Q: So many diseases seemed to be tied to inflammation. How much does a person's diet influence inflammation and reduce disease risk?
A: Your immune system attacks anything in your body that it recognizes as foreign — such as an invading microbe, plant pollen, or chemical. The process is called inflammation. Intermittent bouts of inflammation directed at truly threatening invaders protect your health.
However, sometimes inflammation persists, day in and day out, even when you are not threatened by a foreign invader. That's when inflammation can become your enemy. Many major diseases that plague us — including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer's — have been linked to chronic inflammation.
One of the most powerful tools to combat inflammation comes not from the pharmacy, but from the grocery store. Choose the right foods, and you may be able to reduce your risk of illness. Consistently pick the wrong ones, and you could accelerate the inflammatory disease process.
Our diets play an important role in chronic inflammation because our digestive bacteria release chemicals that may spur or suppress inflammation. The types of bacteria that populate our gut and their chemical byproducts vary according to the foods we eat. Some foods encourage the growth of populations of bacteria that stimulate inflammation, while others promote the growth of bacteria that suppress it.
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Not surprisingly, the foods that contribute to inflammation are the same ones generally considered bad for our health, including sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates, and processed meats.
On the flip side are foods and beverages that have been found to reduce the risk of inflammation, and with it, chronic disease. Making unprocessed plant based foods the mainstay of your diet is the best way to keep inflammation in check.
Vegetables and fruits such as leafy greens and blueberries may be especially protective against inflammation and chronic disease. They are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols. Studies have also associated nuts with reduced markers of inflammation and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
If you're looking for an eating plan that closely follows the tenets of anti-inflammatory eating, I recommend a Mediterranean style diet, which is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)