Most foods either rev up inflammation or tamp it down. A diet high in trans-fatty acids, carbohydrates, and sugar drives the body to create inflammatory chemicals. But a diet heavy on vegetables, lean meats, whole-kernel grains, and omega-3 fatty acids puts the brakes on the inflammatory process.
But your diet doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster. In fact, dozens of foods, herbs, and spices can help the body douse inflammatory hot spots. Here are five basic nutrition tips to help you fight inflammation, as reported by Catherine Guthrie in “Fighting Inflammation” (Experience Life, July/August 2004).
1. GET FRIENDLY WITH FISH: Fish overflows with two key omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA for short). Both are potent anti-inflammatories. Studies show that people who eat fish regularly are less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, or develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, studies have shown that eating omega-3-rich fish just once a week may lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 60 percent.
Nutritional experts recommend eating a fish dish at least twice a week (baked or broiled, not fried). Stick to fresh or frozen coldwater fish, including mackerel, salmon, and tuna. Avoid oil-packed tuna, since the omega-3s tend to leach into surrounding oil.
Watch out for fish that may contain toxins, especially if you’re in a high-risk category or pregnant/nursing. There are options for vegetarians, too, though they’re not ideal. The body can make its own EPA and DHA from omega-3 fats (called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA), which are found in flaxseed, wheat germ and walnuts (as well as some oils). You’ll need to eat four times as much ALA to equal the amount of bioavailable omega-3s in a 3-ounce serving of fish.
2. CHOOSE FATS WISELY: The body uses fatty acids to make prostaglandins, the main hormones that control inflammation. Meals that balance pro- and anti-inflammatory fats cool things off. Avoid safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and all partially hydrogenated oil. Instead, seek out fatty coldwater fish, extra-virgin olive oil, walnuts, and flax.
3. EMBRACE YOUR INNER HERBIVORE: Fruits and vegetables are storehouses of antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds. The best sources are brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, strawberries, bell peppers, and spinach.
4. CUT BACK ON WHEAT AND DAIRY: No two foods are bigger triggers than dairy and wheat. For people who suffer from lactose intolerance, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity, the stomach treats dairy and wheat products as hostile invaders. Often it only takes a bite of bread or a spoonful of ice cream to kick the immune system into high gear.
5. SAY NO TO SUGAR: Sugary foods can also be a problem, especially when eaten between meals, since they cause a surge in blood-sugar levels. To regain balance, the pancreas releases a rush of insulin, which activates the genes involved in inflammation. This biochemical roller coaster is thought to contribute to the onset of type 2 diabetes.