Plant-Power for Anti-Inflammation

As a dietitian and food and nutrition journalist, I live and breathe nutrition; it is my job to pore over nutrition studies, travel to nutrition conferences, and talk to scientists in search for strategies to help you live a longer, more vibrant life. This past year, I released a book, titled The Plant-Powered Diet to encompass the reasons behind the simple advice I often give when asked about the best diet for optimal health.

My advice? Eat more plants. And it seems as though everyone, from internationally renowned health experts to government nutrition policy-makers to food systems advocates, are beginning to agree on one overarching principle: All of us can benefit from shifting to a plant-based diet.

One of the main reasons plant-based diets are so beneficial for our health is their ability to lower chronic inflammation levels in the body that lead to chronic disease, and more.  Just as the phrase “plant-based diet,” is the latest buzzword in the field of nutrition, “anti-inflammatory diet” is also making waves. Interestingly enough, these two diets go hand-in-hand.

You see, inflammation is your body’s natural defense response when you have an injury or an assault. When you get a splinter in your finger, for example, your body has a cascade of biochemical defense responses that take place to reject that splinter. So, acute inflammation – the kind in this type of scenario, is a good thing. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation is a condition that scientists now widely believe is a root of the chronic killer diseases of our time, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and neurodegenerative disease.

According to growing evidence, your diet and lifestyle can either create a pro-inflammatory environment or an anti-inflammatory one. In fact, inflammation may turn out to be one of the main reasons why healthful, plant-based diets promote health and the Western diet promotes disease.

Here are 3 reasons why shifting towards a plant-based diet will also shift your lifestyle from a pro-inflammatory one to an ant-inflammatory one:

1. By eating more powerful plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, tea, coffee, red wine, and olive oil, you can actually fight oxidative stress caused by free radicals that damage your body. Studies have shown that you can even block the negative effects of oxidative stress in a single meal by including plant foods such as strawberries.

 Plant-Powered Tip: Instead of thinking of all the things you can’t have at a vegetarian meal, think of all the thing you can have. Take a trip to the produce section of your supermarket or visit a farmers market and feast your eyes on the rainbow of plant foods. Consider this: When you focus on animal foods at every meal, your choices are limited to the basic beef, pork, chicken, or seafood selection. But when you plan your meals around plant foods – such as a rainbow of delicious fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds – the sky’s the limit.

2. Scientists have noticed that red meat is linked to higher levels chronic inflammation. They speculate this pro-inflammatory response may be due to red meat’s high saturated fat and iron content. 

 Plant-Powered Tip: If you eat meat at every meal, you have room to cut back. Start out slowly with having one completely vegetarian meal per week or even having an entirely meatless day. And when planning your meals, change your mindset. Start with the vegetable or whole grain component. Meat doesn’t need to be the “center of the plate.” You can even try using on individual portion of meat or chicken and use it to flavor an entire family-size meal of stir-fry, casserole, or stew.

3. Since the beginning of time, people have cherished plants – in particular herbs and spices – not only for their flavor, but also for their health benefits. Some spices and herbs provide similar effects as anti-inflammatory drugs, without any side effects.

Plant-Powered Tip: Visit a Mexican, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese restaurant; observe how dishes are prepared and what spices are used, and then take home a few culinary tricks or ideas with you. If you are one of the many individuals who finds “hot” spices such as black or red pepper do not agree with you, power up on the milder green herbs and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg to add health-protective power to your meals.