Inflammation has been in the news a lot lately. But what exactly is inflammation? Is it always a bad thing? And if so, can you really eat well to fight inflammation, or reverse it?
There are two general type of inflammation, and one is actually helpful. You may have experienced acute inflammation as the body’s natural response to healing a major trauma, such as a sprained joint or broken bone. For example swelling brings more blood to the area for healing or to help immobilize the joint to prevent further damage. Likewise, an infection with associated heat or fever helps to burn out the pathogen.
However, ongoing chronic inflammation is another thing all together. When inflammation is persistent without a clear resolution, it becomes chronic inflammation. And chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your body, mind, and overall health. In fact as much as 80-90% of all chronic illness is thought to be caused by chronic inflammation (1)(2). The good news is that most chronic inflammation is preventable and even somewhat reversible with lifestyle changes and diet. These tips will help you eat well to fight inflammation.
Diseases Linked to Chronic Inflammation
The 80-90% of diseases linked to chronic inflammation included:
- Most autoimmune diseases have been linked to chronic inflammation (3).
- Most heart disease is caused by inflammation of the heart muscle or cardiovascular system.
- Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes are linked to chronic inflammation.
- Alzheimer’s disease (now called “Type 3 Diabetes” (4) due to the direct link between high blood sugar and Alzheimer’s) and other types of dementia have been linked to chronic inflammation of the brain as well (5).
- 90-95% of cancers can be attributed to environmental factors such as toxins and chemical exposure and chronic stress and inflammation (6). Scientists now think that only about 5-10% of all cancers are genetic in origin (7).
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
Chronic Inflammation can be caused by a variety of factors including chronic stress (keeping your body in fight-or-flight mode all the time, rather than rest-and-digest mode); a sedentary lifestyle; and an unhealthy diet to name a few. Free radicals can also caused chronic inflammation.
Luckily there are many ways to combat or reverse chronic inflammation, from meditation, to exercise, to diet and supplements. While I’m a big proponent of food-as-medicine, and getting as much of your nutrients from your diet as possible, fighting chronic inflammation is one place where the right supplements can help make an impact.
Free Radicals, Chronic Inflammation, and Antioxidants
Here’s a little science-geek sidebar: Free radicals can be derived from the body’s normal metabolic processes, or from external sources such as exposure to air pollutants, cigarette smoke, industrial chemicals, ozone, and X-rays. (8) Oxygen in the body can split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. Electrons like to be in pairs so these atoms, called free radicals, scavenge the body to seek out other electrons so they can become a pair. This causes damage to cells, proteins and DNA, and can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation. (9)(10) Antioxidants (found in fruits, vegetables, and dietary supplements) are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. (11) Thus helping to prevent chronic inflammation.
Typical foods found in the Standard American Diet (SAD) all contribute to free radicals and chronic inflammation, including (12):
- All fried foods
- Sodas and other sweetened drinks
- Processed foods
- foods high in sugar or artificial sweeteners
- animal fats
- rancid fats and oils
Fortunately, you can eat well to fight inflammation because diet plays a big role in the reversal of chronic inflammation. (13)
Eat Well to Fight Inflammation
Now that we know some of the causes of chronic inflammation, let’s take a look at some of the top anti-inflammatory foods you can add into your diet, to help combat it. For optimal health it’s also a good idea to minimize the foods mentioned in the SAD diet above that contribute to inflammation.
If you love berries as much as I do, you’ll love this news. All berries from blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries, to raspberries, and strawberries win hands down for the most antioxidant-packed fruits. Since antioxidants are super-anti-inflammatory, any fruit, vegetable, or supplement (like resveratrol from grapes) with high antioxidant properties is going to help fight inflammation. (14)
Blueberries contain anthocyanins, a phytonutrient which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and has also been shown to increase neural pathways in the brain. And one study shows that blueberries positively affect cognition in aging populations. (15) Another study at University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth, shows that phytochemicals of cranberries, known for their protection in urinary tract infections and bladder health, also contain anti-cancer properties. (16)
However, berries are also high on the Dirty-Dozen list of fruits containing pesticide residue. So it’s best to eat organic berries whenever possible. When fresh berries aren’t in season, eating frozen berries is nearly as healthy as fresh, since they are flash-frozen which preserves the majority of their nutrients (unlike cooking or canning fruit.) (17)
You can eat well to fight inflammation by adding your favorite organic berries, fresh or frozen, to your morning smoothie, top your granola, add them to salads, snack on them throughout the day, or eat them for dessert. Berries are also the lowest fruit on the glycemic index so they don’t contain much natural sugar. Any way you choose to eat them, you’ll be doing your body a favor by eating berries.
In case you missed the memo a few years back, eating healthy fats don’t make you fat. We now know that the brain is 60-70% fat. So eating a low-fat diet just starves your brain, but doesn’t help you lose weight at all, no bueno! (18)
Fruit oils, such as olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, are particularly anti-inflammatory, and supportive of brain health, along with health of the eyes, heart, and skin too. And eating foods high in monounsaturated fats, like avocados, has been linked to lower inflammation and decreased risk of cancer and diabetes. In a study done in Australia, olive oil, (a big component of the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean Diet), was shown to work as well as or better than ibuprofen (19) in reducing inflammation and pain, as well as protecting against chronic inflammation.
