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The “Think Outside the Box!” health series is brought to you the first three Thursdays of every month—with a new theme each month. October’s Theme: Controlling Inflammation.

Last week we reviewed how cellular inflammation is at the root of many common health problems, and it often occurs below the threshold of perceivable pain. This makes it easy to unknowingly cultivate long-term damage when inflammation is left unchecked. Many people even live with signs of inflammation without realizing it—headaches, migraines, joint pain, acne, eczema, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, allergies, fatigue, hyperactivity, brain fog, and intense PMS are often signs of inflammation. Believe it or not, the food we eat is one of the major ways we either fuel or fight inflammation in our bodies.  

We have what is essentially a master genetic switch that turns on and turns off inflammation in our body. Food has a direct impact on this switch. Some foods, like omega-6 fatty acids, turn on the switch and increase cellular inflammation. High levels of omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn, sunflower, soybean, canola, and safflower oils. These oils are also some of the cheapest calories on the market and consumed excessively by Americans.

So what turns this powerful switch off—and decreases cellular inflammation? Two substances in particular stand out: omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols. Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fish, fish oil, hemp seed, chia seed, walnuts, and flaxseed. Polyphenols are chemicals that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors and work in our bodies as powerful anti-inflammatory agents.

Unfortunately, the standard American diet consists largely of foods that turn on the inflammation switch. The following table highlights common pro-inflammatory foods that are helpful to limit in our diet.

Pro-Inflammatory Foods

Examples

Polyunsaturated fats
(high in omega-6 fatty acids)

Vegetable, canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils.

Refined sugar
(or other high glycemic foods)

Candy, bread, pasta, granola bars, soda, sports drinks, fruit juice, cookies, cake, ice cream, cereal, dried fruit, and flavored yogurt.

Highly processed foods

Any food in a pre-packaged box, bag, or container that has high amounts of salt, sugar, artificial ingredients, and harmful fats. Most items in the middle aisles of the grocery store.

Processed meats

Hot dogs, lunchmeat, and sausages that contain nitrites, chemicals, and preservatives.

Foods cooked at high temperatures

Fried foods and chips

Wheat
(especially refined flour)

Bread, pasta, crackers, muffins, cold cereals, baked goods, and many processed, packaged foods.

Trans-fat

Margarine, vegetable shortenings, partially hydrogenated oils in many crackers, cookies, and snack foods.

Dairy

Milk and cheese (the more processed, the more inflammatory, but even raw milk leans towards the inflammatory side).

I know this can be a depressing list to read. It contains some of the most culturally common foods in our diet. However, over time I have found that the amount of good, rich foods that we are able to substitute for this list is as vast and exciting as this list is depressing and overwhelming.

The good news is there are many food options that turn off the inflammatory response and help heal inflammation. When I transition my clients from mostly pro-inflammatory foods to an anti-inflammatory diet they are often surprised at how easy it is once they learn how to make healthy substitutes for the foods they enjoy. Be aware, a food allergy or sensitivity will make an anti-inflammatory food pro-inflammatory for that particular person. For example, my son has a tomato food sensitivity, therefore, tomatoes are pro-inflammatory for him. When he eats them he gets eczema on his skin and cheeks, an outward sign of inner inflammation. Add the following powerhouse foods to your plate to curb inflammation:

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Examples

Omega-3 fatty acids

Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include fish like black cod, salmon, sardines, and tuna, flax seeds, hemp seeds, green leafy vegetables, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. You can also take supplements like fish oil, flax oil, and hemp oil if you don’t think you are getting enough of this critical fat in the food you eat. My family takes omega-3 supplements daily.

Fruits

All fruits fight inflammation because they are low in fat and calories and high in antioxidants, especially berries. Papaya has a particular compound called papain which is a protein-digesting enzyme that helps reduce inflammation and improves digestion.3 That said, eat fruit in moderation as large amounts of fruit can also cause high blood glucose levels and large bursts of insulin release. These side effects can be counter-productive to controlling inflammation.

Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, cabbage) are highly anti- inflammatory. Beets have high levels of antioxidants and have been shown to reduce inflammation as well as protect against cancer and heart disease.5 Please note that most nightshade vegetables such as potatoes, eggplant, and peppers are not considered anti-inflammatory.

Green leafy vegetables

Kale, spinach, collard greens, all cabbages, beet greens, dandelion greens, turnip and mustard greens, lettuces, and Swiss chard are examples of green leafy vegetables. These leafy greens are packed full of minerals and vitamins that are anti-inflammatory and anti- oxidative, such as Vitamin E, which plays a key role in protecting the body from cytokines (pro-inflammatory molecule). The amount of flavonoids and carotenoids in leafy greens is impressive when compared to other vegetables.

