“One of the most significant medical discoveries of the 21st century is that inflammation is the common thread connecting chronic diseases,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman, author of several books on health and wellness. The conditions he’s talking about include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even cancer, all driven by inflammatory foods in your diet. But the good news is there are lots of foods to decrease inflammation, too.
Cut your finger, and observe what happens: redness, swelling, thumping pain. That’s the process of inflammation — the immune system rushing in, sending growth signals to the skin and blood vessels to help repair damaged tissues. Now imagine you have a chronic wound that just won’t heal. ”It’s like wild fire out of control,” Dr. William Li told USA Today, describing the inflammatory process that drives the proliferation of cancerous cells.
When the immune system detects cancer, it produces inflammatory molecules to help put out the fire. But tumor cells are sneaky. They mask themselves to keep the immune system from prevailing and feed off the growth signals that inflammation creates. What’s more, cancer cells initiate inflammation on their own, secreting inflammatory chemicals that cause more proliferation and growth, and the cascade continues. The cancer cells increase exponentially, refusing to die like normal cells, producing masses called tumors that generate blood vessels on their own so they can nourish themselves, grow bigger and spread.
Fat cells, too, secrete inflammatory chemicals, underscoring the link between obesity and chronic disease.
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So what causes chronic inflammation?
Hyman blames the usual culprits, including lack of exercise, stress, overeating, refined carbs, processed foods, sugars and artificial sweeteners, imbalances in gut bacteria, insufficient fiber, dairy, gluten and bad fats.
Unlike proteins, which our body breaks down into amino acids, the fats we eat get incorporated directly into our cell membranes, said Jeanne Wallace, a Ph.D. in nutrition who has reviewed the thousands of studies on diet and cancer. In a multi-step process, those fats then signal our cells to secrete chemicals that are either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. The good fats — the ones that get converted into prostaglandin E3s and signal cells to reduce inflammation — include omega 3 fatty acids, she explained, found in abundance in wild, fatty fish, in animals raised on pastures and in a few plant foods, including flax, chia and walnuts to some degree.
The bad guys are certain omega 6 fatty acids from commercially-raised animals and trans fats from fried and processed foods, including oils that are hardened via the process of hydrogenation and turned into shortening, into some margarines and sometimes into commercial nut butters. These fats get converted into prostaglandin E2s and other chemicals that promote inflammation.
The bad guys, however, can also include plant sources high in omega 6 fatty acids– beans, grains, nuts, seeds and especially their oils, Wallace said.
The problem here is that fat conversion can go either way, she said. The fat may be converted into healthy or unhealthy prostaglandins, depending on your insulin levels and other factors in your body, and we have very little control over the process. Wallace, who counsels cancer patients on diet and supplements, recommends eating these whole plant foods in moderation and avoiding most plant oils, which contain an overabundance of omega 6s. Olive oil is her oil of choice because of the abundance of omega 9 fatty acids, neutral in their effects on inflammation, along with other compounds that impede it.
Through her extensive research, Wallace has identified these foods to fight inflammation.
Top foods to decrease inflammation:
10 Apples and apple cider. Wallace, however, advises her clients with blood sugar issues to avoid fruit juice because of the sugars and to eat apples along with a little protein or fat, which will slow down the sugars’ absorption.
9 Brightly colored berries. These are also on Wallace’s top 10 list of foods that regulate blood sugar.
8 Olive oil. Buy cold-pressed, extra virgin oil in dark bottles, Wallace advised. And when you cook with it, use a low temperature and don’t let it smoke.
7 Hot peppers. They’re high in capsaicin, a potent compound that generates heat and inhibits inflammation.
6 Onions. Have you ever known a vegetable so sweet yet so mighty? According to onion experts, the best ones are the red and yellow-skinned varieties grown in northern soils. Peel them gently, then cut them and then let them sit for a half hour to develop the full complement of healthy compounds.
5 Grass-fed, grass-finished (often called pastured) organic meat, dairy and eggs. Visit the Eat Wild website to find good local sources of these products. And when in doubt, ask farmers what they feed their animals to increase omega 3s. You don’t want “grain-fed,” which increases omega 6s.
4 Leafy green vegetables, especially spinach. Wash these vegetables well even if the package says they’ve been pre-washed because the threat of the E. coli contamination is real. Cook spinach to help you absorb its minerals.
3 Green tea. Look for fresh-smelling, green leaves, especially gyokuros and senchas
2 Wild, fatty, cold-water fish Choose fish that are small and eat low on the food chain, including anchovies, sardines, herring and wild salmon. Here’s a list of some good salmon choices, including canned salmon from BPA-free cans. Also, eat the fat, which contains the healthy omega 3s.
1 Culinary seasonings. Curry, ginger, garlic and parsley top the list of foods that fight inflammation. All herbs and spices are rich in antioxidants, Wallace said, which help protect fragile omega 3 oils from turning rancid when heated. Even more significant, they inhibit inflammation-promoting molecules (called nuclear factor kappa B) that cancer cells secrete. In fact, some scientists suggest that spice consumption might explain why cancer incidence is so much lower in India than in most Western countries, giving “the spice of life” its most significant spin yet.
Simple Spicy Salmon, With Ginger Juice and Garlic
My secret to moist, tasty salmon is a clay baking dish, which is available in most kitchen specialty stores. You have to soak it in cold water for half an hour before using it and then place it, along with the ingredients, in a cold oven. Trust me. I’ve cracked many a clay vessel.
4 cloves garlic, chopped, divided in half
3 heaping tablespoons grated ginger
4 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 large pieces of wild salmon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1. Soak the pot in cold water for half an hour.
2. Prepare the sauce. Chop the garlic first. It needs to sit about 15 minutes before cooking to develop its host of cancer-fighting compounds. Grate the ginger, then squeeze the juice out of it into a mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt, pepper and half the garlic and stir.
3. Place the fish in the clay pot and add the sauce. Sprinkle red pepper on top and then cover.
4. Place covered clay pot in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 350 F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fish is flaky. Add the remainder of the garlic at the end.
Top photo: Simple spicy salmon, with ginger juice and garlic. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller