Inflammation Part 3: Eating Ourselves Back to Health
In Part One and Part Two of this series, we learned about what exactly inflammation is, how certain foods are making it worse, and that we’re all going to die thanks to our reliance on French fries and granola bars.
But that’s only part of the story.
While we now know that what we eat can contribute to chronic inflammation and the many maladies that come with it, there’s an ironic twist to this story.
Food can also undo the damage being done…by food.
Let’s look at how.
The Best Medicine isn’t Medicine at all
Since I know all of you have been religiously following this series from the very beginning, at some point someone must have thought, “Can’t I just take ibuprofen or something to stop this inflammation business? I take pills for everything else!”
Okay, it was me who thought that. I was projecting. Sorry.
In answer to my own question yes, there are actually pills that address inflammation. They’re called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). They’re purpose is specifically to reduce inflammation and pain that comes with it. Ibuprofen is probably the most popular NSAID. I bet you have a bottle or two in your medicine cabinet right now.
But guess what?
While NSAIDs are effective in reducing acute inflammation (such as that associated with a sprained ankle or muscle soreness), they do not offer the same benefits when it comes to chronic inflammation. In fact, the FDA reports that regular use of NSAIDs, even SHORT term use, Yikes, significantly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Aren’t these some of the things we’re trying to avoid in the first place?
Despite our desire to find a quick-fix to pretty much everything, when it comes to chronic inflammation, pill popping isn’t the answer.
What we eat is.
Fruits and Vegetables: Nature’s Pharmacy
It turns out your mom knew a thing or two when she forced you to eat your fruits and vegetables. They can literally save your life.
Why? Because plant-based foods are not only full of essential vitamins and minerals, they are also one of the best sources of antioxidants.
And antioxidants are crucial in our fight to stop the carnage caused by free radicals.
Remember free radicals? Those little electron-stealing molecules floating around destroying our cells and DNA and causing a whole host of problems? And how certain foods can cause us to produce more free radicals than our bodies can actually handle?
What we eat can also fight against them, with fruits and vegetables being one of the primary sources of this essential weapon.
Broccoli. Bananas. Black Beans. Almonds. You name a food grown in the ground or on a tree and you’re going to find a rich source of antioxidants.
There is not simply one antioxidant, however. In fact, there are several, each with its own chemical structure and source. Each serves an important purpose, so it’s important to consume a variety of types by eating foods high in vitamins A, C, and E, polyphenols, and carotenoids. Not sure what foods actually contain this stuff? Try this: Go to your local supermarket’s produce aisle. Look around. See all those colorful things on display?
Those are antioxidants.
And you need to buy them.
By the way, here’s something I bet you didn’t know: Certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are “lipid soluble.” This means that they cannot be absorbed into cells unless they are eaten with fat.
For example, carrots are an easy snack to eat all on their own. However, because they are a great source of carotenoids – a fat-soluble antioxidant – the best way to access their powerful nutrients is by eating them with fat. So next time try dipping them in hummus or adding a few walnuts to the mix. Your cells will thank you.
For more information about how best to eat vegetables so you can access their maximum nutritional value, check out this great article from WellnessFx.
Do you hate produce (okay, let’s be honest here, we all know I’m talking specifically about vegetables) and think you can get around eating them by simply popping a multi-vitamin each day? Think again. In a report released by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, studies have shown that when an antioxidant is independently removed from a food and given in supplemental form (e.g., a pill), it loses its effectiveness. As it turns out, an antioxidant’s power is related to the food taken as a whole, likely due to its phytochemicals and other natural compounds.
However, there is a bit of good news for you veggie-hating-readers. Certain herbs and spices are also rich with antioxidants. In fact, one study suggests that some herbs and spices have higher antioxidant values than any other source – including fruits and vegetables.
Random fact: Herbs are derived from leaves while spices are derived from the more “woody” parts of plants (such as bark, stems, and seeds).
While antioxidant values vary, you’ll be happy to learn that some of the highest rated herbs and spices are those likely found in your pantry. Cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, oregano, basil, garlic – all offer the life-saving benefits of antioxidants.
