Leo Galland, MD
Foundation for Integrated Medicine
Most of us associate inflammation with the redness, pain, heat and swelling that accompany an injury or infection. This is part of the normal healing process. However, when the inflammatory process fails to turn itself off when it should, inflammation becomes chronic -- and potentially quite damaging.
Chronic inflammation (CI) works slowly and silently at the cellular level. One cause: Poor diet. This may trigger inflammation, which can impair immunity and contribute to artery damage and insulin resistance (the inability of the body's cells to effectively use the hormone insulin to regulate blood sugar levels). These factors may increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer and arthritis.
Despite these dangers, many people with CI go undiagnosed, in part because the symptoms are vague. Many doctors, not yet fully aware of CI, might not suspect inflammation. Only a blood test can confirm its presence. The best is the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) screening test, which detects levels of CRP, a marker for inflammation in the bloodstream. Health insurance often covers the cost.
WHAT NOT TO EAT
Avoid these common inflammation-producing foods...
- Trans fats. Trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil (a process called hydrogenation). Consuming trans fats may damage cells that line blood vessels, causing inflammation.
- Omega-6 fatty acids. Needed for good health, omega-6s are found naturally in meats, poultry, shellfish, milk, eggs, vegetable oils and some seeds. They are harmful only when eaten out of proportion to omega-3s, another essential fatty acid. A good ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is three to one. The typical American diet has a ratio of up to 20 to one -- which allows omega-6s to crowd out omega-3s, changing the body's metabolic processes and creating inflammatory chemicals.
To do: Boost your intake of foods rich in omega-3s (see below).
- Processed sugar. Table sugar, candy, soft drinks and other sweets contribute to insulin resistance and extra pounds, both of which increase inflammation.
To do: Satisfy your sweet tooth with a wide variety of fruits. Note: If you have diabetes, talk to your doctor before increasing fruit intake.
Work these into your diet...
- Flavonoids. These natural antioxidants (nutrients that neutralize harmful molecules called free radicals) inhibit inflammatory enzymes. They are prevalent in foods whose natural pigments give them a deep yellow to deep purple color -- primarily fruits and vegetables.
To do: Aim for nine daily servings of intensely colored fruits and veggies a day, such as plums, eggplant (with skin) and red onions. Add unsweetened legal fruit juices to salad dressings and marinades.
· Carotenoids. These antioxidants are found primarily in produce that is yellow, orange or red. Particularly beneficial are carrots and tomatoes. Some green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, also are rich in carotenoids.
To do: Use a bit of olive oil or walnut oil to make salad dressing or sauté vegetables. The oil improves absorption of carotenoids by the intestine.
- Omega-3s. These fatty acids contain a potent inflammation-fighting component called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega-3s are found in flaxseed oil, walnuts, navy and kidney beans and leafy green vegetables. Fish is an excellent source, too.
To do: Increase your intake of the omega-3-rich foods above. Also, eat at least 12 ounces of fish a week, choosing types rich in omega-3s and relatively low in mercury from deep sea waters -- anchovies, conch, herring (fresh or pickled, not creamed), mackerel, salmon, sardines and sturgeon.
- Fiber. The more dietary fiber a person consumes, the lower her CRP levels tend to be. Best sources include beans, nuts, and vegetables.
- Herbs and spices. Garlic, onions, chives, ginger, turmeric, basil, parsley and cinnamon enhance the flavor of foods and also have anti-inflammatory properties.
To do: Use herbs and spices daily. Healthful combination: Turmeric (a good source of flavonoids) plus black pepper, which increases turmeric's absorption.