Inflammation and Your Health
Inflammation is a part of our body’s protective response to harm from things like environmental toxins, bacterial infections or damaged cells. We all definitely need appropriate levels of inflammation in our body to stay healthy. Inflammation begins the healing process by sending out immune cells and beneficial chemicals called cytokines that act as inflammatory mediators to help protect the areas that has been damaged.
A common example of acute inflammation would be a sprained ankle or a bee sting, where symptoms include pain, swelling, redness and loss of movement. With this kind of acute damage inflammation isolates the area with swelling and white blood cells are sent to promote healing.
When inflammation isn't resolved and it becomes chronic it is often referred to as systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can be caused by consistent low level exposure to environmental toxins, from our food and our environment in general, and will often result in an out of control inflammatory response out of proportion to the threat that it is meant to deal with. This autoimmune reaction can manifest itself in many ways depending on which organ the inflammation is affecting and could present as asthma, allergies, heart disease, MS, lupus, IBS, diabetes, arthritis as well as many other diseases.
Heart=Shortness Of Breath
Kidneys=High Blood Pressure
For a long time we have known the role of inflammation in many infectious diseases but finally molecular research is showing that “...(inflammation) is also intimately linked with a broad range of non-infectious diseases, perhaps even all of them.” according to the NIH. Because of this ever increasing body of evidence showing that chronic inflammation causes and advances many common diseases the pharmaceutical industry is searching out possibilities for treatment and therapy by blocking the inflammatory process with new medications. But why not let food be thy medicine and actively support proper immune response!? Systemic inflammation is responsible for most dis-ease, but it is at the same time almost always preventable and mostly reversible. Genetics play a role in our level of inflammation, but it is a lack of movement, environmental toxin exposure, stress and poor diet that we have a great deal of control over, so why not start there?
So What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Removing pro-inflammatory sugar, flour, refined oils and processed foods while encouraging the consumption of whole nutrient dense plant foods can be considered an anti-inflammatory way of eating.
Humans have evolved to perform best when the majority of the visual volume of our food is high quality nutrient dense plant foods like green vegetables and whole fruits, with lesser quantities of starchy vegetables and (properly prepared) beans, legumes and whole grains. Most of us thrive with at least some minimally processed and properly raised animal products mixed in, and traditionally there is some form of fermented food included in small quantities for it to be considered a biologically appropriate diet for humans. Proper ratios vary by individual, culture and climate with both genetics and environment playing a role.
Nutrient Dense Foods
Forget about counting calories and measuring portions. By simply choosing the most nutrient dense options available and consuming them in their whole unprocessed form (or as close to it as possible) you will be providing your body with a variety of micro and macro nutrients, essential vitamins and minerals, and the antioxidants and phytochemicals that nature freely provides without the strain and limitations of a traditional “diet”. Nature knows and presents to us what we need right when we need it most. Ergo, following a seasonal eating pattern and choosing a wide variety of local fresh and colorful foods in their unprocessed form will almost guarantee that you are getting the appropriate nutrients for the season at their highest levels. Try to eat mostly organically grown foods in order to limit your pesticide exposure. Organically grown produce often contains higher nutrient levels than conventionally grown produce because the organic method uses real nutrients to feed the plants and not synthetic chemicals to provide basic nutrients. To simplify things greatly you can look at it this way, the closer to nature the better. Digging a little deeper still, most domesticated foods tend to have inferior nutrition generally compared to their less domesticated or wild counterparts. An example of this might be arugula, or wild rocket, which has become increasingly more popular these days. The bitter flavor is one indication of the increased amounts of beneficial nutrients, flavor and phytochemicals that are there for the taking with no intervention from cultivation. The most domesticated counterpart to arugula might be iceberg lettuce, albeit at the extreme opposite end of things. The lack of anything worthwhile (beyond crunch) is fairly obvious to anyone who has tried any of the heartier leafy greens even once. Some others might be shallots or leeks compared to white onions, or white potatoes vs sweet potatoes even. Once the habit is established, choosing the most nutrient dense option available goes a long way to improved health with minimal effort.
Jo Robbins has a great book, Eating On The Wild Side that goes deep into the topic of how our food has changed over the last ten thousand years. Her website eatwild.com is also a great resource for finding quality foods.
