Inflammation and Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Nutrition Series Pt. 1


Each Tuesday in January our Director of Nutrition, Rachel Spencer, RD, will be hosting a live class on an aspect of Cancer Nutrition.  The first session was on the effect diet has on inflammation, below is an overview of what was discussed.

What is inflammation? 

Inflammation is an immune response to any kind of stress put upon the body. Acute or short-term inflammation can be caused by an injury or exposure to a germ or allergen. It is a healthy process, as it helps our body heal from injuries in an appropriate way.  Chronic or long-term inflammation is caused by poor diet, lack of sleep, limited physical activity, exposure to smoke or alcohol among other things. It is bad as it leads to constant, low levels of certain hormones and chemicals that can cause harm to our body over time.  Prolonged inflammation damages cells, tissues and immune function in our bodies.  This damage can lead to a range of chronic diseases, including cancer. 

How does diet affect inflammation?

Normal digestion and metabolism of food leads to different chemical and hormones being released and circulating in the body.  Depending on the food being broken down, this can lead to beneficial effects or negative effects.  For example, consistent intake of foods in high sugar and refined carbohydrates leads to high insulin levels causing cell growth, and possibly cancer. Additionally, oils like peanut and sunflower are high in omega 6 fats which causes inflammation in our body.  On the other hand, foods that are high in fiber like beans and vegetables have been shown to be beneficial to the bacteria in our guts and reduce inflammation.  The goal is to avoid foods that are processed or artificial and to instead choose unprocessed foods are high in compounds called antioxidants and phytonutrients, which protect against inflammation. 

What are antioxidants and phytonutrients? 

Antioxidants are a large group of compounds which protect against harmful substances called free radicals in our bodies.  Free radicals do damage to the DNA in our cells, which can lead to cancer occurence and progression.  Antioxidants include vitamins A, E, and C, minerals like Selenium, and various phytonutrients.   

Phytonutrients, or plant nutrients, include phenols, flavonoids, tannins, lignans and others. They are often responsible for color in plants, such as lycopene in tomatoes.  Each has a unique action, many of which are anti-cancer in nature. These compounds have also been linked to prevention of diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

Antioxidants and phytonutrients are typically highest in concentration in foods that are very brightly colored. This includes blueberries, sweet potatoes, pomegranate, and leafy greens.  They are also present in whole grains, herbs and spices, and nuts. 

What makes up an anti-inflammatory diet? 

First of all, this eating style is not a diet for weight loss, it is designed to improve health outcomes.  That being said, shifting to this diet pattern may result in weight loss.  The foundation of an anti-inflammatory diet is a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, at least 5-7 different kinds a day.  It should contain mostly whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat, and barley.  Protein choices can include lean poultry and fatty fish like salmon and sardines, beans, lentils, as well as soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame. Herbs and spices should be used generously, fresh if possible.  Foods that should be avoided include: processed meats, refined grains, convenience foods, high sugar foods and alcohol. 

This diet pattern is inherently high fiber, high antioxidant, and low glycemic index. These features have all been linked to cancer prevention. The goal is to add more of these foods into your diet over time, to reduce your inflammation level that is a result of foods. Other lifestyle modifications should also be made to reach this goal: move with intention at least 150 minutes a week, practice good sleep hygiene, reduce stress as much as possible, and stop smoking.

Interested in making some of these changes to your diet, but not sure how to get started? Join OncoPower to speak with a Registered Dietitian and get personalized advice today to support your cancer care.  And be sure to tune in each Tuesday in January for more information on Cancer Nutrition from our Director of Nutrition, Rachel Spencer, RD.

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