Unfortunately, due to its stelar health properties, olive oil has become big money-making business, and many brands of olive oil are now being adulterated with other oils like canola, and even artificial flavoring and coloring. Best to opt for organic extra virgin olive oil, and brands from California, Trader Joe’s, and Costco, which were all tested to be pure. Check your favorite brand of olive oil against this list.
And if you’re wondering about the term “extra virgin”, it’s a marketing gimmick. The first olive pressing produces “virgin” olive oil, and you can’t get “more virgin” than a first pressing. But, if your olive oil gives you a peppery “bite” at the back of your throat you know your olive is the real deal, virgin or extra virgin! My personal fav is Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin Kalamata Olive Oil.
We use olive oil liberally on our salads, and in recipes that call for oil. The anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil can deteriorate with high heat, so it’s best to cook with it on medium heat or lower. We prefer to sauté with coconut oil which is more stable at higher temperatures. And I love putting olive oil on my gluten-free whole-grain toast instead of butter, so yummy!! I also eat an avocado a day, and eat plenty of nuts (see below) to ensure I’m getting lots of brain-healthy fats.
Herb & Spices
Nature’s medicine chest is full of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices. In particular these herbs and spices have been shown to be the most anti-inflammatory:
- Black Pepper
It’s no wonder that Mediterranean and Indian dishes have both been shown to reduce inflammation, as they both contain so many of the above herbs and spices. Soprinkle these herbs and spices liberally on your food to help your body fight inflammation.
An interesting sidebar about the health benefits of garlic: The phytochemical allinase combines with oxygen when garlic is cut or chopped to form allicin which is what makes garlic anti-inflammatory. It takes a few minute for this reaction to happen, so it’s best to cut or chop garlic and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before using it. Also, if adding it to cooked food, add it in at the end so it’s just warmed, since cooking can destroy the allicin. Even though crispy, caramelized garlic tastes delicious, it doesn’t have nearly the health benefits as raw garlic.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are high on the list of anti-inflammatory foods, with macadamia nuts topping the list as most anti-inflammatory (they have the best ratio of omega 3:omega 6), followed by almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pecans. Sadly, nuts were also maligned for being high in fat during the dangerous low-fat craze of the ’80’s and 90’s. But nuts actually contain healthy fats which protect the heart and brain from inflammation (21).
Besides being a great source of protein, nuts keep you satiated longer due to their healthy fats, so you may eat less by adding nuts to your diet. Nuts are high in omega 3 fatty acids which help reverse chronic inflammation, and vitamin E-which has been associated with decreased cognitive decline in aging as well.
Try adding a handful of nuts or a tablespoon of nut-butter into your morning smoothie; add them to salads, or sprinkle ground nuts on top of grilled fish or other dishes.
It’s worth noting that nuts and seeds also contain high amounts of phytic acid, the plants natural deterrent to predators. Biologically speaking, nuts and seeds are meant to germinate, grow, and reproduce again. So phytic acid in nuts and seeds makes them difficult to digest, which is why they often pass through birds and animals and can still germinate and grow after being eaten. Too much phytic acid can contribute to chronic inflammation, so nuts are best eaten dry roasted, or if they are raw soak them in water overnight first. This will help break down the phytic acid.
Also, when eating nut-butters, it’s important to find ones that contain roasted nuts as the only ingredient, and preferably organic. Many nut butters are loaded with sugar and unhealthy oils, making them more inflammatory than anti-inflammatory.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and dark leafy greens including kale, spinach, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and collard greens all pack a huge amount of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. Also, while technically a fruit, most people think of tomatoes as a vegetable. Either way, they are high in the antioxidant lycopene which has been shown to be very anti-inflammatory as well. The one caveat is that if you’re sensitive to nightshades, tomatoes should be avoided.
Exactly how these veggies fight cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation is still being studied. (20) We do know they contain a powerhouse of phytochemicals, like beta-carotene and lutein. They have large amounts of folic acid, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium, and are high in fiber and low in fat. It’s thought that many of these phytonutrients work in concert with each other to fight chronic inflammation. So as I mentioned above, rather than taking a supplement or pill made up of one or two compounds, it’s best to eat whole foods and get the benefit of all phytonutrients working in harmony whenever you can. As a last resort, supplements that are high in these compounds are better than nothing at all.
Steps to Help You Eat Well to Fight Inflammation
So now that you know more about the dangers of chronic inflammation, and that you can eat well to fight inflammation, how can you start to change your eating habits? Here are a few steps to get you started.
1. Read Labels
The #1 most effective way you can start to eat healthier is just taking a look at labels. Although labels are harder to read with the smaller print these days (or maybe my eyes are just getting worse with age?! 🙂 ) So pull out your reading glasses if you need to, but READ those labels on anything that comes in a box, bag, or jar. If it has more than five ingredients in it, any ingredients you can’t pronounce, or any ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t have known, just skip it!