The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) model is used to describe the antioxidant potency of a food product or supplement. This can be a bit misleading and should be seen as only a part of the picture. Eating high scoring foods often certainly can’t hurt though.
The EWG’s website puts out a list each year of the ‘dirty dozen’ and ‘clean fifteen’ based on a produce item’s pesticide exposure, which can be helpful in choosing which items to buy organic. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
There's also farmfreshri.org as a resource for finding real food locally.
Building Meals, Variety Is Key
Most people do best when they create meals of about 40-60% complex carbs (whole vegetables and fruits), 20-30% protein (animals, nuts, seeds, beans etc.) and 20-30% healthy fats (unrefined fats from whole foods like nuts, seeds, fatty fishes etc.). This varies greatly from person to person, and even from season to season. Consuming a wide variety of plant foods is important and choosing high quality animal products whenever possible is worth the effort. As a general rule, try not to eat any one food more than five times a week. Eating with the seasons will easily ensure variety.
complex carbs 40-60%
healthy fats 20-30%
A little preparation truly does make the practice of eating real food sustainable. Plan ahead and prepare the items that take the most time in big batches, to be frozen or refrigerated and used at a later date. I like to start my week’s preparations by cutting up the more hardy vegetables (carrots, onions etc.) and making large quantities of any grains or beans that we will be having. Animal protein is defrosted and cooked as needed, perhaps even marinated if I’m feeling ambitious. The crock pot comes in handy year round for hands free meat cooking. I also like to have my greens washed and cut, and my root vegetables cooked and ready to go. I will usually make a batch of chia pudding, homemade chocolate, or some other dessert item as well. There is no need for a meal plan when you base your meals off of vegetables and add in a side of protein (animal or plant) and some healthy fats and the combinations are endless and totally up to your flavor preferences and skill in the kitchen.
Avoid aluminum and Teflon cookware as it can leach potentially harmful chemicals straight into your food.
Microwaves have been shown to completely denature foods by changing the chemical structure of nutrients and are best avoided as well. The stove top is a great place for heating leftovers, just add a little water and quickly steam fry it.
Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.
In order to properly fuel our bodies we need to get the vast majority of our nutrients from plants. Eating a wide variety of different colored whole plant foods is important because they provide us with the various vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that help us to be our best. Below are some examples of how to incorporate more plant foods without feeling like you have to eat salad for every meal.
Lightly steamed vegetables are much easier on the digestive system than raw foods are, resulting in reduced irritation and inflammation. The nutrients in cooked vegetables are more bioavailable as well, allowing us to absorb more of the nutrients with less energy. Be careful not to overcook produce, keep greens green. Use an ice bath to cool things down quickly, especially if you are cooking them ahead. For proper nutrient absorption serve vegetables with quality salt and some healthy fats. Leafy green vegetables are the most nutrient rich plant food source available and should be consumed in higher quantities than other vegetables. Sometimes it is the preparation of a food that makes it undesirable, if there is something that is unpleasant raw, try offering it steamed instead.
Raw vegetables should be minimized but eaten in quantities that are tolerable.
Make leafy green vegetables the bulk of your meals, both cooked and raw.
Eat a variety of vegetables that are tolerated (except those from the nightshade family; tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, artichoke and peppers)
Eat 1 or 2 servings of fresh fruit a day (except citrus). Always eat fruit away from other foods for best digestion. Some great low-sugar fruits are berries, melon, avocados, apricots, papaya, peach, plum and kiwi. Fruit makes a great snack between meals! I like to include a little fat when I eat fruit in order to slow down the rate of absorption of the sugars.
Apples and pears are easier to digest when cooked.
Try to use low carb fruits the most.
Avoid dried fruits and fruit juices.
Choose whole intact grains that do not cause digestive upset. Most people do best eating no more than 1-2 cups of properly cooked grains per day, some people do not tolerate them well at all. Soaking and cooking grains for long periods helps to release all of the nutrients in the cell walls so that they are available to digest and utilize. This helps to prevent the digestive system from having to produce bacteria in order to break down the fibers which causes fermentation and an acidic environment often leading to gas and bloating. Grains can be batch cooked ahead of time and stored for later use. Think outside the box when it comes to grains. Whole grains often make a good vehicle for other things in our house oatmeal sundaes topped with dried fruit, nuts, seeds, coconut, jelly etc. or as a base to a stir-fry or soup. When taking advantage of the higher quality processed grain products available we enjoy the occasional rice cracker, millet bagel or nut and seed granola.