Tart cherries

Researchers say that tart cherries may have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food. Note that sweet cherries do not have the same effect.

Ginger

Ginger is particularly helpful to reduce inflammation in the gut.

Nuts and Seeds

Almonds are anti-inflammatory because they are rich in fiber, calcium, and vitamin E. Walnuts have high amounts of omega-3s which make them a powerful anti-inflammatory. All nuts are packed with antioxidants, which help your body fight off and re- pair the damage caused by inflammation.

Olive oil

The compound oleocanthal, which gives olive oil its taste, has been shown to have a similar effect as NSAID painkillers (like ibuprofen) in the body. It has the ability to protect the heart and blood vessels from inflammation, which is a great protection against heart disease. Not all olive oils are created equal, however. Many lower quality olive oils have been found to be low in oleocanthal. You can test whether your olive oil has oleocanthal by noting if it has a peppery after taste when sipping a small spoonful. You won’t taste the peppery aftertaste in a cheap and ineffective olive oil. At high temperatures olive oil oxidizes and contributes to free radical growth in the body, so be cautious and only cook with olive oil at very low temperatures.

Whole grains

A 2013 Harvard study found that not all products labeled “whole grain” are much healthier than their more refined counterparts. Ensure that the ingredient list has whole grain as the first ingredient and no added sugar (these criteria therefore exclude most breads, with some sprouted grain breads being an exception). Eating the grain in the whole form (not pulverized into flour) is the most nutritious way to consume grains.

Avocados

Some call avocados the world’s healthiest food. Recent research shows that absorption of carotenoid antioxidants (lycopene and beta-carotene) increases significantly when a fresh avocado or avocado oil is added to a salad or other green. Avocados them- selves also contain a spectacular array of carotenoids, which makes them a super-anti-inflammatory. The fat in avocados has gotten a bad rap over the years. In actuality, the fats in avocados actually keep inflammation under control.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which has been shown to reduce inflammation. Cooked tomatoes contain more lycopene than raw ones.

Garlic

Raw garlic has been shown to work similarly to NSAID pain medications (like ibuprofen), shutting down the pathways that lead to inflammation.14 Garlic is known for its immune-boosting properties.

Onions

Like garlic, onions have strong immune-boosting properties. Onions contain quercetin and allicin, which breaks down to produce free radical-fighting sulfenic acid.

Grass-fed animal protein

Limiting the amount of animal protein we eat is a good idea. When you eat red meat make sure the cow was grass-fed. Conventional beef is typically finished with a high-caloric diet of corn, soy, and grains that are full of omega-6 fatty acids that increase inflammation. The meat of grass-fed beef on the other hand is leaner and rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E.

Soy

The isoflavones in soy are said to make it anti-inflammatory. However, note that heavily processed soy products are often full of additives and preservatives and are consequently pro-inflammatory. Be sure to find natural sources of soy or fermented soy products for the anti-inflammatory benefits. Good sources of soy are whole sprouted tofu, soybeans (edamame), soy nuts, tempeh, and miso (look for organic in all cases as most modern soy products come from genetically modified soy beans).

Dark chocolate
(in moderation)

Dark chocolate is loaded with flavonoids, antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation and protect the vascular system, heart, and brain. Choose chocolate that has a minimum cocoa content of 70 percent. Avoid high sugar chocolate.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a common spice in Indian cooking. It is the spice that gives curry its yellow color. It contains a powerful compound called curcumin which helps reduce inflammation by turning off the switch. My whole family takes a supplement that contains curcumin and other plant based herbs that help decrease inflammation.

Kelp
 (kombu)

Kelp contains fucoidan, which is a compound that is anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and anti-oxidative. Whenever possible get organic kelp that is harvested from unpolluted seas.

Red wine

Red wine contains a compound called resveratrol, which when ingested in moderation, has been found to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Green tea

The flavonoids in green tea are a potent and natural anti-inflammatory that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Feel free to contact me if you would like some help incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. Get a free copy of the first three chapters of my book Full Plate here to learn more about anti-inflammatory habits.

Weekly challenge: Try removing 1 pro-inflammatory food from your diet this week and replace it with 2 anti-inflammatory foods.

Let’s chat on social: My kids and I love this chocolate pudding made with avocados. How do you incorporate anti-inflammatory foods into your family’s diet?