Inflammation sounds bad, but is it? Yes and no. Inflammation is one of your body’s powerful healing processes. Under normal conditions, it’s an acute (short-lived), controlled response to an injury, such as a cut or a sprain, or a routine illness. Acute inflammation defends your body then goes away once healing is under way.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is the result of subtler insults to your body. Culprits include an unhealthful diet, lack of physical activity, stress and exposure to cigarette smoke or environmental toxins. Chronic inflammation lingers, creating a state of chaos, and research suggests that this may be the root of many complex diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Growing evidence shows that diet and lifestyle can either create a pro-inflammatory environment or an anti-inflammatory one. Here are some everyday steps you can take to cool the heat of inflammation with good nutrition:
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Eat your fruits and veggies. Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables from all parts of the color spectrum will provide you with a variety of antioxidants and health-promoting plant phytochemicals. Vegetables from the cruciferous family — broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower — are especially rich in these inflammation-fighting compounds. Deeply pigmented fruits and veggies are generally phytochemical powerhouses — think red, blue, purple, dark green, yellow and orange — but so are garlic, onions, cauliflower and mushrooms. Choose organic whenever possible to reduce exposure to pesticide residues.
Fill up on fiber. This is easy when you base your meals on healthy carbohydrate choices like vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans and lentils) and whole grains. Eat fewer foods made with flour and sugar, especially packaged snack foods, as these refined carbohydrates promote inflammation. If you enjoy pasta, eat it in moderation and cook it al dente (firm to the bite).
Favor healthful fats. Use extra-virgin olive oil as your main oil. Expeller-pressed organic canola oil is another option if you want a neutral-tasting oil. Include moderate amounts of avocados, nuts and seeds in your meals or snacks. Another reason to avoid heavily processed foods is that they often contain low-quality, damaged fats, which promote inflammation.
Move beyond meat. Fish, with its healthful omega-3 fats, and plant-based proteins like legumes and less-processed forms of soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk) can help reduce inflammation. Meat, and to a lesser extent poultry, milk and dairy, can be pro-inflammatory. When purchasing animal-based proteins, go organic whenever you can.
Spice it up. Spices are more than just flavoring agents — they are also packed with phytochemicals. Ginger and turmeric are particularly noted for their anti-inflammatory properties.
Take tea breaks. All types of tea — green, oolong and black — contain inflammation-fighting phytochemicals, but green is the top choice. Herbal teas don’t have the same benefit, as they don’t come from the Camellia sinensis bush. What about coffee? Coffee does contain phytochemicals, but in excess it can contribute to inflammation.
Practice moderation. Eating more calories than your body needs can promote inflammation. If your weight stays fairly steady, you are probably eating the right amount of calories for your level of activity. Alcohol is inflammatory, especially in excess. If you drink, red wine in moderation is the healthiest option. To satisfy a sweet tooth, fresh fruit or small amounts of plain dark chocolate are your best bets.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org