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The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Not a "named" diet, but the real rules behind what makes any diet healthy (or not.)

Mediterranean. Paleo. Keto. Vegan.

These are just the major players in a landscape of diets. (Pegan! AIP! Whole30! and so on into infinity) They promise all sorts of things: a slimmer waist, reduced health issues, a lower carbon footprint, and much, much more.

But do they work?

Are they actually good for you?

The problem with most named diets

The first issue with any kind of named diet like those above is that they tend to encourage All-or-Nothing type thinking.

Either you're Paleo, or you're not.

If you eat bread, you're off the diet.

"Might as well go back to what I was doing before!" - continuing the cycle of failure in yo-yo diets.

To really experience long term health benefits, any diet change is supposed to be long term/permanent. The Keto Diet (among others) was originally designed to be permanent, and people that experience the really deep health benefits of these diets usually experience them over years, not weeks. The problem is, most of these diets are too restrictive for most people to want to continue forever.

The other issue is that most of these diets usually miss about half the picture of what makes an eating pattern healthy.


A healthy diet has two main facets to consider:

1. The quality of the food (the Micros)

2. The amount and ratios of different foods (the Macros)

Most of these named diets only focus on one or the other, not both.


I discuss ratios a bit when talking about Intermittent Carbing and Understanding Ketosis - the amounts of carbs vs fats vs proteins.

If you want a full walkthrough on the foundation of understanding the 3 Macronutrients and how our bodies use them, check out the Macros and Metabolism infographic.


This article is focused on the other topic of concern: the quality of the food.

At the heart of the discussion of food quality and Micros is 2 topics:

1. Nutrient Density (how much of vitamins-minerals-protein-etc per calorie)

2. Inflammatory vs Anti-Inflammatory

Fortunately, these two go hand in hand:

Most anti-inflammatory foods have a higher nutrient density, and most inflammatory foods are lower in nutrients.


Understanding Inflammation

What is inflammation?

In the human body, there are two main types of inflammation: acute (short term) and chronic, long term inflammation. Inflammation can either be local (something you can point at) or systemic, happening to the entire body.

Acute inflammation is an important part of a healthy immune system. If you bang your elbow and cut it open, inflammation swells the cut shut, activates platelets to start patching things up and sends white blood cells to the area to defend against any invading germs. If all goes well, the inflammation slowly goes away as things heal back to your normal, pre-cut status.

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is generally a bad thing.

It's like a lower level of acute inflammation that never goes away. The symptoms are more vague, usually including:

  • Muscle and joint aches

  • Chronic fatigue and insomnia

  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders

  • Gastrointestinal upsets like GERD, reflux, diarrhea, constipation

  • Weight gain or weight loss

  • Frequent infections


Why does inflammation matter?

Besides all of those fun sounding issues, most of the "diseases of aging" - those health issues that tend to crop up as we get older, like cancer, heart disease, and dementia - all have very strong ties to chronic inflammation.

If we can minimize chronic inflammation (I'm just gonna call it inflammation for short) then we can slow or even prevent a lot of the chronic diseases people experience today.


The Universal War

At the heart of the discussion around inflammation is the war between free radicals and antioxidants. This happens all throughout the universe, and since we are part of the universe, it happens inside of our bodies.

There are tons of them on either side, but it boils down to 1 major characteristic:

  • Free radicals are missing electrons and are hungry for them.

  • Antioxidants have spare electrons to give away for free.

When a free radical touches a cell in our body, it steals electrons from atoms in the cell, causing immediate damage.

A cell can repair itself a bit, but at some point becomes damaged beyond repair.

A cell that is damaged beyond repair has 3 main options:

1. Cell Death: Apoptosis or Necrosis, aka the Aging Process.

The cell dies and dissolves, potentially leaving inflammatory waste particles in it's wake but also leaving space to make a new cell copy to replace it.

Speeding this process up speeds up aging: every cell has a limited amount of copy paper. When we run out of copy paper we start messing up the copy and things start to break down.

2. Cancer, aka Carcinogenesis

The damaged cell continues to live and reproduces damaged versions of itself, outside of the body's normal control. Over time, runaway defective cells replace and crowd out the healthy cells, making the organ/body unable to function.

3. Zombie Cells, aka Senescence

The damaged cell stops reproducing and is considered dead, but doesn't dissolve or explode. This "undead" cell simply begins to hang out in place and pump out inflammatory molecules into the space around it.


These are the options that free radicals give us. Not very friendly options, if you ask me.

A major part of an anti-inflammatory diet is learning to recognize free radical sources to limit them in our lives.


The Big Bad Players - Major Free Radical Sources

For more details, click here.

1. Industrial Fats, fried foods and most burned things

2. Nitrate Cured Meats

3. Chemicals

4. Refined Sugar and Excess Carbohydrates


The Good News: Antioxidants Erase Free Radicals

Thankfully, we have antioxidants to help relieve the burden. Antioxidants are the polar opposite of free radicals, and have spare electrons to give away.

Antioxidants we consume or create (Yes, we make some of our own antioxidants! More on that below) float around in our bodies and concentrate in different organs.

Any time an antioxidant comes in contact with a free radical, it fills the empty holes with electrons, effectively neutralizing it. No harm done.


The Best Foods for Antioxidants

For more details, click here.

1. Herbs and Spices

2. Fruits and Vegetables

3. Fish and Seafood

4. Fresh Animal Products (especially grass fed/pasture raised)

5. Expeller pressed oils, nuts, and avocados

6. Minimally processed beans and whole grains (in moderation)


The Immune System

The immune system is a major player in chronic inflammation as well, which makes sense because that acute inflammation example above is a function of the immune system.

The immune system plays such a big role in inflammation, it deserves it's own post! That is coming next in the series.


Comments? Questions? Head on over to The Forum! 

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