On Your Health

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What to Eat to Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation is a word we hear a lot in health and wellness circles these days. It’s something we’re encouraged to reduce or avoid. It’s bad news. But what is it? Are there any instances when inflammation could be a good thing? Can what we eat lower the inflammation in our bodies?

First things first. Inflammation, according to Harvard Medical School, is “the body’s natural response to protect itself against harm.” There are two types of inflammation, chronic and acute. In both cases, the immune system detects that something is amiss.

Inflammation is the presence of a large volume of white blood cells. Most of us have experienced acute inflammation. A hangnail that becomes tender, puffy and red. During allergy season, our sinuses swell causing pain and difficulty breathing through the nose. A flu virus enters the body and white blood cells start multiplying and fighting it, which is great, but you feel achy and exhausted, maybe feverish. These are examples of inflammation being a good, helpful response.

Chronic inflammation is the same type of response, however much longer lasting. The body perceives itself to be under a sustained attack, so the immune system ramps up and begins an indefinite fight. The body creates an army of white blood cells and they get to work. Trouble is, though, that in their enthusiasm to protect the body, they may misidentify healthy cells as a threat and attack them. They may also attack adjacent healthy organs and tissue.

Acute inflammation is generally not worrisome. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help symptoms until the event passes. Chronic inflammation is another story. It can be tricky, too, because it can seem invisible or unrelated. Signs of chronic inflammation can include muscle weakness, diarrhea, poor balance, low back pain, fatigue, purple rashes, dry eyes, memory and thinking problems, insulin resistance and hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis).

Clearly, then, doing what we can to avoid or mitigate chronic inflammation is important. One thing we can do is adapt our diets. If we eat a healthy diet full of foods known to decrease inflammation, our risk of many illnesses may be decreased. On the flip side, if we eat a diet filled with foods known to cause inflammation, we may speed up sorts of diseases inflammation has been linked to.

Avoid inflammation causing foods.

  • Red meat like burgers and steaks
  • Processed meat like sausage, hotdogs or lunch meat
  • Fried foods like French fries, onion rings, fried chicken
  • Margarine, shortening or lard
  • Sugar sweetened drinks like soda, of juices with added sugar
  • Refined carbs like most baked goods

These foods may look familiar. They appear on almost every ‘unhealthy food’ list we’ve ever seen. That’s because these foods are generally considered to be bad for you. Eaten in moderation, they can be part of a pretty healthy diet, but eaten regularly they will derail your good health.

These foods have a relatively low nutritional return and can also contribute to weight gain or obesity. Weight gain is a risk factor for inflammation, and a diet filled with processed and unhealthy foods has been associated with an increased risk for chronic disease like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

For better overall health, eat a diet filled with anti-inflammatory foods.

  • Olive oil
  • Leafy green veggies like spinach, chard, collard greens or kale
  • Tomatoes
  • Almonds, walnuts and other nuts
  • Salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and other fatty fish
  • Fruits like oranges, blueberries, strawberries and cherries
  • Eggs
  • Beans and legumes

These foods may look familiar, too. They’re the pillars of a healthy diet. In fact, they align with the Mediterranean Diet, considered by many including U.S. News & World Report to be the healthiest diet overall, period. We took a deep dive into the Mediterranean diet in this previous article.

Inflammation-reducing foods are easy to work into every meal. Here are some meal plan ideas to get you started.

Breakfast ideas:

  • Overnight oats made with almond milk. Place ½ cup dried oats, a cup of almond milk and a cup of frozen blueberries in a jar or container overnight. In the morning, top with a sliced banana, a tablespoon of almond or peanut butter and a drizzle of honey or maple syrup.
  • Greek yogurt parfait made with 1 cup of low fat, plain Greek yogurt. Top with 2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts and a handful of raspberries.
  • Avocado toast with egg. Toast a slice of whole grain bread. Top with half an avocado, mashed, and a poached or sliced hard-boiled egg. Sprinkle with a little salt, lemon zest and cracked pepper. Pro tip: this also makes an excellent lunch or light dinner, just add a salad.

Lunch ideas:

  • Garbanzo mock tuna salad. Drain a can of garbanzo beans and pour into a bowl. Mash about half of them with a fork. Mix in a tablespoon of mayo, some diced celery or onion and salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve with sliced tomatoes or as a sandwich on whole grain bread.
  • Tuna salad on greens. Place 2 cups of fresh spinach in a bowl or on a plate. Drain a can of tuna, and add that to the greens. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts. Add veggies, whatever you like and have on hand. Drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

Dinner ideas: 

  • Grilled or baked salmon. Salmon is so versatile. A thawed filet can be ready to eat after 12 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Beyond that, let your creativity go wild! Squeeze the juice of a lime or two onto the salmon pre-oven. Or hallway through baking, top with a little BBQ sauce. Or serve with lemon and a side of Greek yogurt mixed with fresh dill and cracked pepper. The options are endless. Serve your salmon with a gorgeous spinach sauté or marinated tomato salad.
  • Whole grain pasta. Place a large handful of cherry tomatoes in a pan with a little olive oil over low heat. Chop a clove of garlic and add it to the party.

    While this cooks, bring a pot of water to boil and add to that some whole wheat or lentil based pasta. When the pasta reaches an al dente texture, drain it and add it to the olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan on top.

For more tips on nutrition and healthy living, please visit the INTEGRIS Health blog.

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