The Med Diet and Inflammation

Believe it or not inflammation starts as a good thing. It happens when your immune system sends white blood cells and compounds like eicosanoids to attack invading viruses, bacteria and toxins. This can result in a classic example of totally normal inflammation:  Pain, heat, redness and swelling around a wound or an injury.

According to Barry Sears, PhD,  creator of the Zone diet, “there’s a separate response called resolution that is the first phase of inflammation that causes cellular destruction and the second phase resolution that begins cellular repair.  As long as those phases are balanced, you stay well. But for more and more of us, balance never happens. That’s because sugar, refined grains and saturated fat can also trigger an inflammatory immune response and the typical US standard diet is packed with them, meaning every time we eat, we are inflaming our bodies over and over. Meanwhile, the average American gets way too little of fruits and non-starchy veggies which are packed with antioxidants that help cool things down as well as fatty fish with omega-3 fats that can reduce the intensity of the initial inflammatory response and can help move your body into the second phase of resolution (cellular repair).

But the plan with the most research behind it is the traditional Mediterranean diet. Several large studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean pattern of eating have lower levels of the inflammatory markers, C reactive protein and interleukin 6, in their blood compared with those who don’t. “This may be one of the reasons the Mediterranean diet is linked to so many health benefits, from keeping weight down to slashing heart and stroke risks, says Frank Hu, MD , professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

“Air pollution and environmental toxins also trigger your immune system this way but most of the chronic, extra inflammation in our bodies is diet related” says Sears  “in arteries chronic inflammation can lead to heart disease, in the brain it’s linked to anxiety and depression, in your joints, it causes swelling and pain, in the gut inflammation throws off balance of helpful bacteria and causes direct damage to the lining of the intestines.”

“You don’t have to follow any specific anti-inflammatory (AI ) diet to make a big difference; a healthy body is built to handle the occasional onslaught of inflammation;  It’s the regular, consistent consumption and over-consumption of inflammatory foods like sugar and saturated fat that’s linked to serious disease” says Sonya Angelone, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A 2012 study of nearly 2000 people, for example, found that those who ate the most sweets over two years had significantly higher levels of interleukin-6  (an inflammatory marker) than people who ate more veggies fruits and whole grains.

Follow these guidelines on most days

Limit added sugar and sweet drinks. A small study in 2005, people who were fed a high-sugar diet for 10 weeks compared to controls had significantly elevated blood levels of an inflammatory marker that in high concentrations is associated with diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and obesity.

 Aim for half to 2/3 of your plate to be non-starchy vegetables as they are packed with gut balancing fiber and powerful antioxidants.

  Eat fatty fish (salmon, tuna)  or take omega-3 supplements (at least 1000 milligrams daily).

“Cut out white flour and limit flour-based foods. Focus on whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and bulgur wheat. Even 100% whole grain flour will cause a spike in blood sugar that exacerbates inflammation, especially for people with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, or diabetes,”  Dr. Sears says.

Choose fats carefully. Limit saturated fats like butter and skip vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fats, such as safflower oil and corn oils. (Read ingredient labels). Go for olive oil, avocado oil, or walnut oil instead.

NOTE: Americans came to consume more than 18 billion pounds of soybean oil by 2001 – more than 80 percent of all oils eaten in the U.S – and most of that soybean oil was partially hydrogenated, containing a hefty load of trans fat (not heart healthy).  It is mainly used in processed foods. Source: Nina Teicholz. “The Big Fat Surprise,” 2014,  page 237-238.

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