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The anti-inflammatory diet: Why you should try it and how to start it

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

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According to Karen Lamphere, MS, CN, most diseases have an underlying etiology involving inflammation. Conditions like arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, allergies, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes can be made worse or better depending on a person's diet. Lamphere, a nutritionist based in Edmonds, Washington, prescribes a diet of anti-inflammatory foods as a way to help her clients with inflammatory diseases heal, as well as ensure her healthy clients stay healthy.

What is an anti-inflammation diet?

The anti-inflammation diet is comprised of healthy, wholesome, unprocessed foods. As Lamphere and many other nutritionists have recognized when working with their clients, the phrase "you are what you eat" could not ring truer. The purpose of eating anti-inflammatory foods and removing processed foods from the diet is to calm down inflammation in the body. Research confirms two important things that make the anti-inflammatory diet so critical and so effective for so many people struggling with health issues, as well as those who hope to improve their general health.

First, unresolved inflammation has been linked to the early development of chronic disease. And second, eating the right foods (namely, anti-inflammatory foods) can help to fight this disease-causing inflammation in the body.

That's where the anti-inflammatory diet comes in, built on basic principles like:

  • Anti-inflammatory fats are a cornerstone of this diet. Lamphere recommends foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, flaxseed, hempseed and walnuts. In addition, other anti-inflammatory fats include extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil, hempseed oil and walnut oil.
  • Fruits and vegetables are high in inflammation-reducing antioxidants. "Fruits and vegetables with high antioxidants are important, especially onions, garlic, peppers and dark leafy greens," says Lamphere. She adds, "These are high in inflammation-fighting carotenoids, vitamin K and vitamin E."
  • Herbs and spices include compounds to fight inflammation. Lamphere explains, "Turmeric, oregano, rosemary, ginger and green tea contain bioflavonoids and polyphenols that reduce inflammation and limit free radical production." She adds, "Some of the most potent anti-inflammatory vegetables are peppers and the spices derived from them, such as cayenne pepper. All chili peppers include capsaicin (the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it has), which is a potent inhibitor of substance P, a neuropeptide associated with inflammatory processes."
  • Some healthy proteins can be anti-inflammatory. "There is a difference in the saturated fat and omega-3 fat content in grain-fed versus grass-fed beef, with the latter being a more healthful choice for an anti-inflammation diet." She adds, "In addition, organic pasteurized eggs have a better anti-inflammatory fatty acid profile than factory-farmed eggs." Choose your proteins wisely and aim to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

What foods are pro-inflammatory?

The standard American diet is a culprit in inflammatory conditions.

  • Unhealthy fats promote inflammation. "Most people eating a Western diet high in processed food or fast food consume a lot of omega-6 fats and not enough of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats — and it is this imbalance between the two that promotes inflammation [in the body]."
  • Omega-6 fats found in corn, safflower, sunflower, peanut and soybean oils. "[These fats] are inflammatory because they are metabolized into hormone-like compounds that actually promote inflammation," says Lamphere. Have you ever wondered why trans fat is unhealthy? Lamphere explains, "Another fat that is highly inflammatory is trans fat. This fat is found in processed or fast foods, especially those that are fried." She warns, "It is best to avoid trans fat entirely."
  • Refined carbohydrates are pro-inflammatory. Refined flour, sugar and foods high on the glycemic index exacerbate inflammatory conditions. Lamphere warns, "These foods elevate insulin and glucose levels, which raise levels of pro-inflammatory messengers."
  • Food allergies or sensitivities can play a role in inflammation. "Many people are intolerant to the proteins in wheat and dairy, and this can initiate an inflammatory cascade that starts in the gut but can have far-reaching [systemic] effects," says Lamphere.

More: 10 Stealthy clean eating tips to use the next time you entertain

How to start an anti-inflammatory diet

Lamphere recommends the anti-inflammatory diet for people with inflammatory conditions as well as healthy people who are looking for a healthy diet. When starting out, Lamphere emphasizes that it is important to reduce your unhealthy fat intake by eliminating oils high in omega-6 while increasing your intake of healthy fats, including more extra-virgin olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids.

Dr. Joe Feuerstein, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital, takes it one step further — he says the easiest way to approach the anti-inflammatory diet is by focusing on what you can have instead of what you can't. In his nutritional work with his patients, where he often incorporates an anti-inflammatory diet, Dr. Feuerstein says that it's as easy as using a simple food pyramid.

Here's his approach, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top:

  • Bottom Level — Enjoy all the colors of the rainbow as veggies or salad, 2-3 servings for lunch and 2-3 servings for dinner. This is combined with 2-3 fruit and berry snacks per day.
  • Level II — In more limited amounts, enjoy healthy carbohydrates and whole grains, like quinoa, yams, plantains al dente and whole grain pasta.
  • Level III — Next are nuts and seeds, like almonds as well as hemp, avocado and olive oils.
  • Level IV — Eat anti-inflammatory proteins moderately, like whole soy, including tofu and tempeh, and cold-water fish, like herring, mackerel, sardines, sockeye or salmon.
  • Level V — Include small amounts of other proteins, like eggs, skinless poultry, natural cheese or bison.
  • Top Level — The tip of the pyramid is dark chocolate, green tea, spices and a little red wine.

Speaking of what you can have, the anti-inflammatory diet is not as hard to follow as it seems — not all of life's "goodies" are off the table. As Dr. Feuerstein reminds us, those yummy foods at the top of the pyramid, like dark chocolate and red wine, can still be enjoyed in small amounts. This kind of moderate approach, with a treat that awaits you at the end of the night, makes it easier to follow any diet.

More: Wine makes you attractive and 10 other reasons to pour yourself another glass

Updated by Bethany Ramos on 1/20/2016

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