Let Food Be thy NSAID
How a healthy diet can help control chronic inflammation
Ah, summer … hiking, biking, rowing, mowing. As fun as these activities are (well, maybe not mowing), any of them can lead to injury, eliciting an inflammatory response in the body. This mechanism is the first step in the healing process, so we shouldn’t rush to discourage it with ice and anti-inflammatory NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) medications; instead we should allow the body to work towards curing itself.
There are two types of inflammation we can suffer: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation occurs from an injury: a paper cut, a sprained ankle or the soreness from over-exercising. The body’s appropriate biological response to any of these stressors is some type of inflammation: redness, swelling or even a fever. This is how our immune system attempts to deal with an insult. After the initial inflammation emerges, the body proceeds with healing.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is uncontrolled and lingers in the body, serving no positive purpose, such as a healing force. This type of inflammation is detrimental to good health, and research has shown it to be a causal factor of many diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, arthritis, certain cancers, diabetes and more. It’s no wonder anti-inflammatory diets abound! These diets should not be confused with weight-loss plans; instead they focus on eating foods that reduce levels of chronic inflammation in the body, and hence, the likelihood of associated diseases.
Eating to reduce inflammation doesn’t have to be a painstaking process. In fact, it encompasses delicious foods, with no set measurement or restrictions beyond good sense. Quite simply, the anti-inflammatory diet is a balancing act based on eliminating foods that stimulate chronic inflammation, while eating more of those that curb the chronic inflammatory processes in the body.
A Short List of What to Avoid
As with all healthy diets, the first step is to eliminate processed foods that are high in refined sugars, fats and white flours. The evidence for this is not anecdotal; research has shown that trans fats are implicated in chronic disease, and processed sugars can trigger the release of “inflammatory messengers” in the body. Refined carbohydrates, such as white flour products and refined wheat flours, break down very quickly into sugar during digestion. True whole grains, on the other hand, will not stimulate inflammation. Milk can be an inflammatory allergen if you are someone who suffers from dairy intolerance, although unsweetened yogurt and high-quality cheeses are fine. Although red meat is discouraged on some anti-inflammatory diets, there is no research to support this as long as the meat is unprocessed and lean. Always seek out healthy cuts of antibiotic-free and pastured meat.
Many foods have been shown to reduce chronic inflammation and—lucky for us!—they are filled with color, flavor and appeal! Try to include as many of these as possible in your diet every day:
Healthy Fats: Essential to the diet, nuts (especially walnuts), avocados, whole eggs, high-quality sources of fish, flaxseed and extra-virgin olive oil are all foods that help reduce inflammation in the body.
Berries: The red, purple and blue pigments in berries give them anti-inflammatory properties, especially red raspberries (help prevent arthritis), blueberries (help prevent intestinal inflammation) and strawberries.
Fruits and Veggies: Eat in great variety and abundance for phytonutrients that help protect the body from disease. Anti-inflammatory stars are tomatoes (especially cooked), beets, the cruciferous family (cabbages and broccoli), mushrooms and berries. Also include veggies high in inflammation-fighting vitamin E, such as dark leafy greens like kale and spinach.
Whole Grains and Beans: Fiber has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation in the blood. Eat only true whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and millet.
Yogurt: Contains beneficial bacteria and probiotics, which can reduce gut inflammation. Avoid sugar-laden varieties; add fresh fruit and nuts to plain yogurt!
Soy: Isoflavones, the estrogen-like compounds in soy, may help lower inflammation levels in women. Eat only minimally processed soy products such as tempeh, tofu and edamame.
Tart cherries: Tart cherries (not the sweet kind), or their juice, consumed on a daily basis, have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food.
Garlic and Onions: Garlic works like NSAID medications, and onions contain compounds that are similar to anti-inflammatories.
Olive oil: Oleocanthal, a compound in olive oil, is a potent anti-inflammatory.
Green tea: Reduces inflammation in postmenopausal women.
Ginger: Reduces intestinal inflammation.
Turmeric (curcumin): The ingredient that gives curry its yellow color contains more than two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds and outperforms many pharmaceuticals in its effects against disease. Good reason to add it to your diet!
Why Omega-3s Matter
Many nutrition experts believe the root cause of chronic inflammation is the imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the Western diet. While both are essential for the body to function optimally—omega-6s support the inflammatory response, and omega-3s are anti-inflammatory—they must be in proper balance, ideally a 1:1 ratio. With refined seed oils (such as corn, canola and soybean) currently so prevalent in our diet, it is estimated that the proportion today stands closer to an omega-6-heavy 15:1! We should aim to decrease our intake of omega-6s and increase our omega-3s. A lower ratio has been shown to decrease the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The easiest way to decrease omega-6s is to avoid processed foods that contain these seed oils. Another recommendation, especially if you’re a peanut butter lover, is to switch to other nut butters that provide more balanced omega profiles. These include walnut, cashew and almond butter.
Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are the best sources of omega 3s, and have been shown to reduce inflammation. Foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds and kale provide omega-3s as well, but they are not exactly the same. Fish provide EPA and DHA, while vegetarian sources provide an omega-3 called ALA. EPA and DHA are so essential for the anti-inflammatory process that if you don’t eat fish you should include a high-quality fish oil supplement in your diet.
Inflammation has its rightful place in the body: for healing, the immune response, blood clotting and building cells. The problem is the balance of foods we eat.
That acute inflammation you incurred last weekend when you were out enjoying the great outdoors? If it wasn’t of a serious nature, your body knows how to heal it best. Some medical experts now agree that instead of automatically taking anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs), the best course of action may be to treat the pain with acetaminophen and allow the body to initiate healing with inflammation.
Keeping your inflammatory and anti-inflammatory systems in alignment through diet can be the key to a swift and appropriate physical response to whatever challenges come your way, allowing your body to respond with a proper and balanced reaction.