In the world of wellness, inflammation has become the consummate supervillain. Though it gets a lot of bad press, inflammation to many people’s surprise is a natural – and necessary – immune system response. When you bang your toe, twist your ankle hiking, slice your finger preparing dinner, or get an infection like the flu, your body is designed to release a fleet of white blood cells and plasma proteins to battle the invaders and help you heal. This is acute inflammation at work. Sometimes, this process stimulates nerves and can cause soreness and pain, which typically subsides.
On the flip side, silent or chronic inflammation is a much more subtle form of low-grade internal inflammation that you can neither feel nor see, even though it undermines your health. Inflammatory byproducts like cytokines released by the immune system can build up during chronic inflammation and eventually cause harm. Nefarious forces such as daily stress, environmental pollution, inadequate sleep and poor dietary choices can set the stage for chronic inflammation.
What makes this type of hyperactive immune response so deadly, however, is it can operate in stealth mode. It can harm your tissues for years until it reveals its ugly head as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cognitive decline or heart disease. Think of your body as a teeter-totter: You want inflammation to work when it’s needed, but to turn off when it can become insidious. The more inflammatory your diet and lifestyle are, the higher your risk for a range of maladies.
So what’s one of the best ways to keep the immune troops in check? Research suggests following the traditional eating patterns of those residing in the sunny Mediterranean is one of the best approaches to keep inflammation from going into overdrive and taking your health down a notch or two.
How the Mediterranean diet handles inflammation
It’s clear that ongoing inflammation is problematic, necessitating the need to eat in a way that keeps it in check. When it comes to so-called “anti-inflammatory diets,” research that the Mediterranean diet leads the way is mounting.
A 2021 meta-analysis in Advances in Nutrition found the Mediterranean dietary pattern – which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, whole grains and olive oil over ultra-processed foods and excessive meat intakes – can lower inflammation as indicated by reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a key biomarker of inflammation in the body.
But that’s not the only research suggesting the benefits of this eating approach. A study by Harvard University scientists involving nearly 13,000 women who were followed for 12 years discovered those who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet had lower biomarkers of chronic inflammation and, in turn, a 25 percent lower risk for heart disease than those who had low adherence to this diet style. Worth noting is that sequestering inflammation had a bigger impact on reducing the chances of suffering a heart attack and stroke than controlling cholesterol, blood triglycerides and blood pressure.
And there’s more evidence that a drizzle of olive oil can do the body some good: An investigation in the Journal of Nutrition found that adults who filled their diets with higher amounts of foods typical of the Mediterranean diet tested for lower levels of several inflammatory markers and had a lower risk for premature death from diseases.
Experts aren’t exactly sure of all the ways the Mediterranean diet can potentially tame the flame of inflammation, but it’s believed that consistently eating nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich comestibles can help. For instance, research suggests the high amounts of polyphenol antioxidants that the Mediterranean diet provides in spades can play a big role in its anti-inflammatory efficacy. Antioxidants like those in colorful fruits and vegetables help neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing harm and therefore lowering the body’s inflammatory response. And the wider variety of different essential nutrients present in whole foods can contribute to making your diet less inflammatory. There may also be some positive changes to the microbiome that triggers less inflammation, research suggests. Higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids like those found in certain fish, nuts and seeds – key foods on the Med diet – could play a role, too, according to some studies.
The best foods to side-step inflammation
What, exactly, are the key foods of the Mediterranean diet that can fight inflammation?
A group of food scientists have developed the Dietary Inflammatory Index, which ranks foods based on their ability to fend off or promote inflammation in the body. Those considered especially anti-inflammatory, and typically featured in the Mediterranean diet, include brightly colored vegetables like tomatoes and leafy greens; fruits such as berries; poultry; fish; nuts; and legumes. Dairy is another (and somewhat surprising) addition to the list, but it can cause an inflammatory response in some people because of a lactose allergy or sensitivity. On the flipside, processed meats, refined grains and soda (both regular and diet) are considered the most pro-inflammatory.
A study in Diabetes Care used this index to analyze the diets of more than 73,000 women over a 13-year period. Researchers discovered that participants who ate the most foods considered to be the most pro-inflammatory had a 50 percent greater risk for type 2 diabetes than those who typically ate the least. Interestingly, the glycemic index of diets did not play a part in diabetes risk which suggests the impact diet has on inflammation may even play a bigger role in the disease progression.
It’s also important to keep in mind that certain eating tendencies associated with the Mediterranean diet are also important in fending off inflammation. For instance, the habit of drizzling olive oil on vegetables can increase the absorption of fat-soluble antioxidants. Yes, fat-free salad dressings can be counterproductive. And the excess calorie intake typical of the standard American diet might lead to inflammation, as can the tendency to load up on the calories later in the day. Many Mediterranean nations tend to eat larger meals earlier.
So, if you’re hoping to keep inflammation at bay to protect your brain, heart and joints, it appears that the much-praised Mediterranean diet is the way to go. Make sure your diet emphasizes more whole foods, more plants and more nutrition. And if you really want to minimize chronic inflammation, limit alcohol consumption, seek out ways to reduce stress, avoid smoking, stay active daily and minimize your exposure to air pollution if possible. That’s a recipe for longevity.
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