Low-level, chronic inflammation lies so far below the skin’s surface that you can’t see it or feel it. It’s the result of an immune system in overdrive, damaging healthy tissue and leading to chronic illnesses. Continuing inflammation can trigger heart disease, cancer and diabetes, but it also can exacerbate asthma, acne and obesity – even ruin your mood, says Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian in Newport Beach, Calif.
Within two decades, more than one-third of Americans will have an inflammatory disorder, Tribole says. And most of it stems from an unhealthy diet.
Fight Fire with Food
The typical Western diet – high in processed foods, refined starches, added sugars and animal fats and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids – fuels inflammation, according to a 2006 paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. But people in Greece, Italy and France have better eating habits and less chronic disease. In those Mediterranean countries, sweets, eggs and beef don’t star on the plate as often as in the U.S. Their diet is naturally anti-inflammatory and includes low-fat and nonfat dairy foods, olive oil, potatoes, nuts, poultry, legumes, olives and wine, says Demosthenes Panagiotakos, a leading researcher on the Mediterranean diet and associate professor of Biostatistics & Epidemiology of Nutrition at Harokopio University of Athens, Greece.
So what does this mean for us in the West? Eat like a French, Italian or Greek woman – lots of fruits, veggies, green salads and fish – and drink red wine in moderation (up to 4 ounces daily for women and 8 ounces for men). But lettuce and green beans alone won’t do it. To get a wide variety of nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, chow down on fruits and vegetables of all kinds and colors. And begin at breakfast. If you wait until dinner to eat the 5-9 servings (a half cup each) recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you’ll be at the table a long time.
To get started on an anti-inflammatory path, consume more foods straight from the farm, fewer processed and fried foods or those loaded with butter, and use the 10 foods below in your meals:
1. Canola oil
We eat too little omega-3 and too much omega-6 fatty acids because of corn and soybean oils in margarine, candy, crackers and processed foods. That tips the balance of compounds involved in inflammation for the worse, Tribole says. The fatty acids compete in the body for enzymes: Omega-3 fats yield anti-inflammatory compounds; omega-6 fats give us inflammation. “It’s like a biological game of musical chairs, where there’s always a shortage,” Tribole explains. “In the case of fatty acids, the dominant fats win the enzyme.”
Diet fix: Limit highly processed foods (always a good idea). Dress your salad and sauté your meats and veggies in omega-3 rich canola oil. Eat other plant sources of omega-3 fats including walnuts and ground flaxseed.
2. Grass-fed beef
Humans are at the top of the food chain and the diet your food eats affects your inflammation levels. Today, most cows are fed high-calorie corn and grain – high in inflammatory omega-6 – to fatten them quickly. But the meat from leaner cattle grazing on grass have higher levels of vital nutrients – vitamin E and omega-3s. A 2004 study from California State University, Chico examined lipid composition of 36 cattle fed on grain, grass and a combination of both. The beef from grass-fed bovines was lower in saturated fatty acids and omega 6 and 40% higher in omega-3 fatty acids.
Diet fix: Grass-fed beef may be more expensive, but worth it for your health. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more that 18 ounces of lean beef weekly. More than that raises your colon cancer risk. Less is probably better – maybe two portions per week – because it frees your plate for even more disease-fighting foods.
3. Oily fish
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating omega-3 rich oily fish at least twice weekly because they decrease the risk of sudden cardiac death and slow growth of arterial plaque.
Diet fix: Choose salmon, tuna, trout, herring, sardines and mackerel for the most potent, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. But pregnant women should avoid King mackerel because of its high mercury content.
Nuts have long been linked with less coronary heart disease than other high-calorie foods. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology of more than 6,000 people found those who ate the most nuts and seeds had the lowest levels of inflammatory markers in their blood. The high content of the amino acid arginine may be responsible for the inflammation-soothing effect of nuts.
Diet fix: Snack on some walnuts, pistachios or almonds. But measure a one-ounce serving (about one-fourth cup) to keep calories in check.
A number of studies have shown that cocoa can reduce the risk of heart disease. When researchers in Spain gave 42 men and women skim milk mixed with cocoa powder twice daily for four weeks, participants had lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood compared with the four-week period in which they drank plain skim milk. A 2006 study from the University of California, Davis showed that drinking cocoa improved blood flow and decreased lipid levels in 32 postmenopausal women.
The beneficial ingredient is flavanols, which reduce inflammation and blood clotting. Cocoa has a rich concentration of them.
Diet fix: Enjoy a cup or two of steamy hot cocoa made with real cocoa and skim or low-fat milk to hold down the calories and saturated fats. And don’t think a chocolate bar carries the same health boost; the candy is high in saturated fat.
Laboratory studies suggest that cranberries may inhibit growth and proliferation of breast, colon, lung and prostate tumors. Researchers suspect that one protective mechanism is the anti-inflammatory action of this antioxidant-packed red berry. It’s also been shown to reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) levels.
Diet fix: Toss dried cranberries into a green salad or your morning bowl of oatmeal.
When healthy men and women supplemented their diets with sweet Bing cherries for 28 days, several blood markers of inflammation decreased, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Nutrition. An earlier study also suggests that cherry consumption relieves arthritis symptoms. Laboratory studies show the anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins – compounds responsible for the cherry’s rich red color – but researchers suspect there are many more anti-inflammatory chemicals in this juicy red fruit.
Diet fix: Enjoy a dessert or snack of fresh cherries in season and dried all year long.
The antioxidant resveratrol found in the skin of grapes (and red wine and peanuts) also fights inflammation and cancer. Drinking Concord grape juice may lower inflammatory markers in the blood of people with stable coronary artery disease, according to a double-blind study published in 2004 in the journalArteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.
Diet fix: Keep red grapes washed and at eye level in the refrigerator. (Fruit is healthier than juice because it has more fiber and less sugar.) Put them on the homework table when your kids come home from school.
If an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, it might be because of its high concentration of quercetin, a flavanoid also present in onions and tea. In a 2008 University of Michigan study of more than 8,000 American adults, researchers found a link between apples, flavanoids and quercetin and decreased inflammation.
Diet fix: Toss diced apples into chicken salad or warm your family with a baked apple and a pinch of cinnamon.
This nutritional powerhouse contains many disease fighters, including beta-carotene, vitamin C and the B vitamin folate. It also has kaempferol, another flavanoid linked to decreased inflammation.
Diet fix: Toss steamed broccoli with whole-wheat pasta and pine nuts. For even more kaempferol, pick up some kale, green beans, leeks and tea.