Did you know chronic low-grade inflammation is the driving force behind many chronic health problems? Experts believe that inflammation plays a role in almost every chronic disease, even mental health issues like depression. Here’s a quote from Harvard Health about inflammation.
“Although there may never be such a single path, mounting evidence suggests a common underlying cause of major degenerative diseases. The four horsemen of the medical apocalypse — coronary artery disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s — may be riding the same steed: inflammation” (Harvard Health)
Inflammation is the process the human body uses to repair and protect itself. Injury or infection triggers it. In response, your body releases chemicals and other factors that help fight off foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. But chronic inflammation, caused by things like processed foods, poor sleep habits, stress, and lack of exercise, can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Luckily, there’s growing evidence that diet plays a role in countering chronic inflammation. Let’s look at anti-inflammatory eating habits that have science behind them.
Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables
One way to tame inflammation is to eat more fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Why does this approach work?
One reason is the abundance of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help protect your body from free radicals (unstable molecules that may cause damage to cells) by binding with free radicals before they can cause damage.
By reducing inflammation, antioxidants may lower the risk for certain diseases such as diabetes or heart disease. However, it’s an area that needs more research since taking antioxidants in supplement form doesn’t seem to offer the same benefits. You need the whole food “synergy.”
Adopting this approach is simple. Fill your plate with more colorful fruits and vegetables and vary the colors. Examples include berries, red cabbage, carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes. When you fill your plate, choose a vegetable or fruit in each color of the rainbow. One way to do this is to eat a plant-based bowl or a salad each day.
Some examples of foods from each color category include:
- Red: tomatoes, watermelon, strawberries, red peppers
- Orange: sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe
- Yellow/Green: squash, broccoli, leafy greens
- Blue/Purple: blueberries (fresh or frozen), eggplant; grapes (fresh or dried)
So, load up your plate and create a work of art!
Snack on nuts
Tree nuts are packed with protein and healthy fats. Plus, they contain phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory activity. Omega-3 fatty acids in nuts reduce inflammation by inhibiting the enzymes that produce pro-inflammatory chemicals. Walnuts are the best tree nut source of omega-3s. They also contain monounsaturated fats that help lower bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) and raise good cholesterol. (HDL cholesterol). Nuts also contain enough fiber and protein to stabilize blood sugar levels and curb cravings for unhealthy foods.
Is there science to support these benefits? One study found that substituting three servings of nuts for three servings of animal-based foods and refined grains was linked with a drop in blood markers of inflammation. So, when you’re tempted to reach for a bag of potato chips, grab a handful of nuts instead.
Choose olive oil as your go-to cooking fat
You probably know that olive oil is a healthy fat. It’s also a monounsaturated fat, which means it contains heart-healthy oleic acid and an abundance of antioxidants. In addition to these benefits, olive oil is an excellent source of vitamin E and vitamin K—two vitamins that help maintain your bones and keep them strong as you age. One study found that oleocanthal in extra-virgin olive oil has some of the same anti-inflammatory benefits as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication ibuprofen.
Try a Mediterranean-style diet
If you’re new to the world of food and inflammation, there’s no better place to start exploring than with a Mediterranean-style diet. This type of diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds—and low in red meat. The main source of fat for cooking is olive oil, rather than butter or other saturated fat sources. Research shows it’s one of the healthiest diets in the world and is linked with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, better brain health, and longevity. It’s also a diverse diet that contains a rich array of nutrients.
Drink green tea
Skip the soft drinks and reach for brewed green tea instead. The benefits of green tea come from its abundance of antioxidants catechins. These include epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epicatechin gallate (ECG) and epigallocatechin (EGC). Green tea contains more EGCG than any other type of tea. Polyphenols include flavonoids, catechins, and tannins. Green tea may reduce inflammation by inhibiting pro-inflammatory enzymes such as cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and lipoxygenase (LOX). These enzymes boost inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which increase inflammation.
Skip the bottled green tea. Most brands contain few catechins and polyphenols. Instead, brew your own at home from loose-leaf green tea leaves. Enjoy it hot or cold!
Enjoy whole grains in moderation
Whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. They also contain B vitamins, magnesium, and other minerals that promote health. But did you know they also contain antioxidants that help fight inflammation?
Whole grain foods are intact grains that manufacturers haven’t stripped of their fiber, unlike their refined counterparts. This means you get more nutrients when you eat them and they don’t contain unnecessary additives to keep the processed product stable longer. You can buy whole grains and seeds, like quinoa, from bulk bins and prepare them hands-off in a slow cooker.
Keep in mind that some people are sensitive to gluten and experience digestive symptoms, like gas, bloating, or diarrhea when they consume them. If that’s you, avoid gluten-containing grains.
Eating for anti-inflammatory health is not a one-size-fits-all plan. Experiment with different foods and combinations of foods until you find what works best for your body. Don’t be afraid to try new things! With so many delicious whole foods options there’s no reason your diet should be boring or bland. The key is finding the right balance between healthy fats (such as olive oil), whole grains (like quinoa), and protein sources like nuts or fish—all while avoiding inflammatory foods such as processed meat and sugar!
- Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease? – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. Published April 2006. Accessed July 5, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/inflammation-a-unifying-theory-of-disease
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- “10 Evidence-Based Benefits of Green Tea – Healthline.” 06 Apr. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea.