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Is the Anti-inflammatory Diet Right for You?

For Americans who are looking for a weight loss program, it isn't hard to find one designed just for you. But amid the protein shakes, supplements, and calorie counting, perhaps the most important program to try on for size is the anti-inflammatory diet.

The premise of this program is to rid the body of inflammation and infection by replacing sugary, processed foods with nutrient-rich, antioxidant-packed, whole foods. So good health comes first, and weight-loss is the added benefit.

But with inflammation being a normal part of the body's reaction to infection or injury, why should we be concerned about it? First, we need to understand the two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.

Understanding Acute and Chronic Inflammation

It's true that inflammation is a natural part of our immune system. However, too much of a process intended to protect us can end up causing more harm.

"Acute inflammation is a normal response by the body as a response to an external stressor, like a cut, bruise, or infection," said Ann Lokuta, MPH, RD, associate instructor of wellness at University of Utah Health. It is a temporary part of the healing process. The body hypes up the immune system, increases blood flow and white blood cells to the area in need, and results in redness, swelling, and pain that usually goes away in minutes to days. It's only when it goes unchecked and becomes chronic—due to things like stress, poor nutrition, or exposure to environmental toxins—that it becomes a problem.."

Chronic inflammation is a longer, unmanaged response to things like stress or poor nutrition. "It can eventually lead to damaged cells and is thought to contribute to other chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease," said Lokuta.

We Are What We Eat?

For years, scientists have studied the correlation between diet, stress, and how the body responds to certain foods and stressors over time, and the results have been positive. The National Institutes of Health reported that overcoming silent inflammation requires an anti-inflammatory diet. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, for example, help reduce inflammation. Other foods that help control it include tomatoes, olive oil, berries, citrus, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and cherries.

If this food plan looks familiar, it's probably because a diet that balances whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy, and limits sugar and processed foods, also benefits those treating conditions like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, obesity, and many others.

The Future of Treating Chronic Inflammation with Natural Methods

Although natural treatment methods for inflammation have been the primary focus for integrative medicine, all health practitioners recognize the detrimental impact inflammation has on our health. "The tricky part about treating chronic inflammation without solely relying on medication is that it involves a behavior shift by the individual," said Lokuta. She adds that this often involves making changes to dietary habits or better managing chronic stress and the situations that trigger stress.

I think we'll start to see more and more traditional medicine practitioners pursuing education on incorporating behavior change tactics into their practice, but also establishing partnerships with professionals already trained in these areas, like registered dietitians and health coaches. We're actually already doing this at certain University of Utah Health clinics, which is fantastic," said Lokuta.

As for the anti-inflammatory diet itself, experts warn that a standard diet doesn't work for everyone because people react to different foods in varying ways. But, overall, a diet rich in fresh produce and fiber, low in sugar and fats, and high in omega-3 can't be all bad.