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Food and Inflammation: How to build an anti-inflammatory diet

Dear Georgie,  I am trying to stick with alot of anti-inflammatory fruits and veggies. It’s helped my arthritis significantly, and so much more. I’m eating a lot more fruit and really love carrots in my veggie juice. I’ve been told by one MD that carrots are inflammatory, and by another that they are not. I am using about 8 large carrots a day in 2 servings of juice, mixed with spinach, beets, apple, celery, Chard, and garlic. Do you have any opinion on this or know anything about this topic? I always use you as my FINAL answer cause you’re, well, the bomb.  – Maria
carrots_tallthin.JPGHahaha! Thanks for the props, Maria!  I’m glad to hear that the anti-inflammatory diet you’ve adopted is giving you great benefits! It’s not a fluke or placebo – reducing systemic inflammation with diet can be a potent therapy to alleviate joint pain, improve many skin conditions and minimize allergy symptoms, and help prevent chronic diseases. Believe it or not, chronic systemic inflammation has been linked to the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease, cancer, insulin resistance/type 2 diabetes, and many other conditions. We’d all do well to adopt dietary habits that combat inflammation, whether we have arthritis or not! First, I’ll do an overview of eating to fight inflammation. Then we’ll get to your carrot question at the end.

First of all, whether a food is pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory cannot be reduced to measuring a single nutrient. Many factors have to be weighed. Some food substances favor inflammation, while others reduce inflammation. Some foods are pretty neutral while some foods are quite potent in either direction. To make things even a bit more complex, a single food may have some characteristics that promote inflammation and substances that fight it! In these cases, the quantity of each can help us decide, as well as the context of that food in the whole diet. But you can begin to understand how the pro- or anti- inflammatory nature of a food is somewhat open to debate.

Enough generalities, let talk specifics! The first step in adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce or eliminate foods that contribute to MORE inflammation. Here are some features of inflammatory foods – and some steps to help minimize their effect on your diet.
  • Saturated fat: Found in red meat, fried foods, high fat dairy products like cheese or ice cream. To reduce saturated fat (which is also a great idea to avoid heart disease), choose lean meats like skinless poultry, and trim red meats thoroughly. Check out A Doctors Kitchen for the best fat-trimming demos I’ve ever seen. Also, you’ll note in my recipes that I employ reduced fat cheeses and the occasional fat-free variety to knock out this type of fat.
  • Trans fat: Avoid foods with hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list, such as conventional (not natural) peanut butter, frozen meals, some tortillas/wraps, and commercial pastries, crackers and cookies. Make it a habit to read the label on every packaged food you eat (which ideally, shouldn’t be too many!) and don’t buy ones with partially hydrogenated oil. You can virtually eliminate all trans fat from your diet with this simple strategy.
  • Sugar: Spikes in blood glucose are the culprit here. Choose fewer foods with added sugars, and avoid soda, sweetened drinks and candy to help combat blood glucose spikes, which promote inflammation.
  • Processed and high glycemic carbohydrates: In Western society, we eat a lot of processed and/or high glycemic  carbohydrate. Most breakfast cereals, virtually all baked goods, granola bars, potatoes, bread, and pasta fall in this category. Depending on how far you want to take things, you could start by swapping your white bread for healthier, slightly-less-glycemic whole wheat. To go a step further, reduce your intake of foods made with any flour, in favor of intact grains (like wheat kernels, barley, millet, quinoa, etc). Because they aren’t ground up into tiny particles, intact grains are digested and absorbed much more slowly than flours, even those made from whole grain.
  • Nitrates and nitrites: These additives can increase inflammation, and also are associated with certain cancers, so there’s two good reasons to eat less of them!  Nitrate and nitrite are found mostly in processed, cured meats like hot dogs, ham and bacon. You can, however, find uncured meats at Whole Foods and similar stores, or choose turkey for your sandwich instead on ham. Read the back of lunch meat packages and you can usually find a brand or two without nitrate/nitrite. (Especially ones labeled “natural”).
  • Solanine (?) This one is somewhat controversial. Some people maintain that solanine, an alkaloid found in plants from the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant), can increase arthritis pain, but there isn’t a good consensus of research on this one. It seems that a small percentage of people are especially sensitive to solanine, but for the general population, the small amounts one would consume from nighshade vegetables are unlikely to make a difference. In fact, the rich anti-inflammatory phytochemicals in bell peppers likely outweigh the potential negative effects of solanine.
  • Arachidonic Acid: This is one type of polyunsaturated fat known as an omega-6 fatty acid. It contains a chain of 20 carbon atoms, and is found predominantly in meats, eggs and especially organ meats. A balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is what you need, but some foods have a more than 2:1 (or much higher) ratio of omega-6 outweighing omega-3, making them pro-inflammatory. Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-omega 6 foods are off the menu, so to speak, it just means your whole diet should not be skewed that way. You can balance it out by boosting omega-3 intake with food or supplements. And that bring us to….

