By Alison Anton
Inflammation has become quite the buzzword lately, touted as the cause of everything from acne to Alzheimer’s and from digestive issues to obesity. And while new research continues to support that theory, it’s important to remember that inflammation can actually be a good thing. When the body detects injury or illness, the immune system jumps into high gear, sending T cells, white blood cells, and lymphatic fluid to the scene. Water and blood also flood in to remove toxins and flush the area. This onslaught of antibodies causes increased circulation, swelling, even pain—all of which actually help the body defend itself against illness and infection. Inflammation happens externally, in response to bumps, bruises, scrapes, and scratches, and it happens internally, to fight infections and disease.
This type of inflammation—also known as acute inflammation—is a quick immune response that ends as soon as the injury has healed. So what does it have to do with food? Research suggests that eating the wrong kinds of foods also causes inflammation, not the acute variety, but the chronic kind—and that, by definition, doesn’t go away. Over time, chronically inflamed organs and tissues start to degenerate, toxins build up, and our organs are depleted of vital nutrients. All of this eventually takes its toll, potentially damaging the intestines, heart, kidneys, pancreas, joints, skin, and bones.
“A diet that’s high in inflammatory foods causes a constant, low-grade inflammation in the body,” says Elson Haas, MD, author of The False Fat Diet (Ballantine Books, 2001). “If the immune system is preoccupied fighting this constant inflammation, it’s not as able to help protect the body against other things that can pop up, such as abnormal cells in breast or prostate tissue.” According to Haas, “modern diseases are merely symptoms of the underlying issue of inflammation, which is just the body trying to heal itself; the question is, ‘from what?’”
The Diet That Does a Body Bad
By and large, the food choices we make dictate whether our bodies remain in a constant state of disease. Our too-busy-to-cook, high-stress Western lifestyles have led many of us to eat fast foods or packaged goods lacking in vital nutrients and high in pro-inflammatory ingredients, like trans fats, sugars, refined starches, processed meats, hydrogenated oils, and artificial sweeteners. A steady diet of these inflammation-provoking foods spikes blood sugar and can also cause the body to stop responding to fat-regulating hormones.
According to Barbara Rowe, MPH, RD, author of Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Health (Fair Winds Press, 2008), modern convenience foods actually confuse our bodies. “Since these foods are so new to the human diet—most having been introduced only in the last 60 to 70 years—inflammation is a natural immune response to deal with them.”
But even those of us who steer clear of junk food and unhealthy fats may still need to pay attention to the ratio of good fats we eat. By now, we’ve all heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are the most underconsumed in the American diet, while omega-6s predominate—by a lot. In fact, thanks to all of the packaged convenience foods we eat—even the organic and all-natural varieties—most of us get about a 30-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Since omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, too much of them can cause low-grade inflammation in the body. “This inflammation prompts the oxidizing of the LDL, or bad cholesterol, which then makes it more sticky and more likely to adhere to the artery walls,” which leads to heart disease, says Haas. Adding omega-3s helps counteract the damage omega-6s do and may prevent that oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
Other Inflammation Triggers
Inflammation can also be caused by an immune reaction or allergy to a number of different foods. “You might be eating healthy foods, but if your body has an allergic reaction to one of these, an immune response will trigger inflammation—usually signaled by gas, bloating, and pain,” says Haas. For example, some dietitians think the nightshade family of plants—potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant—may actually make inflammation worse. These veggies contain an alkaloid called solanine that can trigger joint pain in some people, especially those with arthritis. If you’ve experienced this sort of pain, don’t eat these vegetables for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve.
Another cause of inflammation is an acid-alkaline imbalance in the body. Experts agree that an acidic pH leads to toxicity that creates an unfriendly environment for the healing of inflamed cells. To alkalize the body, stay away from refined foods, coffee, black tea, alcohol, sugar, and fruit juice; moderate your intake of meats, dairy, grains, and fruits; and increase your consumption of all kinds of vegetables, spices, and beans. For more information on healing spices, see “Spice Up Your Health.”
Foods to Calm Inflammation
Fortunately, we all have access to the perfect antidote for inflammation: anti-inflammatory foods. These foods not only reduce chronic inflammation in the body, they also provide the essential building blocks for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and having more energy. Try adding one or more of the following foods to your diet:
- Hot Peppers. The capsaicin found in cayenne, serrano, jalapeño, and all hot chilis serves as a natural alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs. Capsaicin works to inhibit the COX-2 enzyme, a known cause of inflammation in arthritis and other inflammatory diseases in the body.
- Apples and Onions. These contain quercetin, a natural histamine inhibitor that helps the body fight environmental allergies—a cause of inflammation. Keep in mind that quercetin is found in the skin of apples, so buy organic and eat them whole.
