Inflammatory Foods

By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D., "Inflammatory Foods," January/February 2008

Science is uncovering close connections among food, inflammation and heart disease. Here’s what you should know.

How Diet Can Help

Numerous studies show that individual foods and nutrients can either stoke or subdue the inflammatory process. The foods that inflame aren’t new villains: they are saturated fats and trans-fatty acids, along with high-glycemic-index carbohydrates like refined starches and sweets, which the body quickly converts to glucose.

It’s old news that saturated fats and trans fats increase LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in the blood, but we now know that too much LDL can start a cascade of inflammatory events. When it accumulates in artery walls excessively, LDL undergoes chemical changes, including oxidization; the body interprets these changes as “danger” and responds by drawing inflammatory compounds into arteries. This process ultimately results in both the buildup of plaque and chronic inflammation.

The anti-inflammatory prescription, then, begins with avoiding anything that increases LDL, and it’s a familiar refrain: Limit intake of full-fat animal products and read labels to avoid common trans-fat sources like commercial cakes, cookies, crackers, pies and breads. Focus on getting more omega-3 fats, which the body converts to substances that decrease inflammation. And, since elevated blood sugar can stoke some of the chemical changes that render LDL more dangerous, it makes sense to limit your intake of refined grains and other high-glycemic-index carbohydrates like white bread and potatoes.

Instead, try to get more of what I call “inflammation soothers”: foods that inhibit LDL and help prevent reactions that spark inflammation. The list is long and includes foods high in healthy mono-unsaturated and omega-3 fats (like extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, fatty fish, nuts and seeds—particularly omega-3-rich walnuts and flaxseed), along with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. (A few surprising “extras” like red wine, cocoa and turmeric have shown promising anti-inflammatory activity in some studies.) Whole grains and legumes are also key. And phytosterols, cholesterol-lowering plant compounds that are turning up in some brands of low-fat yogurt, orange juice, butterlike spreads and granola bars, also may help reduce inflammation.

But rather than just concentrating on individual foods, Kris-Etherton and other experts recommend focusing on an overall dietary pattern that combines these foods for additive and/or synergistic effects. The renowned Mediterranean Diet pattern, rich in plant foods and seasoned with olive oil, is one of many healthy models that fit this description.

Of course, lowering LDL cholesterol remains the cornerstone of reducing your risk of heart disease. But it’s clear that inflammation plays an important role, too, and soothing the flames of inflammation is within our power.

So lose weight if you need to, take a daily aspirin if prescribed and make sensible food choices. As you can see, there’s plenty of common ground between anti-inflammatory eating and healthy eating in general. You’ve undoubtedly heard this advice before, but now there are new reasons to act on it.

Oh, and don’t forget to floss.

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