Plant-based foods may keep inflammation at bay
Inflammation is a natural part of life. It’s your body’s rescue response for fighting infections or healing injuries. Acute, short-term inflammation is normal and healthy; however, chronic or long-term inflammation can be detrimental to health. Chronic inflammation can cause diseases such as obesity, certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, asthma and depression. It can also contribute to chronic pain.
“There are many factors that contribute to long-term inflammation,” says Dawn Jackson (DJ) Blatner, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Superfood Swap. These include smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep and/or exercise and high levels of stress. Excess body fat can also play a role in chronic inflammation by causing an infiltration of inflammatory cells in the body. Losing body fat has been shown to reduce pro-inflammatory compounds, called cytokines, in the body.
Specific foods have been shown to play a central role in regulating chronic inflammation. Whereas high saturated fat and refined carbohydrate meals may increase inflammatory stress in the body, significant evidence shows that plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices can have the opposite effect.
“The nutrients found in certain foods can help support our immune system and reduce inflammation,” Blatner says. These nutrients can work to turn off the “emergency” signals that cause inflammation in the first place, she adds. As such, keeping inflammation down may include changes to your diet.
Fending off inflammation
Research in the journal Nutrients revealed that people who followed the Mediterranean diet had a better health status and lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. The Mediterranean diet is plant-based and made up mainly of vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, olive oil and fish, as well as red wine with meals. The diet also includes low-fat yogurt and cheese, as well as white meat poultry without the skin.
Loading up on produce — including berries, apples, leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and broccoli — providesan arsenal of plant protective compounds. Also beneficial are unsaturated fats from avocados and olive oil, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in cold-water fatty fish like salmon, halibut and tuna. Walnuts, flax seed, hemp seeds and chia seeds also have been shown to provide defense against inflammation and chronic pain.
“For extra credit,” Blatner says, “include anti-inflammatory beverages, herbs and spices such as green, black and white tea, ginger, turmeric, garlic and oregano.”
Does anti-inflammatory eating work in real life? It most definitely can, according to Gerald Joyce, a Chicagoan who experienced pain-fighting results on an anti-inflammatory diet.
“I try to stay away from things that inflame my system like white sugar, which is a battle because I love candy,” Joyce says. He is also sensitive to wheat and finds it to be inflammatory if eaten regularly.
Before making changes to his diet, Joyce suffered from shoulder, knee and back problems and was gaining weight steadily. “My past physician wanted to put me on medicine for arthritis and possibly cholesterol and blood pressure, but when I changed to my current doctor she seemed to treat everything by trying lifestyle changes first,” he says.
Not only was Joyce advised to cut back on certain foods, he was told to add beneficial anti-inflammatory foods into his diet, such as fish oil, ground flax seed, walnuts and leafy greens. He upped his spices by taking two turmeric tablets a day and boosted heat in his food with capsaicin from chile peppers.
“Ginger is a big anti-inflammatory food, so if I am having vegetables stir-fried, I ask for double ginger and garlic,” Joyce says. He also sprinkles cinnamon over his steel-cut oats and puts organic cacao powder in his post-workout protein drink — both of which have anti-inflammatory properties and can help decrease chronic pain.
After about three weeks on his new eating regimen, Joyce’s shoulder pain significantly diminished. Since then, he’s dropped 35 pounds and is running marathons and competing in challenging races, he says.
Think of food as lifestyle medicine that can heal your body, keep you active and prevent chronic pain and diseases down the road. The gist of an anti-inflammatory diet is not about being perfect, but about listening to your body and making smart food choices.