As we enter the new year with plans to eat healthier, it’s important that we understand the inflammatory process and its effect on serious illnesses including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process, but when it persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body’s cells and leads to serious health issues. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins can all contribute to chronic inflammation, but dietary choices play a big role as well. Learning how to choose anti-inflammatory foods is the best strategy in reducing the risk of long-term disease.
The Mediterranean diet is a good example of an anti-inflammatory diet – it is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, replaces butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil, uses herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods and limits red meat to no more than a few times a month. Other tips for healthy eating include:
- Always look for brightly colored vegetables and fruit – spinach, kale, collards, broccoli, asparagus, carrots, beets, apples, oranges, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries
- Minimize saturated fats – choose lean cuts of meat. Eat chicken and fish over red meat, and bake, broil or grill
- Reduce butter and cut out trans fats – margarines, processed foods and snacks
- Use good fats – Omega 3 (found in fish, walnuts and olive oil), grapeseed oil, coconut oil
- Watch intake of refined carbs and simple sugars – processed pasta, rice, snack foods, candy, pastries, sweet tea and soda
- Choose whole grains high in fiber – brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, millet
- Limit full-fat dairy – use 2 percent or less
- Add anti-inflammatory spices and flavorings such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, garlic
The bottom line is that you should aim to eat real food and avoid processed food. Read food labels and reconsider if it contains more than five ingredients and includes unfamiliar, unpronounceable ingredients. Although this is not a diet for weight loss, people who consistently follow this diet oftentimes lose weight.
Before making major dietary changes, it’s always smart to first discuss it with your physician. Fortunately, the exceptional team of registered dietitians at Cone Health are dedicated to educating individuals and families about making the right choices and reading food labels to get them on track to healthier lifestyles.
Margaret “Maggie” May is a certified diabetes educator, and registered dietitian and nurse at Cone Health. She earned a Master of Science in nursing in 1982 and a Master of Science in nutrition in 1998, both from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.