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The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Hype or Hope?

Posted on by Karen Sabbath, MS, RD, CSO

We've all seen and heard the ads: "Headache? Toothache? Joint pain? Muscle soreness? Take an anti-inflammatory." Products like aspirin, steroids, ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil, for example) and other NSAIDS, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are used by many to help manage the pain caused by inflammation. But what if there were foods that could also help to reduce inflammation? Would you be game to try them?

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the way our bodies react to irritation, injury or infection. Symptoms are often localized to one area and can appear as redness, soreness, swelling, pain or decreased function, as in joint tenderness or arthritis. These symptoms are often treated with medications.

But inflammation may also play a key role in triggering the development of chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, strokes and possibly cancer. Unfortunately with these diseases, the damage is often internal and therefore invisible to the eye. Lowering or preventing this silent inflammation may be a way to reduce the incidence of developing a chronic disease.

Is there any truth to foods having the power to lower the inflammation in our bodies?

Truth? Yes. Clinical evidence? That’s where things start to get dicey.

When we look at studies of eating patterns, called “epidemiological studies,” we observe that populations who consume diets high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds, healthy oils and fatty fish (like salmon) have lower rates of chronic diseases. A classic example of this type of eating is the Mediterranean Diet. And we do observe that Greeks, for example, live longer and have less chronic disease as compared to populations who consume large quantities of meats and fats. However, while an observation can show an association, it does not necessarily prove cause and effect.

There have also been studies that have looked at the anti-inflammatory properties of specific plant substances found in apples, berries, onions, ginger, cherries and turmeric (the yellow component of curry), just to name a few. The chemical compounds in these foods, which are often antioxidants, are thought to act by blocking the pathways that lead to inflammation. More clinical trials are needed to determine if and how these laboratory results translate into the way our bodies actually respond.

Evaluating the potential benefits of these foods presents some issues: we don’t know how much of a given food is needed, how potent the food must be or how frequently it needs to be consumed in order to see a reduction in symptoms. It is easy to pop an ibuprofen and see relief within an hour or two. But it is unlikely that your doctor will tell you to sit down with a bowl of blueberries for relief of your joint pain. In fact, it is likely that you need to consume a prolonged, steady diet of multiple foods with anti-inflammatory properties in order to get a real benefit.

How do you know if there is inflammation going on in your body?

Inflammation causes the body to produce certain chemicals that can be measured through blood tests. The most common chemical marker is C-reactive protein, or CRP, which is produced by the liver during periods of inflammation. People with elevated CRP seem to have a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes and possibly colon cancer. But before you run to your doctor and ask for blood work, which may or may not be covered by your insurance, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk of inflammation and chronic disease. These can be divided into food and lifestyle choices.

Preventing inflammation begins on your plate!
  •  Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: 5-9 serving/day
    • Go for lots of colors (red, green, orange, yellow, purple and white)
    • Go for variety; it is the spice of life!
    • Remember that 1 serving =1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables or 1 medium fruit
  • Aim for plenty of whole, unrefined grains such as whole wheat and whole wheat products
    • Rolled or steel cut oats, whole grain cereals
    • Brown, red or black rice
    • Bulgur wheat, quinoa, spelt
    • Whole grain pasta
  •  Go for healthy fats: omega-3 fats or monounsaturated fats
    • Salmon or other fatty fish (mackerel, herring, sardines); try for 2 servings a week
    • Walnuts, almonds, ground flaxseed
    • Fish oil supplements
    • Extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
  •  Try to get protein from non-meat sources whenever possible
    • Legumes (lentils, chick peas, black, white or kidney beans)
    • Soy beans, tofu, soy milk
    • Eggs
    • Yogurt 
    • Peanut or almond butter; go for “all natural”
  • Fill up with fiber; you can do this with grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes
  • Spice it up! Spices are packed with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals and activity. Go for ginger, turmeric, curry, or cinnamon, just to name a few.
Avoid these foods that can promote inflammation:
  •  Junk Foods
  •  High-fat meats that contain saturated fats
  •  Vegetable oils containing omega-6 fats (corn, safflower, soy bean or mixed vegetable oils)
  •  Excessive sugar in any of its many forms
  •  Fast foods
  •  Processed foods, especially those found in red meats and rich dairy products
  •  Processed or smoked meats like baloney, salami, hot dogs, bacon and sausages containing nitrites that can increase inflammation
Lifestyle choices that can reduce inflammation:
  •  Get lean. Overweight individuals are at increased risk for inflammation and chronic disease. 
  •  Get moving and quit smoking! People who exercise and who don't smoke have lower markers for inflammation. 
  •  Brush your teeth. Good dental care prevents gum inflammation (gingivitis) and possibly other infections and medical conditions. 

If these guidelines look familiar to you, it is because the “anti-inflammatory diet” is similar to the “Mediterranean Diet,” as well as the diets recommended by Barry Sears, MD (The Zone Diet), Andrew Weil, MD, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Dietetic Association and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

It is said by many that food is medicine. Eating right and living a healthy lifestyle are the first line of defense in fighting chronic diseases and reducing inflammation. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and start down the road to health!