You may have heard a lot about anti-inflammatory foods. Just what the heck are they and why would you need to eat them anyway? We got the low-down from a couple expert nutritionists and learned why anti-inflammatory foods should be part of everyone’s diet.
It seems plant foods developed a natural defense system over the ages that helped protect them from predators. "A plant can’t just get up and run away from insects, viruses, or the sun — they had to develop compounds and put them in their skins to protect themselves," says Sharon Palmer, R.D., author of "The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today." Scientists then discovered that these defenses contained natural anti-inflammatory properties for people when eaten. That means anti-inflammatory foods reduce the levels of inflammation in the body.
What is inflammation anyway, and why do you need to reduce it? First, like any infection or injury, our bodies develop inflammation as a defense mechanism and part of the healing process. Twist an ankle and it swells up in part to alert you to the injury, in part to help protect itself against further trauma, and in part to start the healing process. "The only time it becomes a problem is when the actual infectious agent is not resolved and the body can’t finish up the inflammatory response, therefore it goes from acute inflammation which is good for us, to chronic inflammation which is problematic," says Julie Daniluk, R.H.N., host of "The Healthy Gourmet" on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), and author of "Meals that Heal Inflammation." With the ankle example, if your body could never heal a twisted ankle, that’d be a big inconvenience.
What’s more, all disease is rooted in chronic inflammation in the body. Diabetes and obesity are now linked with chronic inflammation. Researchers have long known heart disease and inflammation were intrinsically tied and even cancers are perpetuated by chronic inflammation, explains Daniluk. Eliminate inflammation in the body, and disease begins to improve.
And if you don’t have a disease, you can keep it that way by following an anti-inflammatory diet rather than a more Western diet high in meat, saturated fat, trans fats, and refined carbs like white flour and sugar, which have been found to increase inflammation. Your lifestyle and diet can actually trigger chronic inflammation — or prevent it.
Here's a look at the best foods for an anti-inflammatory diet:
"Kale has been chosen as the most nutrient dense food on the planet," says Daniluk. It’s really a vitamin mineral tablet disguised as a veggie. One serving contains 121 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids and 92.4 milligrams of omega 6, making it a green leafy superstar of healing potential.
Shitakes contain a compound that helps to increase your immune response and fight infection. They are also antimicrobial and have been used in cancer treatments. The shitake is much stronger than conventional mushrooms. "The polysaccharides found in shiitake mushrooms can reduce the immune-compromising effects that are experienced with chemotherapy and radiation," says Daniluk.
Sesame and hemp seeds
Hemp seeds can be used as an addition to foods such as yogurt, salads or smoothies. (Photo: Ruby Ran/Flickr)
"These two seeds contain plant sterols that help to modulate the immune system and bring down an overreaction," says Daniluk. Sometimes we’re dealing with the immune system attacking our own tissue like in rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. That’s an over-response to the immune system and we need an “immune balancer” to bring things back to normal. Seeds are exceptionally rich in vitamins B1, B3, and E, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc for excellent immune balance.
Squash contains carotenoids, which are the antioxidants that work like a rust proofer on our body. They absorb free radicals, the missing atom molecules that occur as a result of normal oxidation in the body that injure cells, damage DNA, and create the seed for disease. Beta carotene is great for inflammatory conditions of the skin and lungs.
Berries contain polyphenols as do grapes, red wine and purple cabbage. Typically the darker the fruit or vegetable, the higher the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory superstar it will be. “A fascinating study on strawberries showed when you give a strawberry-blended beverage with a classic Western style breakfast (which normally increases inflammation immediately) it negated all of the bad effects of the breakfast,” says Palmer. “Which means that when you include anti-inflammatory foods at each meal, you can help protect your body one meal at a time.”
“In general, it’s not about eating one or two particular foods, but your diet pattern overall should be packed with all of the good stuff,” says Palmer. Want to add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet? Try tomatoes, walnuts, cold water fish, dark chocolate, flax and chia seeds as well as green tea.