2. Buy Real, Organic Food
As the saying goes: shop the perimeter of the store, skip the middle isles. Really these days 90% of the “foods” in a grocery store cause inflammation. If it comes in a box, bag, or jar, chances are it’s not healthy and may contribute to inflammation. Organic foods are certified to not contain toxic chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics, all of which lead to chronic inflammation. When ever possible, buy whole, organic fruits and vegetables, organic dairy, organic/grass-fed/lean meats, and wild caught fish, not farmed.
If you can only afford to buy one thing organic, make it organic dairy (if you eat dairy…better yet, ditch dairy all together, as undiagnosed dairy allergies are very common. By one estimate upwards of 75% of Americans have an undiagnosed dairy allergy. The dairy lobbyists did a snow-job on the FDA to make us “think” we need dairy for healthy bones. Absolutely not true, but that’s a topic for another post.) Non organic dairy contains antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. And these nasties get concentrated in butter, cheese, and ice cream and definitely cause chronic inflammation.
3. Kick Sugar to the Curb
It’s is THE most inflammatory food you can eat. So if you’re truly concerned with reducing your chronic inflammation, refined sugar should be the first thing to go. Try replacing it with berries and other fruit. Use a little honey or maple syrup if you must (but NOT artificial sweeteners, which are even worse for you than refined sugar.) Again, read labels. Sugar hides everywhere, even where you don’t expect it like in peanut butter, and pasta sauce.
Want to kick your sugar habit? Download my FREE e-book: Kick Your Sugar Habit Before Sugar Kick’s You!
4. Eliminate Trans fats and Other Non-healthy Fats
Be sure to eliminate unhealthy fats like trans fats (hydrogenated fats/oils or partly hydrogenated fats and oils like margarine are directly linked to heart disease), animal fats, vegetable oils and canola oil from your diet too. Sadly, canola oil is not as healthy as was once thought. And if it’s not organic it’s definitely GMO and likely contains carcinogenic glyphosate as well. Just say no to GMOs and to Canola oil.
Corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower seed oil, and vegetable oil also are not very healthy for you. Because these oils are plentiful and cheap they are frequently used in frying and baking chips and crackers. But they can quickly turn rancid.
And guess what? Rancid oils are one of the biggest causes of free radicals, which as you now know cause inflammation. If you ever smell or taste that rancid-oil smell/taste, toss it out right away. Rancid oil is one of the worst things you can eat. You may smell or taste rancidity in a brand new bag of nuts, chips or crackers. That can indicate that they were stored in high-heat on their way to the store. Return them or toss them out. You can store nuts and seeds in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer to ensure they last longer and don’t go rancid. We keep ours in mason jars or infinity jars in the fridge or freezer.
Unfortunately, truth in labeling doesn’t totally exist yet. Packaging can legally say “0 Trans Fats” if it has less than .5 gram trans fats per serving. So let’s say a cookie has .49 grams trans fat, it can legally say 0 trans fats. You eat two cookies and you’re up to almost 1 gram of trans fats, four cookies and your at almost 2 grams of trans fats… so you really need to read ingredients and sometimes do some math when reading labels.
5. Ditch Refined Carbohydrates and Processed Foods
Next cut back on refined carbs and processed foods. This includes breads, cookies, crackers, chips, pastas, and pastries. Even “healthy” snacks and processed foods from natural food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, aren’t really “healthy.” They likely contain unhealthy oils, and simple carbs break down into sugar as soon as you digest them.
Recipes to Help You Eat Well to Fight Inflammation
Now that you’ve got a few tips to help you shop healthier, how about a few recipes to help get you going? All of the recipes on my blog contain ingredients that fight inflammation. Here are a few of my favs that are super-anti-inflammatory. Buen provecho! To your health… and may you eat well to fight inflammation.
HEART-HEALTHY COCOA-BLUEBERRY SMOOTHIE
The blueberries and cocoa in this smoothie are both very high in antioxidants which help to fight inflammation.
VEGAN PESTO PASTA SALAD WITH GRILLED VEGGIES
One of our favorite meals, this recipe includes a host of inflammation fighting ingredients like olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, basil, and black pepper. To make it healthier you can spiralize zucchini into low-carb pasta.
LEMON-GINGER MAHI WITH GRILLED VEGGIES
You can make this super-yummy recipe with any type of fish. It works well with a firm white fish like Mahi or Halibut. Inflammation fighting ingredients include tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and ginger.
GINGER PEAR BLUEBERRY CRUMBLE
A delicious and healthy dessert or breakfast gets its sweetness from the inflammation fighting pears and blueberries, no added sugar. It also has ginger, cinnamon, and almonds to help fight inflammation.
Cardamom Tea contains several of the most anti-inflammatory spices (black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger). It’s nice and warming in the fall and winter, and is a good after-dinner tea to aid digestion.
If you like what you’ve learned here, stay tuned for the new book I’m co-writing with my friend and author, Boni Wagner-Stafford, Co-founder of Ingenium Books. We’re writing about eating for anti-inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
Please leave a comment to let us know what item surprised you most? What changes you will implement? Or anything else to help us eat well to fight inflammation.