Like most things in moderation, inflammation is not necessarily negative when it is activated appropriately. When our bodies are injured, inflammation helps protect the site of the injury, cushioning the area from further damage. Blood flow increases to the injured area, producing swelling, and white blood cells flock to fight infection.  This is a normal, healthy response to injury, but when inflammation occurs as a chronic condition, things get complicated.

Inflammation plays a prominent role in most diseases ending in “itis” (e.g., appendicitis and arthritis), but it has also been implicated in everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.  Recent research has also indicated a link to gum disease (and its attendant inflammation) and coronary artery disease, and there is also some indication that chronic urinary tract infection and inflammation can increase the risk of squamous cell cancer.

Diets with a high level of omega-6 fats, like the kind found in processed foods, prompt the production of cytokines, which produce inflammation in the body. Additionally, those who eat diets with few whole, natural foods tend to weigh more, and the link between obesity and inflammatory diseases like arthritis is clear. Processed foods and large amounts of sugar, dairy, and alcohol all play a role in chronic inflammation.

The good news is that there are various foods we can eat to control the body’s inflammatory response, and they don’t require a special trip to a health food store or complicated ingredients. Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Barry Sears have created plans full of anti-inflammatory foods that can help reserve the body’s inflammatory response for acute injury only.

Some of the most import aspects of these plans are the following:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables in a rainbow of color: Each color offers different significant benefits, and the fact that you can (and should!) eat them in unlimited quantities, either raw or cooked, helps keep you full and satiated, a big factor in any eating plan. 
  • Plan on eating four to five servings of fruits daily: Berries in particular offer anti-oxidant benefits that battle free radicals that have been shown to cause cancer. 
  • Add in healthy fats: Nuts, nut butters, olive oil, wild salmon, and sardines (or other fatty fish) have a myriad of benefits, providing omega-3 fatty acids, the essential acids that are the building blocks of protein in the body. 
  • Use anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: Herbs such a ginger, cayenne, and turmeric are loaded with anti-inflammatory properties and kick up the flavor, so you won’t miss what’s not there (like added salt or sugar!). 
  • Limit your intake of red meat, processed foods, and alcohol: With the exception of a heart-healthy glass of red wine daily, limiting alcohol helps fight inflammation in the body, as does minimizing or eliminating red meat and processed foods. Both contain unhealthy trans fats, and processed foods are loaded with chemicals, preservatives, salt, and sugar, all of which trigger an inflammatory response in the body.
  • Eat whole grains, pasta, and legumes daily: These foods add healthy fiber to your diet and provide protein, which keeps you full and helps you to feel satisfied. 

Dr. Weil has created an easy-to-reference anti-inflammatory food pyramid to help you stay on track, and many of the changes are very simple to implement and maintain.

What parts of your diet already help fight inflammation, and what changes do you need to make to incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods in your diet?

Image by Rudi Riet via Flickr