Inflammation is currently a buzz word in the health care community, but do you fully understand what that means — and how it affects you? Oftentimes, inflammation is treated through medication, but there are other things you can do to help decrease inflammation.
What is inflammation and why is too much inflammation bad?
Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to an injury or a foreign pathogen (such as bacteria).
Short-term inflammation, also called acute inflammation, is a helpful process that allows the body to heal, such as when fighting the common cold. However, when the inflammatory response doesn’t turn off for months or even years it can lead to trouble.
This kind of chronic, low-grade inflammation is thought to contribute to many diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, COPD, and even allergies.
Some risk factors for chronic disease cannot be changed, such as older age, low levels of sex hormones, and having an autoimmune disorder. Others can be changed with some effort, such as smoking, lack of sleep, stress, obesity, and a poor diet.
Diet can affect inflammation in two ways: Either relieving or exacerbating it. Below are some dietary components talked about most often that are tied to inflammatory processes.
How food affects inflammation
Antioxidants: Free radicals are unstable molecules in the body that can cause damage and inflammation. They can be formed naturally through exercise and metabolism, but can also be created from exposure to pollutants and chemicals.
In contrast, antioxidants are molecules that can stop free radicals before they cause too much trouble. Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, which can counteract inflammation.
Takeaway: The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the more antioxidants available to keep free radicals at bay.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are both important in the body, acting as a source of energy and a building block for cell membranes.
While we need both in our diet, our bodies function best at an Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio of about 1:1. However, the typical Western diet provides a ratio of about 15 or 16:1, which is too high.
Omega-6 fatty acids (mainly found in refined vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, and safflower) are pro-inflammatory, whereas Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, fish oil, walnuts, coconut oil, canola oil, olive oil, and flax seed) are anti-inflammatory.
Takeaway: Choosing more foods high in Omega-3s will balance out the ratio of fats in your diet and can help lower inflammation.
Fiber: The human digestive system is full of good bacteria that do a lot for our body, including creating substances that reduce inflammation. However, they need to be fed well to do their job, and one of their favorite foods is soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is a type of fiber that breaks down in water, and gives oatmeal its distinctive texture. Soluble fiber is also found in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and barley.
Takeaway: Eating more of these gives your gut bacteria plenty of energy to make anti-inflammatory compounds.
Summary of applications/practical tips
Chronic inflammation is thought to contribute to a variety of common diseases, and some of its causes are impossible to avoid. However, changing your diet to prevent inflammation can be beneficial. Many anti-inflammatory compounds like antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber, are found in the same foods.
Integrating more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and fish into your diet not only provides your body with the nutrients it needs, it leaves less room in your diet for the foods that don’t nourish you.
Here are some examples: Add some berries or bananas to your oatmeal or cereal in the morning; have a fish dish two or three times a week; eat some fruit for dessert; and swap your vegetable oil for olive or canola.
Ready to try some new recipes? Here are a few good ones to try:
You don’t have to completely readjust your lifestyle to see the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet. Every small change is a step towards a healthier lifestyle!
Article written by Aimee Kalczuk and Jessica McDonald. Aimee and Jessica are second year students in the Cox College Masters of Nutrition Diagnostics program.
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