What nutrients in foods combat and reduce inflammation?

  • Omega 3 fatty acids: While arachidonic acid (omega-6) is metabolized into inflammatory mediators, omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, EPA and ALA downregulate inflammation. The richest food sources of EPA and DHA are seafood, and ALA can be found in flaxseed and walnuts. Bear in mind though that ALA is less active in the body than EPA and DHA, and only some ALA gets converted to EPA/DHA, so eating fish (2 times a week) or taking a daily fish oil supplement is the most potent inflammation fighter.
  • Phytochemicals like quercitin, anthocyanins, and polyphenols: These compounds are found in fruit, vegetables and some herbs and spices. All the more reason to fill your plate many times throughout the day with a vibrant colorful array of produce. Berries, cruciferous vegetables, red grapes, orange veggies are just some of the all-stars in the phytochemical category.
  • Low glycemic index: I mentioned above how carbohydrates that send your blood sugar high and fast (high glycemic) promote inflammation. Carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, and intact, whole grains are much less glycemic, making them better selections for an antiinflammatory diet. Instead of a bread roll with your salad at lunch, toss on some kidney beans for lower glycemic carbs.
  • Antioxidant vitamins: carotenoids, vitamin C and vitamin E: These antioxidant vitamins come from fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. You can find carotenoids in bright orange carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, tomatoes, and even watermelon. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, kiwi, bell peppers and strawberries. You can get vitamin E from wheat germ, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts and hazelnuts. But don’t turn down the supplement aisle instead of the produce section – taking these nutrients in supplement form doesn’t provide the same benefits, and may actually make inflammation worse, or even be toxic!

So where does that leave us with the carrots in question? It’s true that juicing vegetables raises their glycemic index because it strips away all the fiber and liquifies them for rapid digestion. The only potential negative: As a proportion of their calories, carrots may be high in sugar, but they are still less concentrated in sugars than most fruits, and they come with a walloping dose of antioxidant carotenoids. To be on the safe side, you could reduce the amount of apple and beet in your juices to keep the sugar content low, or crunch on the carrots whole instead of juiced, but in the grand scheme of things, I think you’re on the right track. 😉

For more info on foods and inflammation, I recommend checking out inflammationfactor.com or NutritionData.com, where you can find the Inflammation Factor for any food with a quick search (the site is free).

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  • David April 27, 2011, 9:48 am

    One way to reduce the sugar spike is to use a Vitamix to make veggie “smoothies” rather than a juicer. Also, this way you get all the good fiber!

  • Maria Roelle May 6, 2010, 5:33 am

    Georgie- Thank you for your help and input-the sites you mentioned are a huge help and also the answer not only helps ME, but my mother and aunt who are also trying to change their health not through pills, but through diet and exercise– you ARE da BOMB Chickie!!!

  • Mike May 5, 2010, 8:56 pm

    Great article, Georgie, but I have to disagree with reducing intake of red meat and saturated fat, specifically organic grass fed beef and whole milk. Foods fried in oxidized PUFAs? Sure. Folk would do well to go OUT of there way to replace excess carbohydrates with quality fats—SFA, MUFA, and select O3 PUFAs.
    SFA food for thought: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20071648

  • Monica May 5, 2010, 7:52 pm

    Georgie, I find it really interesting that no matter what the question or topic at hand, the “good” and “bad” groups of food always seem to end up pretty much the same!