Inflammation and Wellness
Inflammation is the natural way our bodies react to protect and heal us, but chronic inflammation has damaging effects on our health. Many major diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer's have been linked to chronic inflammation. According to Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School, “Doctors are learning that one of the best ways to quell inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in the refrigerator.”
To Eat or Not to Eat
Simply put, refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, and pastries, fried foods (yes, even French fries), sugary soft drinks, red and/or processed meats, margarine/shortening, and lard are among the worst culprits and should be avoided. In general, highly processed foods of any sort are discouraged.
Instead, you should include plenty of foods in your diet that combat inflammation: tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables including spinach and kale, fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, and fruit, especially strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges. Harvard relays, “Studies have also associated nuts with reduced markers of inflammation and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” These foods are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols, which are protective compounds found in plants. Many of you will be delighted to know that coffee, which contains polyphenols and other anti-inflammatory compounds, may protect against inflammation, also.
Low-Inflammation Health Models
Dr. Diane L. Barsky, MD, Gastroenterologist, and Medical Director of the Home Parenteral Nutrition Service at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in her talk about The Anti-inflammatory Diet's Surprising Benefits in Children, praises the anti-inflammatory health benefits of the Mediterranean and Asian Diets, especially when components of both diets are eaten as part of a balanced nutritional program. We must view food as part of medical intervention, not as medicine. There is an undeniable interconnection of food, people, and land, and though here, we will discuss food specifically, it is important to reiterate that physical activity is imperative to health and longevity.
The Mediterranean-style diet has been studied for more than 30 years and has many healthful benefits. The fundamental building blocks are fresh, unprocessed foods and healthy, mono-unsaturated fats, especially Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats such as those found in fish, nuts, and avocados, fresh vegetables and fruit, legumes, some lean white meats and eggs, olive oil, spices, and phytosterol-rich ginger, garlic, kale, and turmeric. Artificial flavors or colors, high-fructose corn syrup, or trans fats are not part of this diet. As with any healthy diet, water intake is paramount. This diet has been shown to contribute to a lower incidence of diabetes and the increased food-sourced magnesium has been linked with improved cognitive function.
Benefits to Children
Children have been part of the Mediterranean diet study for decades, according to Dr. Barsky, with results showing a correlation between prevention and reduction in occurrence and severity of asthma and allergies. The earlier integration of the diet occurs, the less likely a child is to become obese. More recently, a lower prevalence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has been associated with the diet. It is still unclear if those with ADHD are more likely to consume a diet high in inflammatory-inducing/processed foods or if those following a Mediterranean diet have less risk. Either way, it’s a fascinating association that is sure to garner further research.
Phytochemicals from the plant rich diet appear to have anti-carcinogenic properties and can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) describes phytochemicals as chemicals occurring naturally in plants that provide them with color, odor, and flavor; however, after we eat them, research shows “they can influence the chemical processes inside our bodies in helpful ways.” Laboratory studies show phytochemicals have the potential to stimulate the immune system, block substances we eat and drink from becoming carcinogenic, reduce the type of inflammation that promotes cancer growth, prevent damage to—and help repair—DNA, slow growth rate of cancer cells, and more!
The Asian Diet has not been studied for as long or as extensively as the Mediterranean Diet, but was championed by the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment at Cornell University more than 20 years ago. It emphasizes a wide base of whole grain, minimally processed rice and grain products, and like the Mediterranean diet, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, small amounts of vegetable oil, plant-based beverages such as black and green tea, and lesser amounts of low-fat dairy or fish are optional daily. Poultry, eggs, and sweets are discouraged more than once a week and red meat only monthly or less frequently.
Susan S. Lang, of the Cornell Chronicle, states, “the traditional, plant-based rural diets of Asia…research increasingly shows to be linked to much lower rates of certain cancers, heart disease, obesity, and, in some cases, osteoporosis and other chronic, degenerative diseases than those found in the United States.” Dr. Barsky points out that unlike the Mediterranean diet, the Asian diet incorporates fermented foods like kimchi and soy beans, as well as shiitake and other varieties of mushrooms, green seaweed and fennel, which, in addition to improvement in cancer risk and occurrence, have been linked to a reduction of cases of irritable bowel disease.
The migraine diet is a type of elimination diet that involves identifying and subsequently avoiding trigger foods that cause the severe, multi-symptomatic headaches for which it is named. Besides throbbing head pain, migraines often involve vomiting, light sensitivity, dizziness and other debilitating symptoms. The migraine diet, however, has been proven to help young sufferers. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a 1983 study of children afflicted by migraines, the elimination of trigger foods led 78 of those children to "recover completely" and four to "improve greatly". The migraine diet has also been helpful in reducing seizures in children. Foods that are considered "safe" include brown rice, water, condiments, cooked orange, green and yellow vegetables, and non-citrus fruit that have been cooked or dried. Common trigger foods include chocolate, eggs, wheat, nuts, bananas, apples, onions, tomatoes, meat, citrus, and dairy. Certain chemicals in fatty or highly-processed foods can also cause problems for young migraine sufferers, likely because, according to Verywell Health, such dietary triggers "may affect migraine by influencing the release of serotonin, causing constriction and dilation of blood vessels, or by directly stimulating areas of the brain such as the trigeminal ganglia, brainstem, and neuronal pathways." Followers of the migraine diet generally begin with a two-week process during which they eliminate high-risk foods completely and focus on safe foods. If problems persist, they proceed with an elimination diet to help determine their trigger. The migraine diet is more restrictive than many low inflammatory diets and parents are often encouraged to keep food journals for their children to help facilitate the process.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines the ketogenic (Keto) diet as “A diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates (sugars) that causes the body to break down fat into molecules called ketones. Ketones circulate in the blood and become the main source of energy for many cells in the body.” Keto diets are carbohydrate-restrictive and are rich in protein and fat: meats (even processed), eggs, cheese, fish, nuts, butter, oils, seeds, and vegetables. Despite Keto’s recent increase in popularity, it is not just a new diet fad. Dr. Marcelo Campos, MD, of Harvard writes, “In medicine, we have been using it for almost 100 years to treat drug-resistant epilepsy, especially in children.” This link has researchers considering the possible benefits for other neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and sleep disorders.
Weight management is an obvious short-term draw to Keto, but it should be mentioned that unlike the Mediterranean and Asian diets, Keto is more difficult to follow and, as such, long-term studies do not exist for potential health detriments stemming from increased consumption of inflammation-causing red meat, processed, and salty foods, so many physicians do not recommend Keto as a lifelong diet plan.
Eat Fresh, Local, & Whole
Low inflammatory, high-fat, dense nutrition diets, like those discussed here, offer many health and wellness benefits. Eating locally grown, minimally processed, whole foods not only decreases inflammation that can lead to cancers and cardiovascular disease, but these types of diets are being used to treat many other ailments, sometimes in conjunction with—and other times, instead of—traditional medicine. Research supports that this type of nutrition, in addition to physical activity and plenty of water intake, can help us live longer, healthier lives.