Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for a host of diseases and health problems plaguing Americans today. Finding ways to help your patients cut down their inflammatory processes can be a crucial component to improving their overall health and well-being.
Diet can be a major contributor to chronic inflammation, says William Welches, DO, PhD, a family physician and biochemist who works at Cleveland Clinic’s Pain Management Clinic.
“If you eat a diet that’s rich in combustibles—which the standard American diet is—you’re going to be in meta-inflammation all the time, always right on the edge and stoked,” says Dr. Welches, who uses an anti-inflammatory diet as part of an integrative approach to treating chronic inflammation in his patients. “You want to starve the fire, not feed it.”
The anti-inflammatory diet is an eating plan aimed at treating low-grade chronic inflammation. Patients with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma and autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from the diet, which calls for eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy and limiting sugar and processed food.
Here are 5 things to know about inflammation and the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet:
Anti-inflammatory diet do’s and dont’s. Foods that cause inflammation include refined carbs, added sugars, dairy, fried foods, soda, processed meat, and red meat.
Anti-inflammatory foods include dark, colorful fruits and vegetables such as cherries, raspberries, blackberries, spinach, kale and broccoli; plant-based proteins such as nuts and beans; olive oil, fatty fish and fresh herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic and turmeric.
There is accumulating evidence that vitamin K-rich leafy greens have a protective role against chronic inflammation and chronic age-related conditions, including cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis, though experts say more research is needed.
To reduce levels of inflammation, aim for an overall healthy diet. If patients are looking for an eating plan that closely follows the tenets of anti-inflammatory eating, they can consider the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils with extremely moderate meat consumption, Dr. Welches says.
“The fish component seems to be important, and not just for the Omega 3s,” says Dr. Welches. “Pasta is delicious but not good for you, and I tell patients to stay away from red meat as much as they can.”
How strictly a patient needs to follow an anti-inflammatory diet might depend on their level of inflammation and corresponding pain. Patients with chronic pain conditions who are in constant pain should consider abstaining from all simple carbs like sugar or flour, dairy and red meat, says Dr. Welches. In their place, they should substitute nine servings of vegetables (two to three can be fruit), fish and skinless chicken on occasion.
Inflammation can be a friend or a foe. While inflammation is a critical component in fighting off foreign pathogens and healing injury, a low-grade chronic inflammatory state can contribute to a wide range of chronic conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders.
According to a Johns Hopkins Health Review article, ongoing research is finding more answers about how inflammation contributes to cancer. “Inflammatory cells produce free radicals that destroy genetic material, including DNA, leading to mutations that cause cells to endlessly grow and divide. More immune cells are then called in, creating inflammation that feeds the growth of tumors,” the article states.
The diet supports other methods of curbing inflammation. In Dr. Welches’ pain management practice, the anti-inflammatory diet supports other lifestyle modifications that reduce inflammation, including exercise, stress management, osteopathic manipulative treatment and acupuncture.
Dr. Welches believes that lifestyle modification is the next big revolution in medicine. First, there were the social aspects (clean water and clean air), then the development of antibiotics, he says.
“The next big one I think is lifestyle. It’s something that physicians didn’t pay much attention to, but we’re starting to,” he says. “I remember when the Surgeon General’s report came out that smoking was bad in 1964, and look how long it’s taken us to start seeing the number of smokers go down.”
Adherence can be tough. “I advise patients that lifestyle and dietary changes are going to be difficult and will take effort,” says Dr. Welches. He frequently hears from patients who say they struggle to maintain the anti-inflammatory diet.
“The first thing I suggest people do is increase their vegetable consumption, then work on cutting back on meat and refined carbs. Do it in stages. Keep the wrong food out of the house,” Dr. Welches says. “Each step is a good step all by itself, and if you do enough of them, your diet will change.”
As to how long a patient should adhere to the diet to see any changes? Dr. Welches suggests 12 weeks to fully test the diet, though patients should have some strong indications within two to three weeks.
“The reality is that oftentimes changing our lifestyle so we live better, healthier lives involves sacrifice,” he says.