- Pineapple. This sweet tropical fruit contains an anti-inflammatory compound called bromelain, which contains enzymes that have been proven to suppress inflammation and pain in the body by minimizing swelling. Bromelain loses its anti-inflammatory value when heated, so go for fresh, whole pineapple instead of the heat-processed canned variety.
- Dark, Leafy Green Vegetables. These good-for-everything veggies contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 that has similar anti-inflammatory benefits as the omega-3s found in fish.
- Flaxseeds, Walnuts, Pumpkinseeds. Like dark, leafy greens, these nuts and seeds also contain all-important omega-3s. Choose raw nuts, not toasted, because roasting temperatures destroy omega-3s. For a “toasted” nut taste, soak nuts in water overnight and use a dehydrator to give them a crunchy bite.
- Oily, Cold-Water Fish. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are all packed with omega-3s, which reduce the production of pro-inflammatory hormones in the body. Remember to choose wild Pacific or Alaskan salmon, or organically and sustainably farm-raised varieties, which have been shown to have the lowest mercury levels. Also keep in mind that most of the omega-3 fats in these fish are in the “brown fat” near the skin. Scrape it onto your fork, or make sure to eat the whole fish, skin and all. Gentle poaching and quick searing are good cooking methods for keeping omega-3s intact.
- Olives And Olive Oil. The oleic acid in olives and olive oil contain omega-9 fatty acids, which help omega-3s do their anti-inflammatory job. Skip over “light” olive oil, and go for strong, green, and unrefined varieties. And keep in mind that raw olive oil has the most anti-inflammatory properties; heating can lessen its nutritional benefits.
Foods to Steer Clear of
- Baked Goods
- Fried Foods
- Snack Foods
- Hard Cheeses
Moroccan Chicken With Olives
1 yellow onion, diced
3/4 cup chopped parsley plus a little more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon mild paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt (check sodium content of stock)
1 teaspoon agave nectar or sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus another tablespoon for drizzling
6 to 8 chicken thighs, bone in, with skins
1 cup chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon lemon zest (grated peel)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup Gaeta or Kalamata olives, pits in
1. Mix the onion, parsley, spices, salt, and agave nectar in a medium bowl.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken in a single layer, and cook 2 to 3 minutes on each side until slightly browned.
3. Add the stock and onion mixture. Bring the stock to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook gently for 20 minutes until the chicken is tender and no pink flesh remains.
4. Place the chicken on a platter. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and let the sauce simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until reduced slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice, and olives.
5. Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Drizzle with olive oil, and garnish with the remaining parsley.
Nutrition info per serving: 297 calories; 22 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 72 mg cholesterol; 18 g protein; 8 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 459 mg sodium
Green and Gold Salad
3 tablespoons unfiltered honey, softened if hard
2 teaspoons lemon zest (grated peel)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon walnut oil
Dash cinnamon, dash ground ginger
Pinch ground nutmeg, pinch salt
6 cups baby spinach
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced into rounds
1 orange or medium grapefruit
1/4 cup chopped raw walnuts
Pinch cinnamon (for garnish)
1. Whisk the dressing ingredients in a small dish until emulsified.
2. Arrange the spinach on a large platter and top with the red onion rounds.
3. Remove the stem and opposite end of the orange with a sharp knife. Lay the orange flat side down, and slice the skin off in 1- or 2-inch sections from top to bottom, taking care not to remove too much of the fruit. Turn the orange so the flat ends face to the sides. Slice the orange into 1/4-inch rounds, and quarter each round.
4. Arrange the oranges in a decorative fashion over the spinach and onions. Drizzle the salad generously with the dressing, and sprinkle with the chopped walnuts and cinnamon.
Nutrition info per serving: 162 calories; 9 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 22 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 38 mg sodium
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 canned sardine fillet
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon capers
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1. Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until pureed.
Nutrition info per serving: 160.4 calories; 15 g fat; 0.7 g saturated fat; 2.8 mg cholesterol; 0.6 g protein; 6.1 g carbohydrates; 0.1 g fiber; 712.9 mg sodium
Serves 6 to 8
1 cup Greek or regular plain, unsweetened yogurt
4 to 6 tablespoons agave nectar (depending upon desired sweetness)
4 cups diced fresh, ripe pineapple
1 heaping cup chopped dates
1 cup coconut flakes
1/2 cup minced fresh mint leaves
1. Mix the yogurt and agave together in a dish.
2. Toss all remaining ingredients in a large bowl and gently blend in the yogurt. Let sit 10 minutes before serving to allow flavors to develop.
Nutrition info per serving (based on 6 servings): 228.1 calories; 6.4 g fat; 4.9 g saturated fat; 5.3 mg cholesterol; 3.1 g protein; 44.3 g carbohydrates; 5.1 g fiber; 24.2 mg sodium
About the Author:
Alison Anton is a chef and freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.