So go to town with the McCormick’s the next time you grill up that steak. Studies have actually shown that marinating your meat before grilling can cut down on some of the harmful effects of cooking at such high temperature (aka over a flame!). Marinate with vinegar, turmeric and/or oregano for the biggest bang for your buck. Whatever you do, add in some spices to that meat. Don’t forget, use them to spice up your vegetables.
You might find you actually like them after all.
Let’s Talk About Omega 3s
While this article is primarily about fruits and vegetables, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of another compound – found in both plants and animals – in the fight against inflammation. In fact, this is one case where an animal-based food tops that of a plant-based one.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the fact that omega 3 fatty acids are well known for their beneficial properties. Not only do they help lower triglyceride levels and promote heart health, but they are also touted for their cognitive benefits as well. So it should be no surprise to find that they are an essential component in the fight against chronic inflammation too. In fact, in one study neurosurgeons found that omega 3 fish oil resulted in their patients’ experiencing the same amount of pain relief as those who took NSAID medication.
A main component of our cell membranes are fatty acids, and when we eat a diet rich in Omega 3s, these can increase the content of EHA/DHA in our cell membranes. This is important because, in the context of chronic inflammation, some of our white blood cells can go into overdrive, causing more harm than good. However, studies indicate that high concentrations of EPA/DHA in our cells helps by reducing pro-inflammatory signals and increasing anti-inflammatory molecules. Because our bodies cannot make Omega 3s internally, we must get them through our diets.
Another random fact: EPA stands for “eicosapentaenoic acid” and DHA stands for “docosahexaenoic acid.” Now you can wow friends with this information at your next dinner party. If you can pronounce it, that is. And if you’re as fond of Jack Kruse as we are, make sure you know how to spell those two words or you might not be able to access his forum!
Omega 3 fatty acids originate from both animal (krill and fish) and plant-based (chia, flax, hemp) foods. However, in keeping with Mother Nature’s tradition of making everything complicated, not all omega 3s are the same.
Animal-based omega 3s contain EPA and DHA while their plant-based counterparts contain what’s called ALA, or “alpha-linoleic acid.” Health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties, are obtained from the EPA/DHA type. ALA can be converted into EPA/DHA in the body, but only a fraction of the total amount you eat.
In other words, you’d have to eat a whole heckuva lotta chia or flax to even begin to touch how much EPA and DHA you’d get from that can of sardines. So if you want more bang for your buck, go with animal-based omega 3s.
What about fish oil supplements? It turns out opinions are mixed as to the effectiveness of fish oil supplementation. That’s because light, heat, source, age, and oxygen can all cause fish oil to degrade – even oxidize.
Why does this matter?
Because oxidation causes the release of free radicals, which is what we are trying to avoid in the first place. In fact, the process of turning fish oil into a supplement may be eliminating the majority of their benefits altogether.
It is for this reason I suggest you do all that you can to eat your Omega 3s through whole food sources, especially animal-based products such as anchovies, mackerel, lake trout, salmon, herring, sardines, and albacore tuna. If at all possible, eat “wild caught” fish, as the quality of farmed fish is similar to that of mass-produced meat. Farmed fish are not excluded from poor living conditions, genetically-modified feed, antibiotics, and other chemicals that can hamper food’s nutritional value, sustainability, or quality of life.
Make Dietary Choices a Habit, Not a Burden
Now that you’ve reached the conclusion of my three-part series, not only are you breathing a sigh of relief that it’s finally over but hopefully you’re taking away two important messages as well. They are:
- That inflammation is a very real health concern that’s likely affecting you or someone you love right this minute.
- That food can either be harmful or helpful to the body, and it’s up to you to choose which you’d rather pursue.
Starting today, I challenge you to take a meal and trade in one processed food for an antioxidant-rich whole food instead. Swap out that fruity breakfast bar for some strawberries and almonds. Instead of chips and salsa, top some mashed sweet potatoes with guacamole. Have that burger at dinner time, but top it with tomatoes, onions, and avocado instead of the other half of the bun.
Drastic changes in your diet don’t have to happen overnight. Start with one meal. That’s it. One. Meal.
I’m betting you’ll find the switch wasn’t as bad as you expected. You might even like it.
And if you don’t?
Do it anyway. Repeating behaviors eventually leads to a habit.
And that’s a habit I can really live with. How about you?