Feeling the heat? We are an inflammation nation: as our way of life moves further and further away from our natural design, our immune system stands guard in confusion. Inflammation is an ancient defense mechanism out of sync with our thoroughly modern, sedentary, packaged and processed lives.
However, not all inflammation is harmful: we depend on acute inflammation to help us heal when we sprain our ankle or cut ourselves in the kitchen. But we also depend on inflammation turning itself off.
Chronic inflammation, in response to poor diet, stress or pollution, wreaks havoc in our body like termites in a log cabin. Inflammation can show up as bloating or digestive troubles; it can appear as acne or eczema. It can damage your arteries and fuel the growth of cancers. As a dietitian, I work with the power of whole foods to soothe the flames of inflammation.
Here is how you can fight the fires and restore balance:
1. Start by un-junking your diet.
Many Americans eat a diet that has more in common with a chemistry project than a vegetable or animal. Eating junk food got us into this mess and eliminating it can help us heal. Clear your pantry of snack foods, condiments and ready-to-eat foods with ingredients that don’t pass the healthy kitchen test: if you see an ingredient you wouldn’t cook with, don’t eat it.
2. Know that you can’t fight inflammation without addressing your gut.
Our twin epidemics of digestive dis-ease and inflammation go hand in hand. A healthy, functioning gut populated by a healthy community of bacteria keeps the immune system calm. Limit your intake of alcohol, sugar, caffeine and red meat — all interfere with digestive health. Feed your gut and its residents with probiotics, zinc and plenty of whole plant foods. Embrace fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and organic miso.
3. You don’t have to abandon grains to fight inflammation … but you have to choose wisely.
You need to ensure that grains don’t spike blood sugars – a core driver of inflammation. Choose your grains in their whole and intact form as much as possible. Keep portions down to half a cup to one cup at a meal. Try breads made from sprouted grains. Warm up with steel cut oats. Enjoy whole grain pasta, which has a low impact on blood sugars. Avoid gluten-containing grains if they trigger inflammation for you.
4. Know which foods heal you and which foods make you feel worse.
One person’s allergen is another person’s healing food. Foods that are common allergens, such as soy, wheat and corn, are not allergens for everyone. Food sensitivities are linked to the health of the gut itself and its surrounding immune system – once they occur, eliminating the offenders can help to shut down the inflammatory response.
However, many foods that are allergens are also packed with anti-inflammatory power, such as the beta glucan in barley. Whole soy is not inflammatory for everyone. Nor are tomatoes. Work with an integrative practitioner to identify your inflammatory triggers so you don’t eliminate powerfully healing foods.
5. Ditch added sugars … but not the natural foods that contain them.
Our love affair with the sweet stuff is tripping us down the path of inflammation. White sugar, raw sugar, fruit juice concentrate…it all spikes blood sugars and a blood sugar roller coaster leads to inflammation. However, fruits, with a moderate dose of nutrient-dense sugars packaged with fiber to foster a healthy digestive tract are a vital part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
6. Give yourself an oil change: embrace anti-inflammatory fats.
The types of oils we consume directly influence inflammation, either feeding pathways that are inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Fats and oils also impact the bacteria within the gut and the immune system that surrounds it. Enjoy avocados, olives and their cold-pressed oils. Snack on raw nuts and seeds, particularly almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and hemp seeds. Keep animal-based fats low and remove sources of omega 6 fats such as soy and corn oil from your pantry.
7. Don’t ignore protein on a plant-based plan.
Moving towards a whole food focused, plant-based diet is smart choice for a healthy body and planet but it can be easy to forget about protein. This is critical for the optimal functioning of your immune system, which will impact the inflammatory response. Attention to protein will supercharge a plant-based plan. Eat 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. Some ideas for plant-based protein sources: beans, organic tofu, vegan protein powders, nuts and seeds.
8. Eat leafy greens daily.
Spinach, kale, broccoli, chard, collards … dark green leafy vegetables come packed with anti-inflammatory chlorophyll and are foundational to anti-inflammatory living. The brassicas like kale and Brussels sprouts also contain sulfur-based compounds, which reduce the pathways that cause inflammation. I love starting my day with greens, either paired with organic eggs or as part of a green smoothie.
9. Remember: one meal won’t set you back … as long as you live a truly anti-inflammatory life.
If you are in need of real healing, a 100% anti-inflammatory life might be in order for a while. Simply looking to feel energized and more resilient? Make an anti-inflammatory life a reality 75% of the time ... leaving room for a few treats. Food is a joy and any eating plan should feed your soul as much as it feeds your body. Rigidity is leads to dis-ease.
10. Relax already, it’s not just about your diet.
You are what you eat…but a holistic approach requires that other areas of your life fall into balance. Stress is a prime driver of chronic inflammation — meditate, do yoga, garden — anything that really shuts your brain off so stress can melt away. Getting your sweat on clears your head and douses inflammation. Schedule sleep like you schedule your work; allow your body its healing time.