All food causes some sort of inflammatory response in our body.
This happens because food is a foreign object entering our body and our immune system's job is to identify and accept or reject it. However, some foods are more inflammatory than others. Some foods cause chemical mediators to be released that interfere with other signalling molecules in our body, such as neurotransmitters and hormones. Over time this continued interference can result in many problems, such as digestive disturbances, period pain, acne and other skin conditions. It can also worsen inflammatory diseases such as endometriosis, PCOS, arthritis, eczema and much more. The most inflammatory foods are:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Most dairy products
- Processed vegetable oils
Before you shoot the messenger, lets go through and take a look at why these foods are inflammatory and what you can replace them with that tastes delish...
Sugar and refined carbohydrates
These come under the same heading because refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white rice, cakes, pastries, cookies, most packaged breakfast cereals and biscuits) are sugar! Just like sugar, they cause a glucose spike in our blood stream, which results in the release of insulin from out pancreas. When we are constantly flooding our bodies with glucose and insulin our immune system reacts and sends out inflammatory signals. Eventually, our cells stop responding to the insulin and we can’t use sugar efficiently for energy. We become tired and foggy and constantly crave sugar. This is known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance plays a part in many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
What to do?
Break the cycle by strictly avoiding sugar for 4-weeks. Then reserve sugary treats for rare occasions and enjoy small amounts of natural sugars (e.g. fruits, honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar) in moderation. If you need help, your Naturopath can prescribe herbs and nutrients that greatly reduce sugar cravings.
What to eat?
In addition to avoiding cakes, lollies, ice cream etc. you will need to check packets and bottles carefully for sugar content. Many sauces are made up mainly of sugar. Initially, you also need to avoid dates and other dried fruits, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, coconut sugar and fruit juice. Whole fruit is ok but limit it to 2 pieces per day and go mostly for the low sugar fruits - citrus, kiwi, apple and berries. Instead of having your mid-afternoon sugar fix, try snacking on green beans, carrot sticks and hommus, celery and ABC butter, veggie soup, a boiled egg, raw nuts and an apple, a slice of buckwheat toast with tahini and avocado, a brown rice nori roll or other savoury snacks. You’ll find that your tastes change and you no longer think about sweet things. Have a herbal tea that contains cinnamon or licorice for a slightly sweet treat. Once you have broken your sugar addiction you'll find that you only need the smallest amount of natural sugars or fruits to feel satisfied (they'll taste super sweet!)
Alcohol depletes the body of the important antioxidant: glutathione. This leads to inflammation. Alcohol can inflame the liver, brain, pancreas, immune system and cardiovascular system.
What to do?
Research suggests that a low intake of alcohol is actually anti-inflammatory. For women 1-2 standard drinks per day and for men 2-3 standard drinks per day. However, alcohol also puts stress on our liver’s detoxification pathways, leaving less time for our liver to process other toxins from our environment, food and hormones. Therefore, I recommend having 3 alcohol-free days per week.
What’s the alternative?
I recommend saving alcohol for a celebration or treat rather than stress release. If you are looking for a way to wind down at the end of the day try a relaxing herbal tea such as chamomile or lemon balm. If you are going to a party or just like a fizzy drink, try kombucha. This probiotic drink becomes fizzy in the fermentation process and tastes refreshing and delicious. Try a turmeric or ginger flavoured kombucha for an anti-inflammatory effect.
The digestive tract is richly entwined with immune system lymph tissue and therefore is in constant communication with our immune system. For many of us, our immune system will launch an inflammatory response to gluten. If you experience diarrhoea, constipation, allergies (e.g. hayfever, eczema), PMS, joint pain, headaches, autoimmune disease, endometriosis, irregular periods, bloating or cravings for bread, pasta etc. you may be reacting to gluten.
What to do?
Firstly you should rule out gluten autoimmune disease (coeliac disease) as the cause of your symptoms. See your doctor for a gluten antibody test. If you are diagnosed with coeliac diseased, you must strictly exclude gluten for life. If you have a low level (<20 units/mL), or no antibodies, you may still have gluten sensitivity. You can trial a strict gluten free diet for 8-12 weeks and then do a challenge (eat 3 serves of gluten in one day) to see how you feel. If you are confused or need support, see you Naturopath for further guidance.
What to eat?
Avoid wheat, spelt, farro, barley, oats and rye as these all contain gluten. For replacements, eat buckwheat bread, quinoa, brown basmati rice, wild rice, millet, sweet potato and whole buckwheat. Teresa Cutter has some wonderful gluten-free recipes on her website: The Healthy Chef. Zucchini noodles make an excellent pasta replacement to have with your favourite pasta sauce. If you do not have coeliac disease you may do better on an ancient form of wheat, such as spelt or farro. Try a whole grain spelt/farro pasta or bread and observe how your body reacts.
