How to Eat - The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

get your body working better by eating a diet of clean, whole foods.

Why is an anti-inflammatory diet important? Inflammation is thought to be the basis for all chronic disease. Heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, on and on. The very foods you eat on a daily basis can help to nourish and protect your body to function optimally, or make you susceptible to disease. Interested in trying it but don’t know where to start?

I generally recommend first focusing on adding good nutritional value to your diet before working to remove less optimal choices. While a 100% overhaul works well for a select few, most people do better with gradual changes.  Adding in nourishing foods will help you feel better overall, have more energy, and even get sick less often.  I find people are more willing to stick to those changes when they can learn to associate what they eat with how they feel.

Fruits and vegetables form the foundation of the anti-inflammatory diet.  Eat a variety of organic fruits and veggies, in season preferred, and extra bonus points for local as well.  If all organic is too expensive or difficult to find, at least choose organic for the Dirty Dozen.  Choose a wide range of colors. Different pigments have different phytochemicals and a “rainbow diet” will give you a great mix. It’s also important to keep a mix of raw and cooked veggies. The raw food craze keeps coming and going, but there are actually many foods that have an increased bioavailability of nutrients when cooked. Sautéing, roasting, grilling and steaming are preferred methods.

Grains have a bad rap these days, though they can be an important part of the anti-inflammatory diet and a good source of fiber and non-meat protein as well. I don’t believe that gluten is a problem for everyone, but clearly some people do better without it. Additionally there is truly a difference between actual “whole grains” and what is frequently stamped with the “whole grain product” logo. Whether or not you choose to consume wheat products, there are other grains to consider like quinoa, millet, buckwheat, rice and barley. Steel cut oats are another option, and I would definitely recommend these over oatmeal and certainly over any type of quick oats. Beans and legumes are also good sources of non-meat protein.

Fats and oils are really important.  We want to focus on increasing our Omega-3 fats and decreasing our Omega-6 fats.  At our house we use a liberal amount of oils and butter. I recommend coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, and butter.  Nuts and seeds can also be a source of some of your fat. I definitely discourage any use of “vegetable oils” and soybean oil in particular. These are in many packaged foods and are a marker for poor quality ingredients.  Polyunsaturated oils (vegetable and soybean oils) are primarily Omega-6 fatty acids, highly pro-inflammatory, and despite what American’s were told for many years, are not good for you. I wouldn’t intentionally consume them at all.  Most people tend to have a significant Omega 3:6 imbalance, putting them in a constant pro-inflammatory state and at higher risk of disease.  A more detailed discussion of Omega 3’s and 6’s can be found at Wellness Mama, I think she does an amazing job.  And butter – do we eat it? Yes, lots. Again, saturated fat is not the problem!  I actually think that well sourced saturated fat is good for you, and there is increasing evidence to support this. Unfortunately it takes a long time for this sort of thing to become mainstream, and we’re still coming out of the “fat is bad” era.

Fish and seafood are preferred protein options on the anti-inflammatory diet. Choose wild fish. Wild Alaskan salmon and wild Alaskan Black Cod have some of the highest Omega-3 levels. Sockeye salmon is always wild and cannot be farmed, making it a good choice when you’re unsure about the source, such as in a restaurant.  Wild white fish is a great option as well. Consider Mercury content of fish for some species, and in general I would avoid swordfish, tuna, and large predatory fish for pregnant women and children. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a cool resource called Seafood Watch that provides constantly changing recommendations for sustainability as well as mercury content. Why wild fish? When fish are farmed, they are fed primarily grain. This results in (you guessed it) less omega-3 content and more omega-6 content. Beyond nutrition value, there are many political and ecological issues to consider.  I don’t buy any farmed fish.

Soy – yes or no?  Soy remains pretty controversial and there are lots of arguments on both sides. Not going to get into all of it right now, except to say that whole soy foods and soy “products” are very different. I think there are benefits to moderate consumption of whole soy foods (edamame, tofu, tempeh) but I would really discourage any consumption of soy products (soy “chicken” nuggets, soy “cheese” and other similar products).  They are processed and manufactured food just like any other junk food, and unfortunately many well meaning people choose them to be healthier.  I personally would avoid a lot of soy for babies and children if possible.  My daughter does love edamame and I have no problem with her having that occasionally.

A word about dairy…Such a controversial topic. My take is that if you choose to consume dairy (or give to your children), the best option is to choose organic, full-fat versions. Grass fed and pastured even better.  Why organic? Well in addition to all the obvious reasons, organic is particular important for dairy and especially for children.  Growth hormones in milk (bovine growth hormone, or labeled rBGH) can cause an increase in something called IGF (insulin-like growth factor) when consumed, which is a known tumor promoter. Additionally dairy hormones may be responsible for some of the early puberty being seen in children today (sometimes as young as age 7).  Why full fat? Again related to avoiding an imbalance of hormones (certain hormones are only in the fatty part of the milk), as well as that full fat dairy is a “whole food” while skim milk is not.  There is clear evidence now that fat doesn’t make anyone fat, and even saturated fat isn’t necessarily a problem. The source of your food and what happened to it before you consume it is much more important.  Dr. Andrew Weil has said many times that “cow’s milk is the most optimal source of nutrition…..for baby cows”.  I personally agree and we don’t generally consume milk, though we do eat butter and cheese. I have never given my 2 year old cow's milk.

