Discussions related to inflammation in the body and its role in chronic disease have been increasingly popular in health news. As the topic gains momentum, further media attention will no doubt spur the marketing of consumer products claiming to reduce the body’s inflammation. So what is inflammation, and why the sudden interest?
Medical research has now shown that long-term inflammation is the basis of most chronic diseases, including diabetes, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer.
What Is Inflammation?
There are two types of inflammation. Short-term inflammation— such as that which accompanies a virus or a healing wound—is a natural and normal process, part of the body’s healing system. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, occurs when the body is exposed to things like stress, environmental toxins (cigarette smoke, for example), highly processed food, and excessive body fat. This type of inflammation smolders continually, not switching off as short-term inflammation does, and can promote chronic disease. Both the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society have cited the increase in the risk of chronic disease related to inflammation.
Fortunately, inflammation can be gauged using a simple blood test that measures a person’s C-reactive protein (CRP) level. Although the test does not show where the inflammation is located, it does indicate the body’s overall level of inflammation. If the CRP is higher than 3 milligrams per liter (mg/L), it should be discussed with a physician. After the patient makes physician-recommended changes, another check is generally advised in three to six months to see if inflammation has been reduced. An omega-3 supplement can be helpful in lowering inflammation levels; most individuals do well on 1,000 mg per day.
The Anti-Inflammation Diet
Short-term studies provide evidence that what we eat can either promote or restrict inflammation. Although the hard science of evaluations conducted over longer periods of time is not yet available, there is some evidence that a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in many processed foods high in saturated and trans fats and low in omega-3 fatty acids, are associated with higher levels of cytokines, the compounds that trigger inflammation.
The reverse is true of a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fish, olive oil, and nuts), rich in whole grains, high in fruits and vegetables, low in sugar, and containing lean proteins. This type of balanced, healthy diet can actually reduce inflammation.
Just how much influence diet can have on inflammation is not yet known, but there’s no doubt that the healthy changes consistent with an anti-inflammation diet can result in overall better health. The benefits of consuming this healthy diet include weight loss, which is a major factor in improving health, as excessive body weight is the largest risk factor for chronic disease. The popular Mediterranean diet, which has many of the same properties as the anti-inflammation diet, has also been proven to decrease chronic heart disease, another major health benefit.
Embrace a Lifestyle
It is important to remember that decreasing inflammation in the body is not just about diet but rather a lifestyle that includes healthy eating. It is not an effective short-term or instant fix; it can potentially take weeks or months to see a difference. It’s important to look at your diet overall; just adding a single food or an omega-3 supplement is not enough to prevent chronic disease.
As we await more long-term research results, one thing we know for sure is that good eating habits do help prevent chronic disease, improve energy, and make us feel good. With this in mind, it’s never too soon to begin making healthy changes.
Tips for Reducing Inflammation
- Consume seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
- Avoid all foods with trans fats.
- Limit saturated fat to 10 grams (g) per day for women and children, 16 g per day for men.
- Avoid snack foods with more than 2 g of saturated fat.
- Avoid processed snacks; instead choose whole, real foods, such as nuts, fruit, natural nut butter, whole-grain bread and crackers, nonfat yogurt, and light popcorn.
- Limit red meat to no more than two servings per week, 4-ounce (oz.) servings for women, 6 oz. servings for men.
- Eat fatty fish such as salmon or sardines three times per week.
- Consume only whole-grain breads, cereals, and pasta products that have at least 3 g of fiber per serving.
- Avoid all sugar drinks.
- Drink tea (either plain or with natural no-calorie sweetener).
- Limit indulgences (desserts) to two per week.
- Avoid commercially fried foods such as French fries.
- Use healthy oils in cooking such as olive oil and canola oil.
- American Heart Association. www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/SymptomsDiagnosisofHeartAttack/Invasive-Tests-and-Procedures_UCM_303931_Article.jsp.
- Pearson TA, Mensah GA, Alexander RW, et al. Markers of inflammation and cardiovascular disease application to clinical and public health practice: a statement for healthcare professionals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2003;107(3):499-511.
- Thun MJ, Henley SJ, Gansler T. Inflammation and cancer: an epidemiological perspective. Novartis Foundation Symposium. 2004;256:6-21; discussion 22-8, 49-52, 266-69.
- Giugliano D, Ceriello A, Esposito K. The effects of diet on inflammation: emphasis on the metabolic syndrome. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2006;48(4):677-85.
- Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. British Medical Journal. 2008;337:a1344
Paulette Lambert RD, CDE*, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (www.chli.com). With more than 25 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.*