Living in New York, I’m constantly surrounded by pollution, pollen and dust. On top of that I travel a lot, spending time in airplanes known for their germ filled, stagnant air. Because of this urban induced schedule, I find myself getting sick with inflammatory issues, i.e. sinus and respiratory infections.
I turned to my friend Lilian Marsh, who is a wiz when it comes to natural medicines and healthy preventative measures. She explained to me how most foods that we eat regularly lead to inflammation in the body. This obviously doesn’t help when you are susceptible to common colds. I continued to do some research and wasn’t too surprised at what I found.
Our bodies weren’t designed for a daily invasion of toxins, infectious agents and stress. This kind of demand requires a lot of support to maintain our immune system’s resilience. Our go-go-go lifestyle doesn’t help either. We must pay attention to everything: what we breathe, eat, drink, absorb and feel. It all has a pro or anti-inflammatory effect on us.
Foods that CAUSE inflammation:
Sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, fruit drinks and punches are one of the major sources of inflammation within the body. When it comes to ingredient lists, note that sugar can have several titles: corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, golden syrup, maltose, sorghum syrup and sucrose.
Substitutes: Try natural sweeteners like agave (my favorite), honey or blackstrap molasses to flavor your beverages and foods modestly. Natural sugars found in fresh or dried fruits and fruit preserves with no added sugar are also great choices. Not only do they give you the sweetness you crave for, fruits also supply you with vitamins, antioxidants and fibers that you won’t find in sugary foods and drinks. Dates, figs, persimmons, kiwis, tangerines and various types of berries are some examples. I’ve also made Cashew Nut Milk (while juicing) and not only does it contains no dairy or added sugar, it tastes like a vanilla milkshake.
2. Common Cooking Oils
Common vegetable cooking oils used in many homes and restaurants have very high omega-6 fatty acids and very low omega-3 fats. Unfortunately, a diet that consists of highly imbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio promotes inflammation and breeds inflammatory diseases like heart disease and cancer. Yikes! You can find them in polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as grape seed, cottonseed, safflower, corn and sunflower oils. These industrial vegetable oils are also commonly used to prepare most processed foods.
Substitute: Replace your omega-6-saturated cooking oils with macadamia oil, extra virgin olive oil, or other edible oils with a better omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ratio. My favorite brand of cooking oils is La Tourangelle. When I cook at home, this is the only brand I use. They make all different types, ranging from Roasted Walnut Oil to Hazelnut Oil. Check out this chart below that compares the amount of Omega 3, 6 and 9 in each type. High levels of Omega 9 are said to significantly reduce the risk of a cardiovascular related disease.
4. Dairy Products (a.k.a. my ultimate weakness)
As much as 60% of the world’s population can’t digest milk. In fact, researchers think that being able to digest milk beyond infancy is abnormal, rather than the other way round. Milk is also a common allergen that, for people that are susceptible, can trigger inflammatory responses such as stomach distress, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes, acne, hives and breathing difficulties. Milk and dairy products are as sneaky as foods containing partially hydrogenated oil. Apart from obvious milk products like butter and cheese, foods with hidden dairy content include breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, cream sauces and boxed cereals.
Substitute: Kefir and unsweetened yogurt are acceptable in moderation for those who are not allergic to milk. They are easier on the stomach as the lactose and proteins in the milk have been broken down by beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts. Also rice milk, cashew and (my favorite) almond milk are great substitutes. I’ve been venturing into vegan cheese lately, I haven’t determined a final opinion on it yet but I’ll keep you posted
5. Feedlot-Raised Meat, Red Meat & Processed Meat
Commercially produced meats (which we find in most supermarkets and restaurants) are fed with grains like soy beans and corns, a diet that’s high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids but low in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Due to the small and tight living environment these animals also gain excess fat and end up with high saturated fats. Worse, to make them grow faster and prevent them from getting sick, they are also injected with hormones and fed with antibiotics. Processed meat includes animal product that has been smoked, cured, salted or chemically preserved. Common red meats are beef, lamb and pork, while processed meat include hams, sausages and salami.
Substitute: Some people like me, are an O blood type and are naturally meat eaters. I am currently not a vegetarian and the above research doesn’t mean you need to avoid red meat totally. Organic, free-range animals that feed on their natural diet like grasses instead of grains and hormones contain more omega-3 fats. Having more room to roam freely, they are also leaner and contain less saturated fats. However, the same thing can not be said for processed meat. No amount of processed meat is safe. When you do eat red meat, remember to choose lean cuts and preferably, that of grass-fed animals.
Regular high consumption of alcohol has been known to cause irritation and inflammation of the esophagus, larynx (voice box) and liver. Alcohol, as most of us know, consists in beers, ciders, liquors, liqueurs and wines.
Substitute: Water, green tea and juices all work! Not the most ideal substitution but if you are planning on consuming alcohol it should be in moderation.
7. Refined Grains
A lot of the grains we eat nowadays are refined. They are devoid of fiber and vitamin B compared to unpolished and unrefined grains that still have the bran, germ and the aleurone layer intact. This makes refined grains as good as refined sugars, which are practically empty calories. Refined grains and products made out of them are almost everywhere. The common ones are white rice, white flour, white bread, noodles, pasta, biscuits and pastries. To make things worse, many products with refined grains undergo further processing to enhance their taste and look, and are often loaded with excess sugar, salt, artificial flavors and/or partially hydrogenated oil in the process. A prime example is boxed cereals which contain substantial amounts of added sugar and flavorings. Sorry kids!
Substitute: Go for minimally processed grains if you are not gluten intolerant or allergic to grains. When buying cereals or other products made from grains, don’t take the words on the packaging for granted. Just because the box says whole grains, it doesn’t mean the grains inside are 100% intact. The problem is due to a lack of an internationally accepted definition for the word ‘whole grain’. When in doubt, if it doesn’t look close to its natural state, don’t buy.
8. Artificial Food Additives
Many snacks like Cheetos, Fritos and Doritos contain monosodium glutamate (MSG). Photo bunchopants/flickr
Some artificial food additives like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) reportedly trigger inflammatory responses. Only packaged foods contain artificial food additives. If you need to buy them, read the labels carefully and weigh your risks. If you order Chinese food, make sure you have the option to ask for no MSG.
Substitute: Besides limiting the consumption of processed foods, use anti-inflammatory herbs, spices or natural sweeteners to add flavor to your dishes instead of relying on food additives. Which brings me to my next section…
Foods that FIGHT inflammation:
I love this chart that Dr. Andrew Weil created, the “Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid“. It’s a good visual guide as to how to add anti-inflammatory foods into your diet.
1. Onions & Garlic
Onions have lots of quercetin, a potent antioxidant that can help your body fight inflammation. Garlic has long been a folk remedy for colds and illness, even my friend Lily showed me how cutting up garlic and eating it in a spoonful of honey helps to strengthen your immune system. Garlic also has anti-inflammatory properties containing sulfur compounds that stimulate your immune system to fight disease.
2. Spices: Ginger & Turmeric
Turmeric Root. Photo missmeng/flickr
Turmeric is a spice used extensively in other cultures and for good reason. It contains curcumin, a substance that actively reduces inflammation. Ginger works in a similar way since it comes from a root of a plant in the same family as turmeric.
Spinach is loaded with flavonoids which act as antioxidants, protecting the body from free radicals. Researchers have discovered at least 13 different flavonoid compounds that act as anti-cancer substances.
Whether you are an avid traveler, or the seasons are changing or you live in a polluted city, hopefully this post will help prevent you from getting sick! Tell me about your experiences with food and health in the comment box below!