If you’ve ever bumped your elbow against a table or fallen down and landed on your knees, you know how your body reacts to injury. The site becomes hot, red and swollen. These symptoms mean that your immune system is sending out inflammatory markers—proteins and white blood cells—to fend off potential infections. “In the short run, inflammation is a good thing. It protects you from bacteria and viruses,” says Tanya Edwards, MD, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “But if an inflammatory reaction continues over a long period of time, you’re in for problems.”
That’s because prolonged stresses—a huge universe of assaults that includes smoking, being obese, sitting too long, taking certain drugs and eating certain foods—lead your body to more or less continuously release pro-inflammatory markers, putting you into a chronic state of low-level inflammation that is damaging rather than protective, says Michael Rafael Moreno, MD, author of The 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging. These markers travel throughout the body and are associated with heart disease, some cancers, osteoarthritis, kidney problems and -Alzheimer’s—which is one reason Moreno says that whether or not you have chronic inflammation is “the strongest factor” in how well your body is aging.
Because some foods promote inflammation and others help tamp it down, what we eat makes a surprisingly large contribution to our individual level of inflammation. For instance, a study done at the University of Buffalo in New York found that eating an anti-inflammatory food (in this case, 300 calories of orange juice) neutralized the pro-inflammatory effect of a 900--calorie, high-fat, high-carb meal. A variety of foods fall into either the pro- or anti-inflammatory camp, according to a slew of recent studies, and that makes it easy to “build up your body’s anti-inflammatory army as you cut down the pro-inflammatory one,” says nutritionist Jonny Bowden, PhD, coauthor of The Great Cholesterol Myth. The payoff for these switches? By lowering inflammation through food and other means (see 3 Surprising Ways to Fend Off Inflammation), “you will reduce disease, slow down how fast you age and add years to your life,” says Moreno.
Here are the dietary moves most likely to lengthen your life.
#1 Load Up on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
According to current thinking, omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most effective dietary weapons against inflammation. Found in some fish (such as salmon) and plant oils (walnuts are a potent source), these fats have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and breast and colon cancer. “We think omega-3s may not only keep inflammation from going up but also push levels down,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State College of Medicine in Columbus. In a study, Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues found that overweight adults who took 1.25 or 2.5 grams of omega-3 supplements a day for four months lowered their inflammation levels by up to 10 percent compared with a control group.
And you don’t have to take pills to get these benefits. In a recent review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Harvard researchers concluded that consuming at least two servings (about three ounces each) of oily seafood every week is connected to lower levels of inflammation.
#2 Cut Down on Omega-6 Fatty Acids
In the right amounts, these are beneficial, protecting your body from potential invaders by making inflammation-producing cells. However, the typical Western diet is heavy on foods that are rich in omega-6s—such as dairy, meats, potatoes, rice and other simple carbs, and vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn. As a result, instead of eating a ratio of three omega-3 foods to every one omega-6 food, we are eating an inflammation-promoting ratio of 25 omega-6s to every omega-3. “It’s like pressing on the gas without balancing your speed with the brake,” says Moreno.