Processed gluten containing grains are best minimized or avoided.
Choose intact grains such as millet, basmati or brown rice, quinoa, amaranth and oatmeal.
Properly Soaking Whole Grains
1 cup grain
2 tablespoons of an acid*
warm water - the same amount you would need to cook that particular grain
Put all into the cooking vessel you plan to use to cook the grain, and let it soak for a minimum of 7 hours and up to as long as 24 hours. Drain and rinse. Then cook as usual. Some folks remove the foam on top, as it can contains the phytic acid that makes grains hard to digest.
*For the acid, you can use vinegar, or lemon juice, plain grass fed yogurt, whey (from milk, yogurt, kefir, etc.), kefir, buttermilk.
Look into doing this with beans, nuts & seeds as well!
Legumes and Beans
Try eating a variety of beans and legumes if they are well tolerated, but like grains they’re not for everyone. Some of the more easy to digest legumes are split peas and lentils, whole lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, fermented organic soy (tempeh or miso), mung beans, garbanzo beans and adzuki beans. Make beans into sprouts at home, blend them into hummus dips, add them to soups and stews, make simple cold bean salads, or use them in addition to vegetables in green salads, or in addition to meat in main dishes such as tacos, burritos and the like.
Soak beans and legumes for 48-72 hours and cook them slowly.
Add beans to the diet slowly to avoid upset.
Whole Food Fats
The right fats drastically help to reduce inflammation in the body and often alleviate the symptoms of many inflammatory conditions. Not consuming enough healthy fats can play a big role in inflammation levels as can consuming too many of the detrimental kind. Fats help to stabilize blood sugar, they help us to feel full longer and to absorb more of the nutrients from our food. When consumed regularly and in moderation they are a necessary part of a healthy diet.
Consume whole food fats like whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut and olives.
Choose pastured meats, eggs and dairy.
Include small amounts of whole food fats at each meal.
Grind flax, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds and add to applesauce, grains, salads etc.
Use only raw sprouted nuts and seeds to provide healthy omega-3 fats.
Supplement with high quality EFA oils (marine or plant) to be sure that your levels are optimal.
Whole food sources of fat are not only tastier and more fun to eat, they provide nutrients other than just the fat, whereas oil is 100% fat and nothing else. Use only Unrefined oils, and sparingly.
Never eat oil that has reached its smoke point.
Use high quality EVOO raw.
Use coconut oil for med-high heat cooking and baking.
Quality Animal Foods
The anti-inflammatory effect of plant-based diets is about more than just the power of plants, it’s also the avoidance of animal foods that helps reduce inflammation. In general, it is best to minimize the consumption of animal products to reduce inflammation. Focusing on high quality animal foods whenever possible is essential because the quality of the animal’s diet and environment directly translates into the quality of the meat, eggs or dairy products. Pastured animals have higher levels of healthy omega-3 fats than corn fed animals and will provide more nutrition overall with less inflammation. Still, animal products are best thought of as a garnish or a side dish and kept to a minimum.
The healthy omega-3 fats in wild seafood can help reduce inflammation. Eat fatty fish, preferably deep sea fish such as wild salmon, halibut, haddock, cod, sole, flounder, sardines, tuna and mackerel. Seafood salad made with avocado and served in the avocado skin is a fun one for most kids, try sardines in place of tuna. Fish can be poached, baked, steamed, or boiled. Fish oil supplements can also be taken.
Tuna, halibut and swordfish should be eaten minimally, if at all.
Avoid shellfish and farmed fish.
Consume no more than one to two servings of fish per week.
Use only high quality fish oil supplements.
Chicken and Eggs
Eat only meat from organically grown, free range or pastured birds. Factory farmed, grain fed chicken and eggs will only further aggravate inflammation. Eggs should be from pastured birds as well. Add to salads, sandwiches, pasta dishes etc. Chicken can be baked, broiled, poached, or steamed.
Avoid commercially raised, grain-fed poultry and eggs
Do not eat the skin
Any free range, grass fed animals including lamb, buffalo, venison, elk and beef that are tolerated should be consumed in small portions.
