The anti-inflammatory diet

It is generally accepted that chronic inflammation sets the stage for degenerative conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

by Marianne Crafts-Brandner — 

Why is eating a rice cake as bad for you as eating a doughnut? Why are so many people plagued with arthritis these days? What’s the connection between fat and wrinkles? The answer to these questions: “It’s all about inflammation!”

Whether it is doughnuts, potato chips or rice cakes, each of these empty-calorie snack foods presents the same problem for your body, in that they are highly processed and consist mostly of simple carbohydrates. Right after eating these foods, your blood sugar levels rise too quickly, triggering problematically high insulin levels.

According to Dr. Nicolas Perricone, researcher and author of The Perricone Weight Loss Diet: A Simple 3-Part Plan to Lose the Fat, the Wrinkles and the Years, a quick insulin release sets off a pro-inflammatory response. In the short term, this causes you to overeat and store fat. The long-term effect, as the inflammation becomes chronic and your body keeps producing inflammatory chemicals, is obesity and degenerative disease.

It is generally accepted that chronic inflammation sets the stage for degenerative conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and cancer. It is also thought to play a role in diabetes, certain kinds of cognitive declines such as Alzheimer’s, and in causing our skin to sag and wrinkle. Now Perricone asserts that “… chronic, low-grade invisible inflammation is at the very basis of excess body fat, out-of-control appetites, food cravings, food addictions, diabetes and the inability to lose excess body weight.”

Normally, a little inflammation is a very good thing; in fact, it is essentially a life-saving process designed to help heal an injury or fight off infection. However, when the inflammatory process progresses into a chronic state, it becomes a problem. Diet appears to play a significant role in fueling this chronic state of inflammation.

Adopting a healthier diet that eliminates inflammation-promoting foods may help you remain youthful-looking, maintain brain function, lose weight and prevent many degenerative diseases.

The list of inflammation-promoting foods is so long that it could take up this entire article. Most processed foods would be on the list, including all forms of bread and baked goods, snack foods, fast food, juices, desserts and unhealthy forms of fat. It is probably easier to follow some general guidelines. If the food contains any of the following ingredients, it will probably promote your body’s inflammatory response: any type of flour, any kind of sugar or sweetener that raises blood sugar levels, and all hydrogenated fats and oils (including most polyunsaturated oils).

What is left to eat? Real food! That means good-quality protein, complex carbohydrates and the right kind of fats. You will be eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially vegetables. Count them among the “good carbs” — complex carbohydrate foods packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals and all sorts of other health-enhancing substances called phytonutrients. But do not shun the other nutrient-rich complex carbohydrate foods, like beans and whole grains, which contain substantial amounts of protein and fiber that help slow the body’s absorption of carbohydrates.

Along with your protein and complex carbohydrates, have some good fat, such as a handful of almonds or pumpkin seeds, or half an avocado. When you eat real food that is balanced in this way, you will experience a gradual rise in blood sugar and insulin levels. Instead of energy rushes and crashes, you will feel more sustained energy, over longer periods of time. This will help stave off cravings for sugar, sodas and processed snack foods before mealtime. In the long run, you’ll be less susceptible to insulin-triggered overeating, fat storage and chronic inflammation.

Of course, the particular foods you choose and the amounts and proportions of protein, carbohydrates and fats will vary, depending on your individual metabolic factors. A healthy food for one person may not be a good choice for the next person.

Blood type is one of the better-known metabolic factors that may help you determine which foods are healthiest for you. If you have allergies or sensitivities to certain foods such as dairy products, yeast or gluten, you may find that eating them worsens your inflammation. Some people with arthritis are sensitive to vegetables of the nightshade family, including tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers and eggplant. You may want to eliminate such problem foods if you have an inflammation-related condition.

Everyone, though, can benefit from avoiding processed foods, especially those made with sugar and bad fats. Replace bad fats (found, for example, in fried foods and in processed polyunsaturated vegetable oils) with the good fats that fight inflammation. The monounsaturated fats are better choices. These include olive oil, nuts, avocados and a Brazilian berry fruit called acai. Among the best anti-inflammatory foods are those rich in omega-3 fats. Examples are oily cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines, and certain seeds and their oils, particularly flax, hemp and chia.

There is no single diet that works perfectly for everyone, but the anti-inflammatory diet may provide a good starting point. Finding your ideal diet, free of inflammatory foods, may help you find relief from chronic pain, maintain your weight, ward off premature aging and perhaps prevent many other inflammation-related conditions, as well.


Marianne Crafts-Brandner is a certified nutritionist. She offers individualized nutritional counseling, specializing in special diets. or 602-615-8065.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 2, April/May 2006.

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