Inflammation is a primary culprit in many aspects of injury and illness, which has led to the creation of many over the counter and prescription anti-inflammatory medications designed to block, or worse, shut off inflammation. What if I told you that what you put in your mouth, as well as what you do not put in your mouth, dramatically dictates your level of inflammation? Moreover, what if with some small changes you could drastically reduce the amount of inflammation created (as opposed to waiting until you need to block it with pills)? What if I told you that you could recover from injuries faster, rebound from workouts more quickly and reduce your pain, just by altering what you put in your mouth? Sounds easy, right?
Unfortunately for humans (but fortunate for food companies), sugar is addicting. Literally. Sugar causes changes in brain chemistry and stimulates receptors in the brain that make us go back for more. Because of this, eliminating sugar is usually the biggest block to transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet. Want to know the kicker? Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods you could eat (especially in the quantities most people are eating).
That being said, the first step to an anti-inflammatory diet is removing processed foods (things that come in boxed and bags) and sugars from your diet. These should be replaced with whole foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts & seeds and meat unless you prefer a vegetarian or vegan way of life).
Personally, I have noticed a great reduction in my total inflammation (as measured with both labs and subjective reporting) by consuming a whole food diet composed of approximately 80% fruits/vegetables/legumes/nuts and only 20% meat products. There is lots of research showing that various diets (including vegetarian, vegan and Mediterranean) are powerful strategies for decreasing inflammation. What do most of them have in common? An emphasis on whole foods created by nature, and a drastic reduction in processed foods made in factories.
Clinically, one way to directly measure inflammation in your body is by looking at metabolic markers such as C-Reactive Protein and cytokine markers such as IL-6 and TNF-α. While this is beneficial, it does not always provide us with the direction in how to create a change in these values. That leads us to look at the Omega Check, which is one way to measure your inflammation status indirectly.
The Omega Check looks at your levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3’s (such as EPA, DPA, and DHA) compared to your levels of pro-inflammatory omega 6’s (linolenic acid [LA] and arachidonic acid [AA]). As all of these essential fatty acids (EFA’s), looking at the levels in your body provides a large amount of insight into how your diet is affecting your levels of inflammation. Note: Our bodies can make small amounts of EPA and DHA from ALA, but this is very limited and not very efficient. Therefore, it is important to include foods rich in DHA and EPA in your diet.
While omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are not the only things that affect your inflammatory status, let’s look at these in greater detail.
What are they?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat (like omega-6), considered an essential fatty acid because it cannot be manufactured by the body. As a result, people must obtain omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as fish and nuts.
What are the types of omega-3 fatty acids? (We are going to get a bit scientific here, just a heads up)
ALA – ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, is an 18-carbon chain and three cis double bonds. The first double bond is located in the n-3 position or at the omega end of the fatty acid. Thus, ALA is considered a polyunsaturated n−3 (omega-3) fatty acid.
EPA – EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid contains a 20-carbon chain and five cis double bonds; the first double bond is located at the third carbon from the omega end. Therefore, EPA also is considered an omega-3 fatty acid.
DHA – DHA or docosahexaenoic acid is a 22-carbon chain with six cis double bonds; the first double bond is located at the third carbon from the omega end of the fatty acid.
What are the sources of these omega-3 fatty acids?
EPA & DHA – Oily fishes such as Cod Liver, Herring, Mackerel, Salmon, and Sardines
What are they?
Omega-6 fatty acid is also a polyunsaturated fat, essential for human health because it cannot be made in the body. For this reason, people must obtain omega-6 fatty acids by consuming foods such as meat, poultry, and eggs as well as nut and plant-based oils such as canola and sunflower oils.
What are the types of omega-6 fatty acids? (Again, little bit more scientific and nerdy)
LA – LA or linolenic acid is an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid. Chemically, it is an 18-carbon chain. The first double bond is located at the sixth carbon from the omega end of the fatty acid.
AA – AA or Arachidonic acid is a 20-carbon chain. Its first double bond is located at the sixth carbon from the omega end of the fatty acid.
What are the sources of these omega-6 fatty acids?
LA – Soybean oil, Corn oil, Safflower Oil, Sunflower Oil, Peanut Oil, Cottonseed Oil, and Rice Bran Oil
AA – Peanut Oil, Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Product
So, what are inflammatory foods?
While not an exhaustive list and this does not take into consideration food sensitivities that are unique to each that can contribute to inflammation, here is a list of some of the most common inflammatory foods:
- Vegetable oil
- Fried foods
- Highly refined wheat
- Synthetic sweeteners
- Conventional Dairy
- Conventional grain-fed meat
- Processed meat (Deli meats)
- Trans fats
- Fast food (in general)
Reducing these foods in your diet can have a huge impact on your inflammatory status. Your body will not have to work as hard to create an anti-inflammatory state.
So, what else is anti-inflammatory?
Antioxidants (there are thousands of these, but they all scavenge free radicals (harmful byproducts of cellular metabolism)) and just about every vitamin and mineral. While antioxidants (sometimes called phytochemicals) directly have an effect on inflammation, most vitamins and minerals (with a few exceptions such as Vitamin C) help support the reactions in your body which quell inflammation. Lastly, some specific herbs and spices have direct actions on inflammatory processes (such as the cyclooxygenase pathway).
While most whole foods (fruits, vegetables, and spices) are directly or indirectly anti-inflammatory, there are some that provide an extra punch. Here is a brief (and non-exhaustive) list of some of our top choices:
- Leafy green vegetables (chard, collard greens, spinach, and kale)
- Wild caught salmon
- Boy Choy
- Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli)
- Berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries)
- Black pepper
- Coconut oil
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp hearts/seeds
While not directly anti-inflammatory, free range eggs and free range grass fed beef should replace the eggs and meat you are currently eating. Conventionally raised animals are higher in pro-inflammatory Omega 6’s due to the grains they are fed and the living conditions they are put in.
One additional way to increase your levels of omega 3 fatty acids is to consume a fish oil. Clinically, this is indicated when someone has little EPA ad DHA on his or her Omega check and is already attempting to consume omega 3’s from dietary sources. The quality of fish oil cannot be overstressed, as poor quality control can result in products with mercury or oil that has gone rancid (and is therefore literally a waste of money). See our store for products such as Super EFA by Seroyal or Pro-Omega by Nordic Naturals for physician grade fish oil.
Our last point to stress; you cannot out-supplement a bad diet. Let me repeat. You cannot out-supplement a bad diet. It does not matter how much fish oil you take, if you are eating too much omega 6 fatty acids, those will compete for binding and your Omega 3 supplementation will not be useful. We have seen this clinically, and the results do not lie. To decrease your inflammation, you need to drastically reduce the foods high in Omega 6’s (LA – soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, and rice bran oil; AA – peanut oil, conventional meat and eggs, and dairy products). While Omega 6’s do serve important functions in our body and should not be eliminated, they need to be balanced with Omega 3’s.
Take your recovery to the next level by creating an environment which supports growth and repair with a greater anti-inflammatory diet.