By: Kelly Bilodeau, Executive Editor, Harvard Women’s Health Watch
Inflammation: if you follow health news, you probably hear about it often. When is inflammation helpful? How can it be harmful? What steps can you take to tone it down?
What is inflammation and how does it affect your body?
If you’re not familiar with the term, inflammation refers to an immune system reaction to an infection or injury. In those instances, inflammation is a beneficial sign that your body is fighting to repair itself by sending in an army of healing white blood cells. As the injury heals or the illness is brought under control, inflammation subsides. You’ve probably seen this happen with a minor ankle sprain: the initial swelling disappears within days as the injury heals.
But inflammation also occurs without serving any healthful purpose, such as when you experience chronic stress, have an autoimmune disorder, or obesity. And instead of solving a problem and receding, inflammation like this can last over a period of time, damaging the body and potentially leading to health problems like arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and cancer.
This is why inflammation has taken center stage in recent years, and why strategies aimed at reducing it are so popular. Many of these anti-inflammation recommendations relate to your diet.
Can changes in your diet reduce unhelpful inflammation in your body?
The truth is, there are still many unknowns regarding diet and its connection to inflammation and disease. What is clear is that having a healthy diet can help improve overall health and longevity. There is also some evidence to support the notion that eating a host of nutritious foods can reduce inflammation. For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables tend to have lower levels of a substance called C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation inside the body.
In addition, some research has found a link between diets heavy in foods that promote inflammation and a higher risk of certain health problems. For example, a study in Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who consumed pro-inflammatory foods, including red and processed meat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-laden beverages, were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who regularly reached for anti-inflammatory foods, such as leafy greens, beans, and tea.
It may be too soon to draw a direct line between the food you eat and levels of inflammation in your body. Fortunately, the foods that appear to reduce inflammation also tend to be good for you for other reasons. So, focusing on eating these foods can likely benefit your body in more than one way.
5 food swaps to help fight inflammation
A complete overhaul of your diet is challenging, so experts advise making smaller changes over time. Trying a series of simple swaps may add up to better health in the long term.
Below are five substitutions you can use to help reduce the number of inflammation-promoting foods in your diet.
- Instead of a plain bagel with cream cheese, have a slice or two of whole-grain toast drizzled with olive oil. Whole grains contain substances that help promote the growth of healthy bacteria inside your body. That bacteria may then produce compounds that help to counteract inflammation. Regular consumption of olive oil also has benefits: along with anti-inflammatory effects, it may also help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels.
- Instead of a carbonated soda, try a cup of green tea. Green tea contains substances called catechins, a flavanol thought to combat inflammation. (Just be careful not to load your cup down with sugar.)
- Instead of a corn muffin, substitute a handful of unsalted mixed nuts and an apple. Nuts bring a number of health benefits, including offering up a dose of healthy fats, protein, and (depending on the variety of nuts you are eating) phytochemicals. These phytochemicals contain antioxidants, which help clean up harmful substances called free radicals in the body. They are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, as well. Fruit such as apples also contains fiber and phytochemicals.
- Instead of a steak and baked potato, have a serving of salmon with a side of broccoli. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and other types of fish, such as tuna, sardines, and mackerel, have been linked with better heart health, possibly due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Broccoli is also a good source of fiber and is rich in vitamins C, E, K, and folate. It also contains carotenoids, a phytochemical.
- Instead of a slice of cake, mix up a fruit salad using various types of berries. Fruits such as berries are rich in vitamins and inflammation-busting phytochemicals.
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