A diet heavy on fruits and vegetables — plus oily fish, whole grains and herbs and spices — can ward off disease. But you already knew that, right? Credit: Metro file
Why try the anti-inflammation diet? Because not only does it pay off big — helping you maintain a health weight and prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers — it's as easy as the pie you're still allowed to eat while following it.
Many processed foods, such as white bread and rice, are harder for the body to digest than whole foods, so they trigger an inflammatory response.
“When the body needs to get rid ingredients that are difficult to digest, its cells are being overworked,” says Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RD, CDN, ACSM-HFS, author of "Belly Fat Fix" and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “On a cellular level, we're giving off byproducts that aren't natural, so the body has to work harder to figure out what to do with them.”
This can restrict oxygen and blood flow, Nolan Cohn says. Over time, that can lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with the development of hypertension, diabetes and other serious health problems.
“We're not sure exactly why, but we do know that being in an inflammatory state is unhealthy,” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN, clinical associate professor at Boston University and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “Eating foods that reduce the inflammatory response in the body and get your weight under control help keep blood pressure and blood glucose in check, cutting your risk of disease.”
Experts say that instead of maxing out on the trendy “superfoods” of the moment, the easiest way to eat to beat inflammation is to keep meals colorful and varied.
“A person's overall diet is really the key to optimizing health and slashing disease risk,” explains Cynthia Sass, R.D., M.P.H., author of "S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches." “While there are some foods that have phenomenal research behind them in terms of health benefits, variety is key, because vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals vary from food to food. So eating a wide range of veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils, herbs and spices provides a broad spectrum of protection you won't benefit from if you eat the same few superfoods over and over.”
The anti-inflammation diet is similar to U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations and the oft-recommended Mediterranean and “heart-healthy” ways of eating: In addition to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, eat whole grains, lean protein, beans and legumes, fatty fish such as salmon, olive oil and herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic and ginger, which research suggests have anti-cancer properties. Green tea is also thought to contain cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
“The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in oily fish produce a specific type of prostaglandin, a hormone-like substance that has been shown to reduce inflammation,” Sass says. “And whole grains have a high fiber content. This roughage helps clear out your system, and that in and of itself helps rid our body of any inflammatory metabolites or leftovers.”
As for those vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables – such as dark leafy greens, bell peppers, blueberries and tomatoes – make sure you don't cook away their anti-inflammatory benefits.
“A good rule of thumb for cooking vegetables is that you want to expose them to the least amount of heat and water for the shortest amount of time you can,” says Salge Blake, who recommends microwaving them in a little water or steaming until they're crisp-tender to keep their vitamins and minerals intact.
And of course, there are some “Don'ts” for the anti-inflammatory diet, too: Try to reduce your consumption of fatty animal products, such as meat and dairy, Nolan Chon says.
But remember, “everything doesn't have to be perfect,” Salge Blake says. “If the bulk of your diet is healthy and you're at a healthy weight, of course you can have a dessert now and then. There's room for little extras in small amounts.”