Since the summer before studying for my degree in nutrition some 16 years ago through to now, I have been contracted by the Nutrition Society and [since the outsourcing of publications] Cambridge University Press to work on four of the world’s leading Nutritional Science journals. This means that on average I read 75 research reports a week on nutrition. From all this reading there are two messages that scream very loudly. They are, what we eat now does impact our long term health; our dietary patterns and quality rather than individual foods. And the most important thing to focus on is controlling inflammation in the body.
Inflammation plays an essential role in the body enabling it to fight infections, heal and repair. However chronic inflammation – low level, long term inflammation is the route cause of most chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and most cancers. Diet is a powerful mediator of chronic inflammation therefore an essential target for anyone wanting to maintain long term health.
So what causes inflammation in the body? Obesity. Being a healthy weight is important. Also sugar (it is high blood glucose levels that cause the problem), saturated fat and alcohol. A low quality diet high in fatty, sweet, processed foods and alcohol above the recommended levels inflames the body. Also more recently it has been discovered that gut bacteria communicates with the immune system and too much ‘bad bacteria’ is inflammatory.
Instead we need to pack our diets with omega 3 from sources such as oily fish and linseeds and antioxidants from fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and wholegrains. Plus fibrous foods such as garlic, leeks and onions as well as foods that contain bacteria such as live yogurt to support anti-inflammatory ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Visualise the difference in how these diets look. The inflammatory diet is rather beige and floppy. The anti inflammatory diet is bright, colourful and fresh. As will you be following either of these diets!
Bearing in mind what you have just read on how important controlling inflammation in the body is for long term health and the type of foods that mediate inflammation, lets know look at the diets around the world where we see lower levels of disease. Firstly the traditional Meditereanean diet renowned for heart health and lowering the risk of cancer. The Meditereanean diet is typified by a high overall fat intake – but low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated, high in vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and pulses. High in antioxidants. If we then look at the world’s longest living people from Okinawa – a group of 161 Japanese islands, their traditional diet is low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated (very high in oily fish), high in antioxidants. On average they eat 7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, 7 servings of grains and 2 servings of soya. And finally the vegetarian diet that shows low correlation with chronic disease is low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated, high in vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses. High in antioxidants. It is no coincidence. These diet are given different names but they are all anti inflammatory diets based on good quality, bright, fresh, unprocessed foods.
In summary, through all the noise and fad diets, if you want to focus on one thing make that controlling inflammation in the body.