By Katherine Spinks RDN, LD
When it comes to inflammation and the pain it causes, food can be your staunchest ally… or your biggest enemy. The foods you eat have an enormous impact on inflammation in your body – and if you’ve been struggling with the agony of chronic inflammation, you can greatly reduce your symptoms by making minimal changes to your diet.
An anti-inflammatory diet works to protect your body from damaging systemic inflammation at the cellular level. Unlike acute inflammation, the localized swelling that results from an injury like a sprained ankle, systemic inflammation can impact your whole body, aggravating chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and other painful joint-related conditions.
Adding calming foods into your diet and getting rid of foods that intensify inflammation can make you feel better than you have in years. It’s not about restriction, counting calories, and giving up your favorites. Rather, a diet that focuses on anti-inflammatory foods is all about enjoyment, of delicious foods and pain-free joints.
All the right fats
Fats give satisfying richness to the foods we eat, along with supplying crucial macro-nutrients to our diets. Certain fats, though, come with a darker side, actually causing and worsening inflammation.
It’s probably not surprising that those inflammation-promoting fats are generally man-made, and not found in nature. The worst culprits are hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats found in shortening, margarine, and many processed foods.
What may surprise you, though, is some healthy sounding oils can do their own share of damage: corn, safflower, palm kernel, and “vegetable” oils fall squarely on the AVOID list, too.
Saturated fats can also do a number on your joints, so eat these sparingly. These fats include butter, cream, and high-fat cheeses.
In the “good fats” column you’ll find many flavorful oils and foods. Eating the right fats in the right combination helps your body calm overactive inflammatory responses. And the very best fats for fighting inflammation are omega-3 fats, plentiful in many tasty foods:
These healthy fats can help prevent cartilage degeneration, ease pain and stiffness, and substantially impede the pro-inflammatory compounds itching to attack your joints. Include these good fats in every meal to keep your joints comfortable and pain-free.
When Grain-Free Means Pain-Free
Whole grains have been celebrated for their health effects – but refined grains don’t work the same way in your body. In fact, refined grains (also called processed grains) can actually increase inflammation and joint pain. Scientific studies confirm the link between these grains and chronic inflammation.
That doesn’t mean you have to strip your cupboards of bread, pasta, and cereal. But to avoid setting off a pain-inducing cascade of inflammation, think about limiting the amount grains in your daily diet, and switching to healthier whole grains.
In nature, grains have three parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the protective outer coating of the grain, and it contains fiber, valuable phytochemicals, essential B vitamins, and a variety of minerals. The nutrient-rich germ is innermost core of grain, and it’s full of B vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fats, along with the potential to transform into a new plant. The endosperm falls in between the bran and the germ, providing food for the plant, mainly carbohydrates along with a smidge of B vitamins and minerals.
Whole grains contain all three parts. Refined grain contains only the endosperm, which is absent of the nutrients people need to thrive, and can induce inflammation as well. When the bran and germ are removed, up to 75% of the phytochemicals as well as the lion’s share of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are lost along with them. And because of their simplified structure, refined grains turn into sugars very quickly during digestion – the kind of sugar that kicks off painful inflammation.
So swapping refined grains for whole grains offers a bundle of benefits, including superior nutrition, fiber, and antioxidants… along with minimizing inflammation. Good whole grain choices include:
To keep your joints comfortable, stock up on whole grain cereals and pastas, and cut down on the refined, processed grains that can amp up your joint pain.
Eat the rainbow
You know fruits and vegetables are crucial for good health – and if you’re suffering from painful, stiff, tender joints, they’re even more important for you. No matter which you choose, you can’t go wrong.
All fruits and veggies contain powerful combinations of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that contribute to optimal health. Packed with these “ingredients,” fruits and vegetables help tame inflammation, fight free radicals, and supply crucial nutrients for building healthy joints.
And while the goal of nine servings a day can seem unattainable, the more you eat, the better you’ll feel… especially if you eat a wide, colorful variety. Those different colors come from different plant chemicals, so eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables ensures you benefit from a wide range of beneficial compounds every day.
How you cook matters
Eating food – especially meat – that’s been cooked using very high-heat methods can set off an inflammatory response in your body. To keep inflammation under control, avoid grilling, broiling, frying, and microwaving meats and poultry whenever possible. You’ll still get plenty of flavor using lower, slower cooking methods like poaching, braising, stewing, and steaming.
The Nightshade Controversy
It’s a battle among experts: Do nightshade vegetables help or hurt arthritis sufferers? These nutrient packed foods – including tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant, and red bell peppers – contain a potentially harmful compound called solanine, which has been linked to inflammation and arthritis pain by some scientists. Other experts dispute the idea that nightshades have any impact on arthritis.
So should you avoid them? Many people do find that their joints feel better once they’ve eliminated nightshade vegetables. Pay attention when you eat them, and see if your arthritis flares up afterward. If it does, consider removing nightshades from your diet for two or three weeks, and see how it feels.