Most dairy products
Many people are intolerant to the sugar or protein components of dairy products - lactose and casein. Milk intolerance can cause similar symptoms to gluten intolerance. If you have diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, abdominal cramps, allergies, frequent sinus infections or tonsillitis, autoimmune disease, endometriosis, irregular periods or cravings for dairy you should consider that milk products may be inflammatory for you.
What to do?
If you suspect dairy intolerance see your doctor for a lactose malabsorption test. This will determine whether you are lacking in an enzyme called lactase, which is needed for the digestion of milk sugar (lactose). If you do not have lactose intolerance, you may still be reactive to casein. Research suggests that a specific type of casein called beta-casein A1 (found in Holstein-friesian, Ayershire and Red cattle) may be responsible for adverse health effects. This protein has an opioid-like (feel-good) effect on the body, making dairy addictive, and it also may cause an immune response that sets off inflammation. It is thought that beta-casein A2 (found in Jersey and Guernsey cows) may be much better tolerated than the A1 variant. If you suspect casein intolerance of have lactose intolerance, it is best to avoid all dairy for 2-3 months and then slowly re-introduce selected dairy products, observing their effects.
What to eat?
If you test positive for lactose intolerance you may still be able to tolerate dairy that has low or no lactose. Generally, the higher the fat content, the lower the lactose content (think butter, cream and brie cheese!). However, this will vary from brand to brand so choose quality over quantity. If you suspect casein intolerance you may be able to tolerate A2 dairy products. A2 milk comes from Jersey & Guernsey cows, sheep, buffalo and goats.
View dairy as a condiment or small treat rather than a large part of your diet. This is how dairy is used in the traditional Mediterranean diet: a diet that has been associated with many positive health effects. After your 2-3month break from dairy, introduce selected dairy products, one at a time, observing the effect they have on your body. Choose from: grass fed butter, cultured butter, organic yoghurt, kefir & small amounts of cheese. Eat mainly A2 products. If you are an ice cream fan try making nice cream instead: simply whip frozen banana with a little coconut cream in your food processor or blender. It is amazingly creamy and satisfying! Add berries or raw cacao for antioxidants and flavours. This also works well with mango as the base or mango/banana combo. Yum!!!
Processed vegetable oils
Most vegetable oils contain mainly omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which are inflammatory when consumed in excess. It is thought that today's typical Western diet contains far more omega-6 fats and far less anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats than that of our ancestors. It is easy to see why when you consider that we get an abundance of omega-6 fats from nuts, seeds, eggs, vegetable oils (canola, safflower, sunflower, sesame, corn, cottonseed, peanut, soybean), biscuits, fast food, margarine and that most people consume relatively little omega-3 fats (mainly in fish, small amounts derived from eating flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts). Additionally, most vegetable oils become damaged by heat, light or chemicals, during processing and storage, resulting in the formation of harmful trans fats. These damaged fats extend the shelf-life of products because they do not go rancid but they modify our "good" and "bad" cholesterol levels, promoting heart disease.
What to eat?
Replace vegetable oils, (including margarine and processed/packaged foods that contain vegetable oils) with first cold pressed (extra virgin) olive oil (contains balanced omega-3:omega-6 and no trans fats, and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol), coconut oil, butter, avocado and fish. Limit nuts and seeds to a handful per day and be sure to include walnuts, flaxseeds and/or chia seeds daily. Cook at low temperatures using coconut oil, virgin olive oil or ghee. If inflammation is significant for you (e.g. period pain, endometriosis, PMS, PCOS, autoimmune disease, arthritis, or any other chronic disease) you may benefit from fish oil supplementation. See your Naturopath to make sure you obtain a high quality, low-mercury supplement at the right dose.
In addition to the above recommended foods eat a whole food, unprocessed diet including an abundance of raw and cooked seasonal vegetables, fresh and dried herbs and spices (especially ginger and turmeric), a variety of fruits (in moderation), lean organic chicken, fish, beef and lamb, tofu, tempeh, eggs, nuts, seeds, seaweed and whole grains (quinoa, millet, buckwheat, brown basmati rice, amaranth). Don’t know where to start? Check out The Healthy Chef website for delicious recipe inspiration (although reserve the cake and cookie recipes for your monthly treats). Preparation is the key.
Lastly, when it comes to diet it is important to remember that what is ideal is not always realistic. Sometimes we are faced with situations where the right foods might not be available or there are temptations to go back to old ways. Be kind and gentle to yourself. Enjoy whatever food you are eating. If you fall off the horse remember that each new day and each new moment is a new opportunity to make better choices. Choices that are going to make you feel healthy and energised so that you can get the most out of life!
All the best on your health journey,
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