1-3 ounce portions per day
Creating the habit of making plants be the majority of the visual volume of your food leaves little room for other things. There are things that are best avoided all together and others that can be taken in small amounts, often with little to no consequences. The trick is to find a balance of what works for you.
Very small amounts of maple syrup, stevia and honey should be used to sweeten foods when necessary. Use local and raw honey when possible.
Herbs and other spice plants will upgrade recipes with flavor as well as the vitamins and minerals that help increase nutrient density and anti inflammatory properties. Some common warming spices that reduce inflammation by providing us with loads of antioxidants are ginger, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, sage and rosemary. Experiment with fresh herbs and add whatever spices you like. Use Celtic sea salt or pink salt rather than iodized processed table salt. Create a dry rub to sprinkle as a garnish on meals and snacks. Be adventurous. Get creative.
Try using flavor profile charts like this one (page 13) to get some ideas.
Drink plenty of pure clean water, using spring, bottled, or reverse osmosis water whenever possible. Herbal teas can be added throughout the day, many are fabulous sources of minerals and antioxidants and are anti inflammatory.
Water first. Consume half of your body weight in ounces daily (150 lbs. = 75 oz.).
Avoid distilled, tap, or Brita filtered water.
Have a variety of containers for beverages on-the-go, I'm partial to glass.
Avoid caffeine in black and green teas. Use high quality coffee in small amounts, if tolerated.
Tulsi, Yogi Tea, and Traditional Medicinals brands all offer a fabulous variety of teas.
Small amounts of fresh made alternative milks are can be used in cooking and can be made to order using a blender.
Sparkling mineral water is a great soda alternative.
Foods Best Avoided
It might be wise to eliminate the following foods for a few weeks to see how you feel. After at least two weeks of avoiding these foods it is best to add them back in slowly (one at a time) and pay close attention to how your body responds. If giving these things up all at once feels too overwhelming keep in mind that even minimizing them will make a positive impact. Start by creating new habits and increasing the beneficial foods in your diet so that you will, by default, crowd out the foods below.
processed foods; processed sugars, processed grains, boxed or packaged foods etc.
all animal milk, including cheeses and yogurts
pork and grain fed meats
tomatoes and potatoes as well as other nightshade vegetables
high sugar fruits, dried fruits and fruit juices
corn and corn products
all wheat products and flours
coffee, caffeinated tea, alcohol
In order for the body to efficiently process the nutrients from the foods that we eat it is crucial that we are not distracted, but instead, fully engaged in the process of eating.
Think about the level of nourishment in a food and choose the most nutrient dense options available
Eat slowly, chewing each bite well
Chew each bite before reloading the fork
Recognize becoming zoned out or automatically eating, not chewing enough
Focus only on eating, not multitasking or engaging in other activities when eating
Avoid grazing between meals
Eat only when hungry and stop eating before completely full
Be nonjudgmental when habits become less than desirable and redirect efforts towards mindful eating
Turmeric is great for reducing the pain of inflammation. Its benefits are amplified and made more bioavailable when mixed with fats like coconut and spices like black pepper. Ginger is another great anti inflammatory and gut healing tool in its own right.
Simple Carrot Ginger Soup
3 cups carrots, the smaller they are the quicker they will cook
1 cup onion, finely diced
4-8 garlic cloves
1-2 TBS grated fresh ginger or 1-2 tsp powdered ginger
1-2 TBS grated fresh turmeric or 1-2 tsp powdered turmeric
⅓ cup nuts, shredded coconut, nut butter or coconut butter
1-3 cups broth, water, plant milk or some combination
Grate or chop the veggies before sautéing them in a hot pan, adding a little broth to steam. When vegetables start to soften and the liquid evaporates toast the spices in the pan a bit. I like to blend the remainder of the broth with some coconut or almond butter before adding the rest of the ingredients to the pan to simmer. Cook until everything softens to your liking and cool a bit before blending. Venting the blender cover prevents explosions. Season to taste and serve with a healthy fat like avocado chunks, ground cashews and/or sour cream.
Anti Inflammatory Golden Milk
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger powder
pinch black pepper
1 tsp raw honey
Blend ingredients, heat lightly on the stove if desired.