The inflammatory process begins the moment any part of your body is injured. This is normal inflammation that’s essential for healing. Inflammation can also become chronic, and this type of long-term process contributes to serious illness and aging. Foods affect the inflammatory process; some are pro-inflammatory and contribute to unhealthy inflammation, while others fight damaging inflammation.
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When tissues in the body are injured for any reason, the damaged area is flooded with blood and special cells that fight infection and remove wastes. This influx of fluids causes the typical swelling, redness and pain associated with inflammation. It’s also just the first step in the inflammatory response; it triggers a sequence of events in the immune system. Part of the response is the release of proteins that stimulate a system-wide inflammatory response. Sometimes that stimulus continues, resulting in long-term inflammation. This chronic inflammation damages healthy tissues in the body and contributes to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Saturated fats, cholesterol and trans fat are pro-inflammatory and should be avoided. Foods high in pro-inflammatory fats include beef and other red meats, butter, whole milk, cheese and palm oil. You’ll find trans fats in any product that has partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is prominent in margarine and commercially prepared baked goods and snacks. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but a study in the February 2010 issue of "Pharmaceutical Biology" reports that coconut oil shows anti-inflammatory properties. Unsaturated fats, including vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola and olive oil, are also anti-inflammatory and help lower cholesterol. The most important anti-inflammatory fats are omega-3 fatty acids because they actually diminish inflammation. Good sources of omega-3 are flaxseeds, soybeans, walnuts, salmon, herring, trout and tuna. Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential and healthy fatty acids. However, they work opposite omega-3 and have an inflammatory effect. The goal is to eat a balance of omega-3 and omega-6, so they can work together, and avoid eating too much omega-6, which is found in vegetable oils, sunflower seeds and pecans.
High blood sugar stimulates inflammation, but the process can be moderated by keeping blood sugar balanced. Limit the amount of pro-inflammatory white flour products and sugars you eat, such as white bread, pasta, crackers, snacks, soda and sweets. The complex carbohydrates are good anti-inflammatory choices, so include whole grains, beans and legumes in your diet. Fruits and vegetables are important anti-inflammatory foods because they contain plant-based chemicals that fight inflammation and cellular damage. They’re also a great source of nutrients that help your body fight inflammation, such as B vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin E, and they're high in fiber, which helps fight inflammation. When choosing fruits, go with berries, cherries, apples and pears, while limiting tropical and citrus fruits.
Proteins alone aren’t anti- or pro-inflammatory. Rather, it's the source of the protein that makes the difference. Choose proteins from lean meats and fish to be sure you get enough complete protein without any accompanying pro-inflammatory fats. You can also get sufficient protein by eating a variety of beans, legumes, soy products and vegetables.