What is inflammation?
When we are exposed to a virus or bacteria or we sustain an injury inflammation is triggered and our immune systems begin producing cells and hormones needed for healing. This process is necessary to stay healthy and once healing is completed, inflammation should go away. Sometimes, however, inflammation can linger despite a threat and cause significant health consequences. Chronic inflammation can damage our cells leading to weight gain, accelerated aging and has been linked to multiple disease processes including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, etc. Simply put, chronic inflammation is really bad for our bodies but can be reduced with lifestyle changes including diet adjustments.
How do you know if you’re experiencing inflammation?
While many people with inflammation already have a diagnosed illness (diabetes, heart disease, etc), many of us struggle with inflammation and don’t even realize it. It’s one of those sneaky things that wreaks havoc behind the scenes long before we feel out of sorts. Bloating or abdominal distension, swelling in your extremities, rashes, achy joints, fatigue, brain fog and weight gain are just some symptoms people with chronic inflammation may experience.
What foods are you consuming that could be contributing to your chronic inflammation?
Diet contributes significantly to inflammation and unfortunately, we live in a society that promotes, encourages and makes these foods convenient/cheap to purchase. Here are some of the top and most common foods that promote inflammation in our bodies.
- Refined carbohydrates. These foods have been heavily processed to remove many of the nutrients they would otherwise carry including white bread, pasta, crackers and pizza dough.
- Added sugars. Added sugars cause a rapid spike in blood sugar which triggers inflammation and can increase our risk for diabetes, liver, heart and many other diseases. These foods include candy, cookies, cakes, cereals, flavored yogurts, soft drinks and many other processed foods.
- Processed meats. These meats have been cured with salt and nitrates for flavor and shelf life and are high in saturated fats. Sandwich meats, hot dogs, bacon, jerky and pepperoni all fall under this category.
- Red meats. Although there are also many benefits of occasional red meat, it is also high in saturated fat which causes inflammation. Red meat is considered any meat from cows, pigs, sheep, goats and lamb.
- Vegetable and seed oils. There is some debate regarding this however, studies suggest a lower ratio of Omega 6 fatty acid levels (found in these oils) to Omega 3 fatty acid levels is more desirable in reducing our risk of chronic disease and inflammation. Therefore, decreasing the amount of vegetable and seed oils we consume (including fried foods) and increasing our intake of foods high in Omega 3s (see below) will likely improve our inflammation.
- Artificial sweeteners. Although approved by the FDA, these sweeteners include saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Studies have shown they can alter the balance of bacteria in our gut, lead to digestion issues, headaches, and inflammation.
Which anti-inflammatory foods should you add to your diet?
Free radials are produced by our bodies as a byproduct when we convert food to energy, however they are also formed following exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollution, sunlight and exercise. In high levels, free radials can cause oxidative stress which damages our cells, can alter our DNA and lead to chronic diseases. Lucky for us, many anti-inflammatory foods contain antioxidants and polyphenols (plant compounds) which act by neutralizing these harmful free radials. Regularly consuming antioxidant rich, anti-inflammatory foods will help your body in its fight against free radials. Here are some of the best anti-inflammatory foods.
- Fruits. Natural sugars from whole foods including fruits are digested slowly due to the fiber and antioxidants they contain and therefore result in a slow and steady supply of energy to our cells (as opposed to a rapid spike that is seen with candy/cookies/etc). All berries, red grapes, cherries and citrus are great options.
- Leafy greens. Dark greens are a great source of antioxidants and also contain other vitamins and minerals our bodies need including vitamin A, C and K and potassium. Spinach, kale, swiss chard and arugula all fall under this category.
- Cruciferous vegetables. This group of vegetables also contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals needed including sulforaphane, vitamin A, C and K, potassium, magnesium and folate. Load up on your broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy and kale.
- Beets. Beets are high in vitamin A and C, iron, fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium and betaine. Don’t be alarmed if your urine turns pink/red after eating them!
- Spices. Garlic, ginger, tumeric and cinnamon all contain anti-inflammatory properties! Although an entire post could be written about these spices, here are some of their key properties. Garlic can boost our immune system, decrease blood pressure and lower cholesterol. Ginger decreases inflammation by decreasing the body’s production of cytokines (proteins that trigger inflammation), can reduce nausea and help with upset stomachs. Tumeric decreases inflammation and improves memory. Cinnamon can help balance and reduce blood sugar and reduce nausea.
- Bone broth. Bone broth is full of important vitamins and minerals including calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. It also contains glucosamine which can improve joint pain and strengthen bones and collagen which slows aging of our skin by keeping it plump and firm and can improve gut health.
- Healthy fats. Fatty fish including tuna and salmon and nuts such as walnuts and almond are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. If you remember from above, our ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is important and can be improved by increasing omega 3 rich foods. Olive oil is another healthy fat that contains polyphenols which help neutralize free radials and is high in vitamin E.
- Dark chocolate. Chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids is considered dark and is high in antioxidants. The more cocoa solids, the more antioxidants and less sugar.
How do you begin an anti-inflammatory diet?
Whether you are experiencing chronic inflammation or not, an anti-inflammatory diet will benefit your health in the long run. However, embarking on a new diet/lifestyle can feel complex and overwhelming but it doesn’t need to be. You don’t need to completely change everything right away and starting small will likely help you to maintain your healthy choices.
Maybe start by cleaning up your breakfast. Replace your pancakes, cereal or bagel with some hardboiled eggs, berries and a slice of whole grain toast. Maybe decide to make yourself a big salad for lunch everyday instead of a quick trip to Chick-fil-a during your break. Start by breaking one habit and continue to build from there!
Try to limit your intake of anything that comes premade in a box or bag. Read food labels and choose items that only contain ingredients you can pronounce. Eat more whole foods (foods in their original form/single ingredient) and a rainbow of colored fruits and vegetables. Switch cooking fats to olive oil or coconut oil and add fish into your meal routine once or twice a week.
And most importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you want to have that Oreo after dinner or a donut with your family on Sunday morning. Allow yourself to have foods you enjoy, just in moderation. Once we allow ourselves to have something, it becomes much less appealing and this is ultimately the issue with restrictive diets. Traditional diets are only temporary fixes and unsustainable whereas a lifestyle change can last a lifetime.
Why did I begin an anti-inflammatory diet?
My infertility issues lead me to a surprising diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome as I did not fit the mold of a traditional patient with this disease. Of course, I began diving deeper into PCOS and found there is a strong association between the disease and chronic inflammation. Nearly three years of IVF treatments and never once did a doctor mention the term “inflammation” to me! But this made my diagnosis feel a lot more manageable as there was now something I could control: inflammation.
I began researching foods to eat and those to avoid and after only one week of making these changes, I felt so much better. The bloating I always felt improved, I had more energy, and my mindset began to shift. If eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods does nothing else except make me physically feel better, that will be enough for me. But my hope is that one day I won’t need to utilize IVF again and maybe, just maybe I can reverse my chronic inflammation enough to conceive another baby naturally.
Another big reason (probably the biggest) I decided to start adjusting the foods we consume in my house is because I want to promote healthy habits for my son. Kids learn from their parents first and if we can encourage nutritious foods from the beginning, chances are he will grow healthier and be more open to continuing them later in life.
So there you have it. I hope this was helpful and maybe encourages you to start looking into the foods you eat also!