Inflammation is an important part of the body’s response to injury and is part of the healing process.
Inflammation protects us when our immune system is attacked by anything that is recognized as foreign, such as during infection or immunologic reactions.
Persistent inflammation in the body can lead to bad health and may promote diseases such as cancers, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer’s. The good news is that the best way to reduce inflammation is not by reaching for a medication, but by reaching into your refrigerator. Choose the right foods and you may be able to combat inflammation and reduce your risk of illness.
The key is to always find a balance in life.
The lifestyle to reduce inflammation includes one of eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy weight.
First, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce inflammation. Often weight loss occurs when following an anti-inflammatory diet, just from the makeup of the diet itself. It is not a magic combination of foods that promises you will drop 10 pounds in 10 days, but it will make you healthier, leaving you energized, with a possible added bonus of weight loss.
A Mediterranean style diet is considered a good diet model that can help thwart inflammation. The diet emphasizes:
- Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. Aim for 4 to 5 servings of each every day. Choose fruits and vegetables that are deep green, orange, yellow, and purple, since these have the greatest nutritional value. Ten servings may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that actually servings are smaller than what we think. For instance, one medium fruit, ½ cup canned or frozen fruit, ½ cup cooked vegetable, ½ cup fruit juice, and 1 cup raw vegetables equal one serving each.
- Use olive oil as the main source of dietary fat used in cooking, baking, and preparing salads and vegetables. Virgin olive oil is best as since it has more inflammation-fighting antioxidants than refined olive oil.
- Eat lentils, beans, and nuts. Walnuts, for example, provide fiber, minerals, antioxidants, and the kinds of fatty acids that are good for the heart. Lentils and beans are good sources of protein and can replace red meat at meals. These whole foods overall provide healthful fats, protein and fiber to the diet, while adding flavor and texture to dishes.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods. This not only adds flavor and aroma to foods, but also boost antioxidant intake.
- Eat fish 2 to 3 times a week. Fish rich in Omega-3 include tuna, herring, sardines, salmon, mussels, mackerel, octopus, clams, and shrimp. Some research has shown that consuming a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids may be as beneficial as taking an aspirin.
- Whole grain. Choose whole grain breads, bagels, English muffins, pitas, crackers, and cereals, as well as oatmeal, brown rice, and whole grain pastas, just as a few examples. These foods are high in fiber, which helps to normalize the inflammatory response that can occur after a rapid increase or decrease in blood sugar levels. You can identify a food as being whole grain if the words whole or whole grain appear before the grain’s name in the Ingredient List, as for example, whole wheat flour. Look for the word whole in the ingredients in foods made with wheat, oats, corn, or rice.
Swap highly refined sugary desserts for dark chocolate and fresh fruit as often as you can.
The key points to reducing inflammation are consuming minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains; fish and dairy intake, including cheese and yogurt; and a moderate to high amount of healthy fats from vegetable oils, in particular, olive oil. Inflammation is decreased by not eating highly processed, refined carbohydrates, processed meats, trans fats, saturated fats, and sugar-sweetened beverages. When in doubt, choose whole, real foods whenever possible and do not exclude any entire food group from your diet.
Lastly, a healthy diet alone cannot do it all, as it is part of a combination of healthy lifestyle practices that also include adequate sleep, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. If one of these areas is not where they need to be right now, take steps in the right direction toward good health.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information.