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What Is an Anti-inflammatory Diet & What's in It for Me?

The word “inflammation” has been tossed around a lot lately as the cause of many health issues. There are some conditions such as arthritis that are clearly linked to inflammation. But it has also been tied to other diseases like diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, digestive problems, allergies and some cancers.

Generally speaking, inflammation is the body’s immune response to protect itself. With acute inflammation that usually means swelling and redness if you get a splinter or bump your shins. Chronic inflammation occurs when the body is continually exposed to agitating factors – cigarette smoke, blood plaque or anything else your body finds irritating, including the food you eat.

“We know that some foods can cause your body to respond with an immune reaction,” said Barbara George, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator who sees patients at Samaritan Heartspring Wellness Center and Samaritan Diabetes Education. “These could be foods that you are allergic to, but it could also be foods that you don’t digest well for some reason.”

Food as a Problem

George notes that inflammation can occur when the body can’t interpret the right way to use foods, which often happens with foods that are highly processed or contain a lot of chemicals or pesticides. 

“We’re discovering that the way food is processed and prepared can affect how you react to it,” she said. “Nutrients naturally found in food are important to help you metabolize that food and help your body use it in the right way.”

Nutrients are usually present in the highest amounts when the food is in a whole, unprocessed or minimally processed state. Think steel cut oats or brown rice instead of cold cereal made with oat flour or instant rice. Eating the whole food provides the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that the food is supposed to come with.

“The problem with packaged foods,” said George. “is that when you start breaking apart the whole food you get calories but not the essential elements your body needs to turn this food into healthy new cells, balanced hormones energy.”

Food as a Tool

An anti-inflammatory diet works by decreasing the things that are irritating to your body, and increasing the good foods that can improve your body’s ability to function.

“What we’re most concerned about are fast foods, pre-packaged prepared foods, high sugar content and fried foods,” said George. “Instead we want people to be eating more vegetables and fruits every day, with emphasis on more vegetables than fruit. 

According to George, the anti-inflammatory diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, with a lower glycemic intake in response to slower paced American lifestyles.

Guidelines for an Anti-inflammatory Diet

  • Eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Eat vegetables raw or steam them lightly.
  • Eat one to two pieces of whole fruit every day.
  • Choose mostly whole grains as opposed to foods made from refined flours. Whole grains include millet; basmati, brown or wild rice; quinoa; amaranth; flax; wheat berries; barley; steel cut oats and buckwheat.
  • Protein sources include deep, cold water fish such as salmon, small halibut, sardines and tilapia; turkey, chicken, wild game or lamb; nuts, organic whole soy, legumes and grains.
  • Limit or avoid dairy. Use rice, almond, unsweetened soy milk or hemp milk.
  • Use olive oil mainly, but keep cooking temperatures below 350 degrees as olive oil is not stable at high temperatures. Avocado oil is an alternative that works well for higher temperatures.
  • Natural, whole plant fats like nuts, seeds, avocados and olives are encouraged in moderate amounts with each meal.
  • Limit all sweeteners. If needed, very small amounts of maple syrup, rice syrup, honey or molasses may be used.

An Anti-inflammatory Shortcut?

There are many foods and spices that have anti-inflammatory properties, including turmeric, curry, parsley, ginger, rosemary and garlic. Adding these high-performing anti-inflammatory agents to your meals can help, but to get the most benefit from these foods you’ll also need to reduce or eliminate the amount of inflammatory foods you are consuming.

“Something like turmeric works very well as an anti-inflammatory but it won’t work alone without a good diet to go with it,” said George. “If you knew that drinking coffee was causing a headache, you wouldn’t take an ibuprofen and then keep drinking coffee. So adding turmeric may help but it won’t stop the inflammation.”

When to Make the Switch

George reports that an anti-inflammatory diet can be extremely beneficial for people with arthritis, diabetes, heart conditions and chronic gastrointestinal disturbances. You may also notice an improvement in your health on an anti-inflammation diet if you have unexplained weight gain, brain fog, fatigue, joint and muscle aches or have tested positive for nutrient deficiencies.

“This is something that people can jump right into,” said George. “It’s an easy thing to try for a month to see if you feel better. And then talk to your doctor about it if you feel like you want more support moving forward.”

Are you looking for a recipe that’s anti-inflammatory and delicious? Try Greek Chicken Penne.