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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Foods That Fight Inflammation


July 11, 2013


By Ashley Harris, M.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Inflammation is the body's way of protecting itself against disease or injury. This response is vital to our survival and usually goes away once the body has healed. However, sometimes this inflammatory response does not shut off and instead becomes a long-term (chronic) condition.

Chronic inflammation has the opposite effect of acute-inflammation on the body. Rather than healing the damaged tissues, chronic inflammation causes further tissue breakdown and makes the body susceptible to other health threats. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, asthma and arthritis are some of the more serious diseases that have been linked to inflammation.

Fortunately, certain lifestyle changes can help reduce the amount of inflammation in the body. One of these changes is to eat more of the foods that fight chronic inflammation and eat less of the foods that fuel it.

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The Dangers of the Western Diet

Many of the foods that are typically part of a western diet can cause chronic inflammation. This diet includes fast foods, processed foods and foods that are refined. These foods are often high in calories even when you only eat a small portion. They also tend to be low in nutrients and high in unhealthy fats, sugar and sodium.

Eating too much of these foods may raise blood sugars and fat levels to a point that stresses the body. When this happens, the body responds as if it was under attack and produces an inflammatory response. Eating these types of foods frequently results in constant inflammation throughout the body.

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The Right Fats

Saturated fats and trans fats are unhealthy and harmful to the body. Foods containing high amounts of these bad fats should be limited.

Instead, fat in the diet should come primarily from monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. These both have anti-inflammatory effects in the body.

Recommendation: Eat 5 to 7 daily servings of the healthy fats to help decrease inflammation. A serving of a healthy fat could be:

  • 1 teaspoon unsaturated oil
  • 2 teaspoon peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoon nuts
  • 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
  • 1/2 medium avocado

Omega-3 fat is a particular type of polyunsaturated fat which has a potent effect on decreasing inflammation in the body. Cold water fatty fish or fish oil supplements are the best source for omega-3s. Flax seed and walnuts are two plant-based sources of omega-3. However, they only provide a fraction of this fat compared to the fish products.

Recommendation: Try to eat at least 1 serving (3 ounces) of an omega-3 rich source every day.

Eat less

Eat in moderation

Eat more

Saturated fats: Butter, cheese, ice cream, whole milk, red meat, coconut oil, palm oil
Polyunsaturated fats (rich in omega-6): Safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, mixed vegetable oil,
Monounsaturated fats: Olive oil, canola oil, almonds, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, avocado
Trans fats: Margarine, vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, deep fried foods, fast foods, commercial baked goods
 
Polyunsaturated fats (rich in omega-3): Fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring), fish oil supplements, flax seed, walnuts

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A Rainbow of Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals and other health-promoting compounds. All of these have been shown to reduce inflammation. Each fruit and vegetable has a unique combination of these health-promoting compounds. It is important to eat a variety in order to get the maximum benefits.

Recommendation: Aim for 5 to 9 fruits and vegetables a day. Because different health properties are often associated with different colors, try to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. One serving of a fruit or vegetable could be:

  • 1 small or medium fresh fruit (apple, orange, banana, peach, nectarine)
  • 1 cup cut melon
  • 17 grapes
  • 1/4 cup berries
  • 1 1/4 cup strawberries
  • 1/2 cup cooked or raw vegetables
  • 1 cup leafy greens

Certain fruits and vegetables are especially effective in fighting inflammation and should be eaten often. This includes citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes), berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries) and cherries. Dark green, yellow, orange or red fruits and vegetables such as spinach, kale, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and broccoli are rich in carotenoids. They are all linked to decreased inflammation rates. Apple skins and onions also contain a compound that is effective in fighting inflammation.

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Wholesome Whole Grains

Eating more whole grains has also been associated with less inflammation. Whole grains contain many vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fiber. These important nutrients are lost when the grains are refined.

Recommendation: Eat 3 to 5 servings per day of whole grain products. Some popular whole grains include barley, bulger, buckwheat, flax, millet, oats, rice, wheat and quinoa. A serving size for a whole grain could be:

  • 1 slice of whole wheat bread
  • 1/2 whole wheat English muffin
  • 1/2 cup cooked grains (brown rice, oatmeal, bulger, quinoa)
  • 1 cup ready-to-eat whole grain breakfast cereal
  • 5-7 whole grain crackers

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Spice it Up

There are other nutrients that have been found to help fight inflammation. The spices ginger and tumeric both have potent anti-inflammatory properties. Use them as often as possible in cooking to give your food flavor while helping reduce inflammation.

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Finding Balance

Healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all important foods to include when trying to reduce inflammation. However, these are only a part of the big picture. A successful inflammation-fighting diet must meet all of the body's nutrient needs. This means including plenty of lean proteins and fluids as well. Your overall diet should provide balance and variety on a daily basis.

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Ashley Harris, M.S. is currently a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her Masters in Nutrition at Ohio State University.

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