Whether dealing with the aftermath of an injury or simply seeking to optimize one’s health and wellness, there is wisdom in following a diet rich in foods considered to have anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is now recognized as a major contributor to a number of illnesses, including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and atherosclerosis, which predispose to cardiovascular events. Also Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and autoimmune disorders, such as Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. Conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system (such as rheumatoid and osteoarthritis) also play into this dynamic. Even depression and cancer correlate strongly with levels of inflammation.
How we eat can play a role in protecting us from illness by minimizing chronic inflammation and boosting brain and heart health. Weight control is a secondary, but welcome, byproduct of this thoughtful way of eating. Armed with the knowledge we now have, nutritional guidance should be a part of care delivery in every medical discipline, including physical therapy and orthopedics.
The world of nutrition and health has been turned upside down in recent years.
The Skinny On Fats
The old school emphasis on reducing all fat intake – but especially saturated and trans fats – has been replaced with an emphasis on eating healthy fats (including some saturated fats, like that in coconut oil). Other healthy fats include those in olive oil, avocados and nuts. In fact, your body needs these fats to function optimally, fight inflammation, and even to lose excess pounds.
Several articles I’d recommend on the subject include this one on why we need fat in our diets, this one on Facts About Fats, and this one on why carbs and not fats cause fatty liver disease.
Sugar Is The Enemy
Sugar is now thought to be the evil ingredient and the most significant dietary contributor to inflammation. It seems that this line of thinking, supported by a great deal of research, is going to prevail for the long haul.
Sugar comes in many forms, whether from refined carbohydrates, or that added to beverages, or even the natural sugars in fruits or dairy. They might be listed on an ingredients label as sucrose, corn syrup, glucose, fructose and galactose, lactose or maltose. Once ingested, these other sugars become glucose. Though both are processed by the body into sugars, refined carbohydrates are more of an issue than whole grains in our diet because much of the fiber, nutrients and essential fatty acids are eliminated in the refining process.
A rise in blood glucose triggers a release of insulin and other substances that create an environment conducive to inflammation. More on this can be found here.
Carbs also produce more belly and liver fat than dietary fat itself. In addition, excess sugars contribute to cholesterol imbalances – elevated LDLs and lowered HDLs, contributing to heart attack risk.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Rule
Found in fish (salmon is king – pun intended), nuts (particularly walnuts), certain oils, leafy greens and flax seeds, Omega-3s are an essential part of our diet. They serve a multitude of purposes and our bodies don’t produce them. They are in the cell membranes of all our cells and are integral to the production of certain hormones that do everything from assisting with regulation of blood clotting, blood vessel function and control of inflammation to impacting genetic function. Also integral to the findings is that Omega-3 Fatty Acids are an important nutrient for optimal brain health.
Here is one piece on Omega-3s. Here is another that describes their impact on many disease processes. Their antioxidant properties and the impact they have on inflammation have been explored in a significant amount of research, some of which is discussed here.
Chemicals in our bodies called free radicals can wreck havoc by damaging our cells, thus altering their structure and function. Antioxidants, extracted from foods that we eat, combat free radicals to limit that damage which, left unchecked, contributes to a host of chronic conditions. Other than for prevention of age-related macular degeneration, studies involving antioxidant supplements did not show them to be beneficial. However, evidence has shown that a diet rich in the naturally occurring antioxidants found in vegetables, fruits and whole grains does offer protection against cognitive decline and the diseases associated with aging.
More on specific foods (like eggs, red meat and oils), in Part Two of this series. Part three focuses on nutritional recommendations for brain health and post concussion, for those suffering from gastric issues (like IBS and reflux) and on foods for Eye Health.