacher), Laura Ghantous. I must have complained enough about how much I disliked exercising but felt the need to do so to maintain a healthy weight. I recall she mentioned Nia at least a few times before I finally took the plunge and decided to give it a try. I won’t lie and say I loved it from the get go. I found it hard to let go of feeling self-conscious during the free dance portion and seeing a bunch of grown women roll around the floor at the end was a little…odd to say the least. But I did find myself connecting to my lifelong love of music and dance – it had been so long since I had danced! I forgot how much I loved it.

So, I stuck with it. I signed up for a class on Saturday mornings and with each class, I grew more comfortable – with myself, with my body, with the freedom to move MY body’s way. Unlike all those years I spent at the gym, in group fitness classes or on the treadmill, I never find myself watching the clock during a Nia class, wondering how long until it’s over and I can move on to do the things I really want to do. Now, I find myself disappointed when an hour passes too quickly and I realize class is over. What an amazing shift in perspective for me.

From student to teacher

After taking Nia classes for about six years, something clicked for me last year and I knew I was ready to take things to the next level. Nia training mirrors the colored belt system used in martial arts, and you can also choose to become a licensed teacher. In March, I successfully completed the first level of training, the White Belt Intensive, which focuses on physical sensation, body awareness, and self-knowledge – and is the minimum training required to teach Nia. There are 13 principles in the White Belt training. Principle One is the Joy of Movement – Sensing Life Force. The Joy of Movement is sensed as the “vibratory aliveness of being.” Now, that’s what I want to feel when I exercise. And I hope to inspire that in others as I begin teaching Nia classes this fall.

To learn more about Nia and to find classes in your area, visit www.nianow.com. If you live in the Triangle area of NC, visit www.TriangleNia.com to find classes near you.

Nia: Through movement we find health.

 

 

Movement, Exercise and Rest – Part 1

This dimension of the wheel is quite comprehensive so I am going to split it into two posts. The first will focus on Exercise and Movement; then, I’ll follow up with a post on Sleep/Rest.

By now, you’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but research does show that prolonged sitting may be harmful, even if you exercise regularly. The more time we spend sitting — whether at a desk, on the couch or in the car — the greater the risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. And unfortunately, even an hour at the gym every day, huffing and puffing on the treadmill, might not be enough to counteract the effects if you spend most of the rest of your time sitting.

One of my favorite fitness experts, Leslie Sansone, said it best on one of her walk at home DVDs: Our bodies are meant to move. Humans were not designed to be sedentary! We wouldn’t have all these wonderful bones, muscles and joints that allow the body to move in all directions. Unfortunately, as our world has evolved and society has developed more modern conveniences, the unintended consequence has been less overall movement for most of us. It’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s just what happened. The good news is we can do something about it. It just may take a little extra effort to make it happen.

Exercise

Let’s talk about exercise first – and by exercise, I mean physical activity that you engage in on a regular basis for more than a few minutes at a time. It can be as simple as walking in your neighborhood or completing the CrossFit Workout of the Day.  So, what is the best exercise? The one that you will do! Yes, it may sound cheesy and cliché, but it is true. Finding something that is fun and enjoyable for you is the most important thing. Why? You’ll stick with it. You don’t get stronger or fitter or leaner from exercising one time. You get stronger or fitter or leaner by exercising on a consistent basis. And it’s human nature to engage in activities that we enjoy doing. So maybe start by thinking about what activities or sports you enjoy – perhaps you like the challenge of training for a road race or maybe you prefer playing tennis with your spouse. Have fun experimenting until you find the activity (or activities) that work best for you.

Some of you may be looking for guidance on how long or how often to exercise. In general, most adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, for general health and to maintain your current weight. This typically translates to about 30 minutes five days/week. To lose weight, the recommendation is 200-300 minutes of moderate intensity activity (with the greater amount typically leading to faster weight loss). This would mean closer to 45 minutes every day or 60 minutes five days/week. Moderate intensity is defined as activity that increases your heart rate and makes you break a sweat, such as brisk walking, cycling at lower speeds, water aerobics, etc. Everybody is different so it is a good idea to talk to your doctor if it’s been a while since you’ve exercised or if you have health issues that could limit your ability to participate in certain activities.

Movement

Perhaps more important than exercise though is the need to build regular movement into your day – particularly if your work or home life finds you sitting most of the time. There are some simple steps you can take to reduce sitting time, including:

  • If you work at a desk or on a computer most of the day, stand up and/or walk around for a few minutes every hour (or even half-hour if possible).
  • Consider a desk that lets you work both standing and sitting down. You could also explore a treadmill desk that allows you to walk slowly while you work.
  • Park your car further away from the building so you’ll be able to walk more. Stand rather than sit if you ride the bus or subway.
  • Try standing or doing chores while watching TV. Build in brief fitness breaks during commercials.
  • Become less efficient – consider not multitasking to get more movement into your day. For example, pick up and put away one item in the house at a time instead of doing it all in one trip.

Adding short bursts of standing and movement like this will keep you from becoming an “active couch potato,” someone who exercises regularly and then remains largely sedentary the rest of the time. Think of fitness as something that entails what you do the entire day, not just during your workout.

Hello World

Hey there.  I know what you’re thinking…not another “healthy lifestyle blogger”?!  I know, I know, it seems like we are a dime a dozen these days – BUT I encourage you to keep reading. You’re here already so you might as well stick around to see what I have to say, right?

Yes, there are many, many people in the “blogosphere” who write about health. Some are professionals or experts. Others are individuals who are passionate about health and wellness. They learn as much as they can about topics of interest and then share that knowledge with others. Where do I fall on the spectrum? I combine the best of both worlds – I took my passion for wellness and turned it into a professional career. The path was not straight and narrow, but I am incredibly excited that it led me here today.

So…why include me as a “go to” source for health-related information? Three reasons:

Credentials. I have a Master’s degree in Public Health with a focus on Health Behavior/Health Education from the UNC School of Public Health. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®), a Certified Professional in Health Quality (CPHQ) and a Certified Integrative Health Coach (through Duke Integrative Medicine). I am also sitting for the brand new, national health and wellness coach certification exam in September so I hope to add one more credential as a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach. I realize that’s a lot of letters behind my name, but my degrees and certifications are all from accredited universities and reputable professional associations.

Experience. Throughout my career in healthcare, I have worked in and/or with most of the major types of facilities in our system including a rural health department, skilled nursing facilities, a large hospital system and a primary care physician practice. Even when my primary “paid” role did not include a focus on wellness, I found a way to get involved with prevention and promoting a healthy lifestyle. I am so grateful that my career path has led me to my current role of health and wellness coach, where I am privileged to partner with individuals on their journey to optimal health.

My personal health journey*. I’m a real person who deals with many of the same health issues and concerns as you. I have struggled with weight management, emotional eating, work-life balance, stress and anxiety, to name a few.  Have I nailed all of my healthy living habits? Heck no, but my point is that I can relate to many of the challenges you may face in taking care of your physical and emotional health.

Just one last thing – my promise to you is that I will be a trusted, credible resource for you on your journey. I will strive to share information that comes from reputable sources based on sound scientific research. If I do share anything that is more anecdotal in nature, I will state that upfront. No fake news – Girl Scout promise.

*For those of you who are interested, I have included details about my health journey in my next post.