by Matthew McCurdy
The anti-inflammatory diet harnesses the power of phytochemicals in plant-based foods to reduce chronic inflammation. It is a pattern of eating, not calorie-counting or food restriction, that promotes vitality, optimizes weight and prevents many diseases including diabetes, heart disease, many cancers and Alzheimer’s. The diet incorporates raw, cooked, mashed and ground foods that humans have eaten for thousands of years, and it excludes foods with added sugar, salt and oils high in omega-6 fatty acids. The whole food, plant-based, Mediterranean and Asian diets are examples of anti-inflammatory diets. High fat, high carb, Atkins and Paleo can be anti-inflammatory diets when they employ plant-based proteins, low glycemic carbs and healthy omega-3 fats.
What to Eat
- Veggies and Fruits: Try everything in the produce section, and aim for a variety of colors. Color indicates different phytochemicals that help the body thwart disease and stay balanced. Berries have anti-aging anthocyanins. Leafy greens have vitamin K and folate to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Garlic and cruciferous vegetables likely have anti-cancer properties.
- Olive oil and avocados: These are good sources of fat.
- Roots: Sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips and rutabaga are high in fiber and phytochemicals.
- Beans: These are high in fiber, antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory substances.
- Whole soy: Includes tofu, edamame, tempeh and miso, and contains high-quality protein and fat. These foods reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer.
- Whole grains: Oats, wheat, rye, barley, rice (try black rice), buckwheat, millet, amaranth and teff.
- Seeds: Quinoa, pumpkin, chia and hemp.
- Nuts: Eat a variety.
- Fish: Salmon, sardines and anchovies are plentiful in omega-3 fatty acids. Check SeafoodWatch.org for information on mercury contamination.
- Herbs and spices: These add powerful phytochemicals and flavor to food. Try turmeric, found in curry powder, which contains curcumin.
What to Avoid
- Refined starches, processed foods and sugary foods: These are all are low in nutrients, high in calories, spikes blood sugar, and they frequently contain added fructose. Pediatric endochronologist Robert Lustig, M.D., persuasively argues that the damage from consuming added fructose is similar to that of chronic heavy alcohol use. Since fructose is added to many processed foods, including pasta sauce and bread, limit or avoid processed foods.
To prolong shelf-life, processed foods also contain high levels of inflammatory omega-6 oils. Overconsumption of omega-6 throws off the balance between omega-6s and omega-3s, leading to chronic inflammation.
- Foods with Trans Fats: Also avoid added trans fats (look on the label for “partially hydrogenated oils”); they cause chronic disease. No amount of added trans fats is safe, and they are being phased out of the food supply.
- Fried foods: Cooking foods in processed vegetable oil doesn’t make them healthy. Corn, safflower and other vegetable oils all have omega-6 fatty acids.
- High-saturated animal fat and processed red meat: Limit or eliminate these foods. Excellent complete protein plant alternatives are beans and rice, soy, peas and quinoa.
A recent, large, randomized, clinical trial showed that people who ate mostly plants, with no limits or calorie counting, lost significant weight and had improved chronic disease parameters, according to The BROAD study, published in 2017 in the online medical journal Nutrition & Diabetes. Diet adherence was high because participants were not hungry—the high fiber and water content kept them full.
Some physicians concur that the ketogenic diet is not an anti-inflammatory diet. The diet, when done correctly, is extremely restrictive and places the body in a state of ketosis with blood ketone body levels of 1-3 mmol/L. The diet is almost all fat, with low protein and almost no carbohydrates. Even eating a moderate amount of vegetables can take one out of ketosis.
While a person does lose water weight during the first few days, the ketogenic diet is not a good option for long-term weight loss or health. One misses out on many phytochemicals, and this diet may harm the gut microbiome.
Physical Activity and the Diet
Sports drinks are not part of the anti-inflammatory diet since they are high in added sugar and low in fiber. Try eating small amounts of dried fruit such as dates during a workout.
For the Greater Good
The anti-inflammatory diet generally requires less land, energy and water. On a per-calorie basis, a high-meat diet produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a vegan diet. Raising the estimated 70 billion land animals consumed annually contributes 14.5 to 51 percent of total human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
In conclusion, the anti-inflammatory diet is a pattern of eating that includes a wide variety of foods; it is easy to adopt once one makes it a habit, and it can be modified for food allergies, diabetes, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s prevention. As Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”
Dr. Matthew McCurdy is a holistic cancer doctor and radiation oncologist at the Austin Cancer Center and treats cancer patients throughout the greater Austin area. For more information, visit AustinCancerCenters.com.