Feeling better, staying healthy and slowing down the aging process are easier to accomplish today than it has been in the past 100 years. With the help of scientific studies we know more about how the foods we eat affect our health – both in good ways and in bad – and thanks to the rise of organic farms, we have better access to the wide variety of nutrient-rich foods our bodies need.
Before you click away from this page, realize that healthy eating is not synonymous with twigs, leaves and tofu. A healthy diet can be as delicious and as filling as anything on your list of favorite foods. But instead of continuing down the path of eating meals that are destined to make you obese and to push you towards an early death, I want to challenge you to try an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean style of eating.
Most of us are familiar with inflammation as the body’s short-term response to infection or injury, aimed at alleviating the infection and repairing damaged tissue. But few of us are familiar with a different type of inflammation that has gained recognition as an underlying contributor to virtually every chronic disease.
This low level chronic inflammation, referred to as “metaflammation,” is the direct result of obesity, smoking, inadequate exercise and a poor diet. Long term low level inflammation appears to damage healthy tissue and lead to a long list of diseases. There is scientific evidence that now points to metaflammation as the root cause of many chronic diseases, conditions, and risk factors, ranging from type 2 diabetes and depression to heart disease, many forms of cancer, and even dementia.1
The most important step patients can take is to lose excess weight to reduce inflammation, and stick to anti-inflammatory foods modeled after a Mediterranean diet. Our typical Western diet consists of highly processed foods, refined starches, added sugars and animal fats. We don’t consume enough whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids. This imbalance is what fuels inflammation, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Until they adopted more of a Western, people in Greece, Italy and France had better eating habits and fewer chronic diseases. A Mediterranean diet is naturally anti-inflammatory and consists of whole-grain foods, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish rich in omega-3 (salmon, tuna, trout, herring and sardines), poultry, eggs and moderate amounts of dairy foods and red meat. If you eat meat, it should be lean organic free-range grass-fed beef or bison, which naturally has higher levels of omega-3s and vitamin E. As a general guideline your protein consumption should be no more than 30 percent of your calories. White foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta should be consumed in very limited amounts. Try replacing these with lower glycemic foods such as brown rice and sweet potatoes.
This type of diet not only helps alleviate metaflammation, but will also serve your essential needs of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to repair damage to cells, help build your immune systems, and provide antioxidants. As an added bonus you may notice that you have more energy throughout the day.
More on the Mediterranean style of eating >>
Years before the creation of the snack food industry, people would eat about 1.5:1 ratio of foods with omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s. Today’s western diet, however, represents an average ratio of 20:1. This dramatic imbalance is believed to contribute to many chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, autoimmune disorders, osteoporosis, mental health, dry eye disease and age-related macular degeneration. While experts don’t agree on exactly what the ratio should be, scientific evidence supports significantly lowering the ratio through changes in diet and dietary supplements.
Increased consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids should be integral to any changes in diet, primarily through increased fish consumption (salmon, black cod, tuna, trout). The most recent recommendations of the American Heart Association (AHA) are that adults should consume fish at least twice a week. Likewise, patients with coronary disease should consume 1 g of EPA and DHA daily; while patients with hypertriglyceridemia should consume 2-4 g/day of EPA and DHA. The AHA postulates that supplements of fish oil is an option for securing an intake of approximately 1 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids.2 To make up for insufficiency in the diet, incorporate dietary supplements of fish oil where required, though always in the form of certified and validated products with purity and quality guarantees, to be consumed in the context of a balanced diet. 3
You are probably already familiar with the role that antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta carotene, lycopene, lutein and others play in helping to prevent diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and macular degeneration. Antioxidants are thought to be beneficial because they can neutralize bad free radicals*, which are toxic byproducts of natural cell metabolism. Free radicals are also introduced into the body by exposure to certain environmental substances, such as pesticides, pollution, cigarette smoke and even sunlight. Free radicals interact with other molecules within our body’s cells, which can cause oxidative damage to proteins, membranes and genes.
Many people attempt to rely on dietary supplements as their sole source of antioxidants. While dietary supplements offer support, they are not adequate as a substitute for a healthy diet rich in antioxidants. To get the most out of your antioxidant intake you need eat a wide variety of foods. And whenever possible, eat organically grown fruits, vegetables and organically raised animal products. Some of the better sources of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C – Citrus fruits and their juices, berries, dark green vegetables (spinach, asparagus, green peppers, brussel sprouts, broccoli, watercress, other greens), red and yellow peppers, tomatoes and tomato juice, pineapple, cantaloupe, mangos, papaya and guava.
- Vitamin E – Vegetable oils such as olive, soybean, corn, cottonseed and safflower, nuts and nut butters, seeds, whole grains, wheat, wheat germ, brown rice, oatmeal, soybeans, sweet potatoes, legumes (beans, lentils, split peas) and dark leafy green vegetables.
- Selenium – Brazil nuts, brewer’s yeast, oatmeal, brown rice, chicken, eggs, dairy products, garlic, molasses, onions, salmon, seafood, tuna, wheat germ, whole grains and most vegetables.
- Beta Carotene – Variety of dark orange, red, yellow and green vegetables and fruits such as broccoli, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, red and yellow peppers, apricots, cantaloupe and mangos. 4
* Note: not all free radicals are bad. Good health is achieved through the proper balance of free radicals.
- Libby P. Inflammation and disease. Nutr Rev 2007; 65(12 Pt 2):S140-6.
- Bagga D, Anders KH, Wang HJ, Glaspy JA. Long-chain w-3-to-w-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratios in breast adipose tissue from women with and without breast cancer. Nutr Cancer 2002; 42 (2): 180-5.
- Candela, C. Gómez, López, L. M. Bermejo and Kohen, V. Loria. Importance of a balanced omega 6/omega 3 ratio for the maintenance of health. Nutritional recommendations. Nutrición Hospitalaria, vol.26 no.2 Madrid Mar.-Apr. 2011
- Health Hub from Cleveland Clinic