In the short term, swelling as protection against injury or infection is a good thing. But when inflammation becomes chronic, the consequences to your health can be disastrous. From joint pain to heart disease, chronic inflammation has been linked to serious health problems. But there are ways to reduce the internal swelling. What you add to your diet — and what you cut back on — is a good place to start.
Consequences of Inflammation
Whenever your body recognizes the introduction of a foreign or potentially harmful agent, white blood cells are dispatched to surround the “intruder.” For short-term problems like a wound or seasonal cold, this action can be helpful. But if you keep introducing those harmful intruders like fatty foods and cigarette smoke to your system, the internal swelling response becomes chronic.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of health issues. The buildup of plaque around the arteries, for example, may lead to stroke and heart attack. In addition, some people may develop or exacerbate conditions such as arthritis and other types of joint pain, along with Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. Cancer and a range of other chronic conditions may also stem from inflammation.
Because inflammation responses vary in intensity and location, predicting how it might affect you can be difficult. Doctors are also unsure whether inflammation directly causes chronic illness, or if it merely triggers stronger responses. One thing that is clear, however, is that measures to reduce inflammation can be the first step toward improving your health.
Adjusting Your Diet
An anti-inflammatory diet isn’t very different from those you’ve heard of before, such as low-fat and Meditterean eating plans. The key is moderation. You don’t have to give up everything you love, or force down foods you hate. But if you cut back on certain substances known to cause internal swelling, and add some inflammation-fighting ingredients that you actually like, it can make a big difference.
What to Cut
It’s not always clear why some foods set off an inflammation sequence in your body. Some lead to rapid weight gain, which stresses the heart and joints, while others simply set off a chemical reaction that results in swelling.
It’s thought that certain foods can release “messengers” that signal a protective response in your body. That’s not a bad thing if you rarely eat the food. But eating certain kinds of unhealthy foods are part of your lifestyle, then your body never stops releasing that protective inflammatory response. This can lead to chronic health problems.
Whatever the specific mechanism that makes certain foods trigger inflammation, these culptits are usually associated with inflammatory responses:
- Processed foods. Your body tends to react to preservatives, dyes and other chemicals by producing an inflammatory response. Reduce your intake of hot dogs, chips, processed cookies and pastries, colas and artificially colored sodas, and sugary cereals.
- Red meat and processed meat. Some people react more dramatically to red meat than others. But even without the potential inflammatory response, the fat and cholesterol in red and processed meat make it something that shouldn’t be eaten more than once or twice a week. Reduce your intake of burgers, steak, bacon, sausage, pork chops, ham and lamb.
- Fried foods. Take out and family-style restaurants are notorious for fried food. But the convenience and budget-friendly fare comes at the cost of an inflammatory response. Resist the temptation to choose chicken nuggets, fried fish or cheese sticks for your meals. Trade in sides like french fries and onion rings for healthier choices like rice or veggies.
- “White” foods. Refined carbs should be avoided in an anti-inflammatory diet. These include ingredients that are made with refined grains, in which the grains have been stripped of their nutrients and fiber. White breads, white potatoes, white rice and refined pasta, as well as sugary desserts made with white flour, should be avoided in favor of their whole-grained or more nutritious counterparts, such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread and sweet potatoes.
- Harmful fats. The “bad” fats like margarine and shortening should be avoided on anti-inflammatory diets, especially when there are healthier alternatives.
What to Add
Anti-inflammatory foods don’t just offer alternatives to ingredients known to cause inflammatory responses. Many are believed to actually help reduce swelling. Just as an ice pack on a puffy ankle is helpful, certain foods offer a remedy to internal inflammation.
- Omega-3 foods. Fatty fish, as well as certain nuts and seeds, contain the healthy fat known as Omega-3. These fatty acids work to control the response that triggers inflammation. Add more tuna, mackerel and salmon to your weekly meal plan. For snacks or salad toppings, include pecans, walnuts and ground flaxseed.
- Colorful fruits and vegetables. Eating the “rainbow” of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables ensures that you’re getting a wide range of antioxidant protection. Include more dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale; orange/yellow produce such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash and oranges; red fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, beets and strawberries; and purple/blue selections like blueberries, eggplant and purple cabbage.
- Other whole foods. In general, fiber-rich foods that haven’t had their nutrients processed are good for fighting internal inflammation. Along with adding vegetables and fruits, eat more whole grains, beans and lentils.
- Healthy fats. Instead of inflammatory fats such as margarine, butter and salad dressing, opt for olive, flaxseed and walnut oils.
- Spices and herbs. Studies have shown that green tea, along with spices such as turmeric, black pepper and ginger, have anti-swelling properties.
It’s not always possible to cram your weekly meal plan with all of the anti-inflammatory ingredients that you need. In some cases, supplements that contain helpful ingredients can add value to your anti-inflammatory diet.
Look for ones that contain ingredients noted above. Whether you prefer your supplements in gummy form, as with BeLive’s turmeric, ginger and black pepper supplements, or BioSchwartz’s turmeric and black pepper capsules, these additions to your anti-inflammatory diet may boost your efforts.
Always check with your doctor before adding supplements, especially if you are on other medications such as blood thinners.