Other sources of protein can include eggs, dairy, chicken. I would recommend organic and pastured if possible. Red meat is a controversial topic in this diet. I don’t personally consume red meat. If you would like to, my recommendation is that you choose organic, grass-fed beef. Once again, what happens to your food before you consume it is really important. Cows that are fed grains have high omega-6 content, where cows that are fed grass have high omega-3 content. Additionally factory farmed beef is full of antibiotics and hormones that no one should be eating, particularly if you feed meat to your children.

The anti-inflammatory diet also has a special place for tea and red wine. White, green and oolong teas are preferred. They are full of anti-oxidants and have many compounds with a variety of potential benefits. If you like drinking tea this is a great option. I would not recommend that one drink specifically only for health reasons, but if you do enjoy wine then red wine is preferred.

Spice it up! Become familiar and comfortable using spices to season your food. Organic and free of additives and preservatives is preferred. I like to buy from Mountain Rose Herbs because they offer organic herbs and spices in bulk for a great price.  Be cautious picking up "spice blends" at the grocery store as many have MSG in them.

Saved the best for last: Dark chocolate! The high cacao, low sugar, dairy free kind is full of anti-oxidants, flavanoids and other compounds that are beneficial to your health.  A (small) daily dose of dark chocolate may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease among others. Watch for excess sugar and artificial flavors.

Understanding what to avoid is just as important as understanding what to eat.

Refined, processed and manufactured foods.  In our culture this is easier said than done, but by making small changes over time you really can eliminate most or all packaged foods. Snack foods tend to fall in this category, so redefine your version of snacks. Try an apple and almond butter, carrots and hummus or grapes and cheese.  Or when you do buy packaged foods, aim for 5 or fewer ingredients, all of which you recognize.

Pulverized Grains. Avoid refined carbohydrates. Most crackers, store bought breads, and certainly any kind of child "puffs" fall in this category.

Sugar. Minimize sugar.  Sugar is clearly inflammatory and contributes to many disease processes.  When you do consume something sweet, homemade with real sweeteners is the best option.  Occasional sweets are fine, but try making them from real ingredients.  The average American now consumes 150-170 pounds of sugar per year! That's 3 pounds per week. Yuck right?! Avoid high fructose corn syrup, it's processed differently by the liver and is just a marker of poor quality food.

Juices.  Juice = sugar. When you juice you remove the fiber from a whole fruit or vegetable.  Fiber is good for you. Beyond it's digestive benefits it helps to blunt the glucose and subsequent insulin spike when you consume sugar in fruit.

Low-fat or fat-free anything.  Eat real, whole foods. Fat is good for you. Removing the fat causes companies to add sugar to compensate for the poor flavor.  While avoiding packaged foods is ideal, at a minimum avoid products that advertise being low-fat.

Non-food additives.  Avoid artificial colors, flavors, preservatives.  These ingredients aren't necessary and are not nourishing. Particularly for children all of these additives have been associated with behavioral difficulties and gastrointestinal complaints. Additionally I'm not convinced they are really all that safe.  Obviously, soda falls in this category and should definitely be avoided.

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet Pyramid

So what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like in reality?! Here are some things we typically eat.

Breakfast

Steel cut oats (can use either almond or coconut milk or organic whole milk)

Berries – blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries

Almonds

Chia Seeds

-OR-

Scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms (cooked in butter or coconut oil)

Orange or grapefruit

Lunch

Dark leafy green salad (olive oil and balsamic vinegar is your best option for dressing, or make your own)

Cheese & fruit

-OR-

Leftovers from dinner make great lunches, as do soups and stews.

Dinner

Salmon, oven baked and seasoned with spices of your choice (check blends for MSG!)

Sweet potato (we like with butter or coconut oil, coriander, cumin, and salt after baking)

Broccoli (cut into bite size pieces, coat in coconut oil, salt/pepper and roast)

Dark Chocolate (I love the Dark Chocolate bars by Theo, out of Seattle)

Snacks

Homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruits without added sugar)

Hummus and carrots

Apple and almond butter

Any fruit or veggies. My daughter loves strawberries and cucumbers together.

Green Smoothies! Any combo of: kale or spinach, berries, banana, avocado, orange or other citrus, kiwi, carrots. Optional ginger, turmeric, parsley.  Almond or coconut milk if you like.  Peanut or almond butter if you like.  +/- coconut oil.  Pretty much anything!

That's it! Switching to an anti-inflammatory diet does not have to be difficult or confusing. Easy and SO worth it.