Most foods either rev up inflammation or tamp it down. A diet high in trans-fatty acids, carbohydrates and sugar drives the body to create inflammatory chemicals. On the flip side, a diet heavy on vegetables, legumes, grassfed meats, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids puts the brakes on the inflammatory process.
Early humans consumed an excellent balance of pro-inflammatory fats (mainly omega-6s) and anti-inflammatory fats (such as omega-3s and -9s). People today, however, often chow down on 30 times more bad fats than good. “The typical American diet is priming people for inflammation,” says Jack Challem, author of The Inflammation Syndrome. “It’s like sitting in a parked car with your foot on the gas. Eventually you’ll overheat.”
The bottom line? If you have an inflammation-related illness, such as atherosclerosis or arthritis, altering your eating habits may help you tame your symptoms, or even change the course of the disease. And if your genes or a sedentary lifestyle put you at risk for chronic inflammation, eating right may make the difference between staying healthy or drifting downhill.
Here is a simple five-step diet plan to help you fight inflammation.
1. Get Friendly With Fish
Fish overflows with two key omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA for short). Both are potent anti-inflammatories. Studies show that people who eat fish regularly are less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, or develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, studies have shown that eating omega-3-rich fish just once a week may lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 60 percent.
To reap fish’s health perks, nutritional experts recommend indulging in a fish dish at least twice a week (baked or broiled, not fried). To get the most omega-3 fatty acids, stick to either fresh or frozen coldwater fish, including mackerel, salmon and tuna. Avoid oil-packed tuna, since the omega-3s tend to leach into surrounding oil.
You also need to watch out for fish that may contain toxins, especially if you’re in a high-risk category. Women who are either pregnant or hoping to be should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, all of which may hold potentially dangerous levels of mercury, which can damage a developing fetus. (Nursing mothers and young children also should avoid these fish.) Studies have shown that some albacore tuna (often packaged as canned white tuna) has unsafe mercury levels. In March 2004, the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency published a joint statement recommending that pregnant women, nursing mothers and children eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna each week, or approximately one serving.
There are options for vegetarians, too, though they’re not ideal. The body can make its own EPA and DHA from omega-3 fats (called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA), which are found in flaxseed, wheat germ and walnuts (as well as some oils). But you’d better be hungry. The body’s mechanism for converting plant-based omega-3s isn’t particularly effective. You’ll need to eat four times as much ALA to equal the amount of bioavailable omega-3s found in a 3-ounce serving of fish.
Although flaxseed is often touted as an equal substitute to fish oil, it just can’t compete, says Jim LaValle, a naturopathic physician at the Longer Living Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Cox-2 Connection. Vegetarians concerned about inflammation should consider fish-oil supplements. If fish oil is out of the question, focus instead on lowering intake of bad fats and ingesting more good fats, including extra virgin olive oil, hemp oil, and flaxseed oil.
2. Choose Fats Wisely
The body uses fatty acids to make prostaglandins, the main hormones that control inflammation. Because the body must make do with what’s at hand, a diet heavy in pro-inflammatory fats will fan inflammation. Conversely, meals that balance pro- and anti-inflammatory fats cool things off.
Fats to avoid include:
- safflower oil
- sunflower oil
- corn oil
- and all partially hydrogenated oils
Fats that get a green light are:
- fatty coldwater fish
- extra virgin olive oil
- canola oil
- walnuts and flax (plus those listed in the first section)
Begin tackling fat by cutting out the worst offender: trans-fatty acids. “If your diet is rich in trans-fatty acids, you’re going to drive your body to make more inflammatory chemicals,” says LaValle. The top sources for trans-fatty acids are vegetable shortenings and hard margarines, but most processed foods also contain them in various levels. Trans-fatty acids are easy to spot thanks to legislation requiring food makers to add trans-fatty acids to ingredient labels in 2006.
3. Embrace Your Inner Herbivore
Fruits and vegetables are storehouses of antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds. The best sources are brightly colored fruit and vegetables, such as blueberries, strawberries, bell peppers and spinach. “Anytime you go with a large variety of colors, you get a powerhouse of phytochemicals, some of which have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Melanie Polk, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.
An easy way to up your phytochemicals is to select foods that are deeper shades of colors than you already eat, Polk says. For salad greens, choose the darker spinach over iceberg; grab a ruby strawberry instead of a banana.
For a simple way to eat more plant-based foods, Polk suggests using your dinner plate as a measuring tool. Ideally, two-thirds of the plate should be covered with plant-based foods, including vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, she explains. The remaining one-third can be filled with high-quality animal protein, like grassfed beef, organic chicken thighs, or salmon. Consider eating more anti-inflammatory herbs, like ginger and turmeric, and augmenting your diet with antioxidant supplements.
4. Cut Back on Wheat and Dairy
Not heeding food intolerances and sensitivities is a one-way ticket to chronic inflammation, and no two foods are bigger triggers than dairy and wheat. For people who suffer from lactose intolerance or celiac disease (gluten sensitivity), the stomach treats dairy and wheat products as hostile invaders. Often it only takes a bite of bread or a spoonful of ice cream to kick the immune system into high gear.
5. Say No to Sugar
Sugary foods can also be a problem, especially when eaten between meals, since they cause a surge in blood-sugar levels. To regain balance, the pancreas releases a rush of insulin, which in turn activates the genes involved in inflammation. This biochemical roller coaster is thought to contribute to the onset of type 2 diabetes. “When I’m trying to quell people’s inflammation, I make sure they knock out refined grains and refined sugars,” says LaValle. “You’ve got to get rid of the inflammatory chemistry.”
This article was excerpted from “Fighting Inflammation,” published in the July 2004 issue of Experience Life magazine.