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.
The obvious advice is to cut down on these pro-inflammatory foods while increasing your consumption of foods that are richest in omega-3s. Less obviously, if you eat a lot of meat, consider switching to organic versions. “Conventionally farmed animals are fed grain, which bumps up the omega-6 content of their meat,” says Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and the author of True Food. “Organic and free-range animals, by contrast, dine on grasses, nuts and other plant life that has a higher omega-3 content.” Also to keep in mind: Some conventional fish farmers now incorporate corn into their feed, so check labels and choose wild fish if you can.
#3 Reduce Insulin Surges
When the body detects a rise in glucose, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that causes cells to absorb glucose in an effort to keep blood sugar at optimal levels. Why is this important? “Insulin is pro-inflammatory,” says Edwards. “The more insulin you produce, the more inflammatory markers you make.” Ideally, the body breaks food down into glucose slowly, causing insulin to be released at low levels. However, with refined foods, the breakdown happens quickly, and insulin floods the body.
Many, but not all, studies suggest that you can keep insulin levels in check by eating more whole grains with your meals. Whole-grain foods are rich in fiber, which slows the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream. How much is enough? A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating 7.5 to 10.5 servings a week produced the biggest reduction in inflammation-related deaths (from, for instance, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease) in postmenopausal women, notes lead author David Jacobs, PhD, a public health professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
#4 Minimize Sugar
Exactly half of a sugar molecule is made up of fructose (the other half is glucose). “Fructose goes directly to the liver,” says Bowden. If you routinely eat a lot of fructose, the liver becomes overtaxed and through a complex set of chemical reactions creates fatty liver tissue, similar to the organ damage caused by overindulging in alcohol. Since fat cells release pro-inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, eating or drinking sugary foods contributes to your overall inflammation level.
Incredibly, every day most Americans consume about 22 teaspoons of added sugar (that’s sugar in addition to what we get naturally in whole foods), according to the American Heart Association, which recommends women cut down to about six teaspoons. Because sugar is found in so many foods, keeping a tally may not be possible. What you can do instead is focus on eating a diet rich in whole foods and eliminating processed foods whenever possible, says Moreno.
#5 Get Plenty of Antioxidants
“Inflammation is the body’s reaction to free radicals, unstable oxygen-containing molecules that are harmful,” says nutritionist Keri Glassman, RD, author of The New You and Improved Diet. “Plants are rich in chemicals called antioxidants that are able to neutralize free radicals or even prevent them from being created in the first place.” A diet rich in fruits and vegetables translates into less inflammation in the body, according to a 2011 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. The darker the color (think kale, eggplant, beets) and the smaller the size (blueberries, pomegranate, goji and açaí), the greater the health boost. And because each pigment in the produce is associated with specific antioxidants, all of which have different benefits, try to eat foods in a variety of colors.
You can increase the nutritional content of fruits and veggies by eating those that are either flash frozen or locally grown and recently harvested. “The moment some produce is picked, it starts to lose its antioxidant value,” says Glassman. Since transporting food takes time, it’s generally a good bet to stick with items from your region or at least in season (out of season means the produce probably traveled a long way to get to you). Because frozen food is chilled immediately after harvest, it’s often a better bet than fresh stuff that may have been sitting around for days before it was shipped to a grocery store.
#6 Eat More Soy
Soy is rich in two isoflavone compounds that may influence and decrease inflammation. Aim for one to two servings a day of whole soy foods, where a serving is equivalent to one cup of soy milk or a half cup of tofu, tempeh, edamame or soy nuts, Andrew Weil recommends. Try using soy milk in your coffee or cereal or tossing tofu into a fresh salad or pasta dish. Weil advises avoiding soy supplements. Concentrated isoflavones resemble estrogen in their effect on the body, so there is such a thing as too much.
#7 Keep Tabs on Food Sensitivities
When you experience an allergy or sensitivity (possibly to dairy, gluten or eggs), your body is sending out an immune response to something that is benign for most people. The downside of this “friendly fire” is inflammation, says the Cleveland Clinic’s Edwards. Think you have a sensitivity? Talk to your doctor about getting tested for allergies or trying an elimination diet, in which you remove suspected irritants, then add them back.
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