Concerned About Inflammation? This Is Why You Should Be Eating Clean
Many people can thank chronic inflammation for their joint pain, fatigue, headaches, digestive issues and even acne. Inflammation is the root cause of many common symptoms and conditions but is often overlooked.
It’s easy to reach for your trusty bottle of Advil but inflammatory symptoms will return if you don’t address their root causes. There are simple ways to improve your inflammatory symptoms from their roots. Specifically, changing how you eat will have a powerful effect, by reducing inflammation and improving your quality of life.
Many anti-inflammatory diets out there are restrictive and difficult to follow. I find that it’s not usually necessary to cut out so many foods from your diet to reduce inflammation and feel better. Consistent research shows that a real food, clean eating, diet with a variety of foods, is best to reduce inflammation and improve your health and wellbeing (quality of life).
What is inflammation?
I could talk about inflammation for hours, but don’t worry, I’ll spare you! Inflammation is actually a good thing, because when you’re injured in some way (from a minor irritation to a serious illness/injury), your immune system uses inflammation to fix it.
Inflammation kills foreign invaders (like viruses, bacteria, objects and substances) and heals your body after irritation and injuries. Once the invader is dealt with and/or the injury healed, inflammation goes away naturally.
Inflammation is problematic when it’s chronic. This happens when there’s repeated irritation without time to properly heal in-between. Chronic inflammation starts small and accumulates over time, with repeated exposure to irritants and toxins. It can take minutes to years for inflammation to cause symptoms or disease, depending on your genetics, how often you’re exposed and or how many irritants/toxins you’re exposed to. Oftentimes, the symptoms of inflammation are vague in the beginning and difficult to relate to specific trigger.
How to know if you have chronic inflammation
Inflammation typically causes pain/discomfort, fatigue and dysfunction. Like if you sliced your finger while cooking, you’d have pain and swelling while it healed. You wouldn’t be able to use, move or bend your finger normally until it healed.
Chronic inflammation can cause symptoms to any part of your body. Common areas are the digestive system, blood vessels, brain, skin and joints. Your symptoms will vary depending on where the inflammation is happening, but here are some common inflammatory symptoms:
Less focus and concentration
Poor circulation in your legs, feet and hands
Pain in your feet and hands
Reduced range of motion
Here’s why you should choose a clean diet when you’re concerned about chronic inflammation:
A real food diet contains less inflammatory toxins.
Most of the food in the U.S. (served in restaurants and on food store shelves) is processed. Even foods that are homemade or organic often contain processed and refined ingredients (like sugar, vegetable oil, enriched flour, jarred sauces…) Sometimes these foods are called ‘empty calories,’ but even foods you might think are healthy including lunch meats, sweetened yogurt, flavored rice mixes and cereal, can be inflammatory.
These foods cause and worsen inflammation because of the chemicals added to them, and the way they’re handled, prepared and packaged. They also lack the nutrients our bodies rely on to function and heal from irritation and damage.
Real food has more anti inflammatory and healing nutrients.
Processed foods are often stripped of their nutrients (hence, why flour needs to be ‘enriched’- to add nutrients back in). Eating foods that have not been processed, refined or altered means that you are getting all the nutrient rich benefits that food has to offer. This includes natural fiber, vitamins, minerals, anti oxidants and phytonutrients. Clean eating helps to not only fight inflammation (and disease) but also heal from irritation and damage.
Real food has less carbohydrate density.
Carbohydrate density is the amount of carbs for the calories and volume in a food. Foods with the highest carbohydrate density are refined, including starches, sugars and flours. Sweet beverages are among the most dense, right beside candy and white bread.
The more carbohydrate dense a food or drink is, the more your blood sugar will spike. Blood sugar spikes are inflammatory (and cause pain) to your body for many reasons, including digestive issues, reduced blood flow and blood vessel irritation. Reducing and eliminating these foods from your diet will help keep your blood sugar stable and reduce inflammation.
A clean diet is less restrictive than many other diets.
I recommend a clean, real food diet before further restrictive diets (like paleo, Whole30, no dairy or gluten..) because most people feel a major improvement from this shift alone. I’ve found that more aggressive restriction leads to burn out, and that clean eating is much more sustainable and enjoyable.
What Foods Should You Avoid?
The food to avoid is generally anything processed and/or pre-made. Processed and pre-made foods include drinks, snacks and meals from a restaurant or a package.
You can definitely find real food based packaged/pre-made foods, but if you’re experiencing more severe inflammatory symptoms, I’d start with avoiding all packaged, pre-made foods for a bit to jumpstart healing.
When choosing a pre-made or packaged food, it’s important to read to the ingredient list to ensure it doesn’t contain unnecessary chemicals and additives. These food additives can cause irritation to your stomach and intestines, and are absorbed into your blood, irritating other parts of your body. Since most packaged foods and foods served in restaurants contain one or more of these additives, it’s easier to avoid them altogether (and find cleaner alternatives). Try to avoid these common additives and ingredients (which can be in organic foods too!):
White or enriched flour
Sugar (and any of the common names ending in ‘ose’ like dextrose, corn syrup..)
Artificial sweeteners (like sucralose, aspartame and saccharin)
Preservatives (BHT, BHA, sodium benzoate..)
Food coloring (yellow #5, red #2 & 40, blue #1 & 2)
Sodium nitrates (lunch meat, sausage, bacon)
Soy (soy protein, soybean oil, soy lecithin)
Partially hydrogenated oil
Palm oil (common in nut butters and baked goods!)
MSG (monosodium glutamate) or yeast extract
What Foods Should You Eat?
Anything real and unprocessed is fair game. Clean eating closely overlaps with the Mediterranean Diet, which is shown to directly reduce inflammation. This means anything that is cooked from scratch with real ingredients. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are so many options, that are easy to prepare.
Beans (fresh or canned in BPA free liner)
Vegetables (starchy and non-starchy)
Herbs and spices (dried and fresh)
Vinegars (organic when possible)
Pickled and fermented foods (organic when possible)
Oils (unrefined and cold pressed, like coconut, olive oil, avocado..)
Seafood (canned, frozen, fresh- wild and sustainable when possible)
Poultry and eggs (pasture raised when possible)
Meats and dairy (grass fed when possible)
For natural sweetness: use a little real maple syrup or honey, or mashed fruit
*There are some minimally processed foods (like salsa, nut butter and tomato sauce) made by responsible brands that are made with clean and real food ingredients. Reading ingredient lists on food labels and shopping at health food stores is crucial and can help you discover them.
When it comes to addressing the root cause of chronic inflammation, food makes or breaks success. What you eat comes in direct contact with the inside of your body and is the only way to get all the important nutrients your body relies on to heal and prevent inflammatory conditions. What you eat has a powerful role in either causing discomfort and chronic conditions or preventing and healing them. Your health is in your hands, and well, your stomach.