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Which Foods Are Anti-Inflammatory?

  |   Diet, Food, Healthy Body, Healthy eating, Healthy Food Choice, Well-being   |   No comment

When I was writing for the opinion section of The New York Times, I had a number of close advisers. On nutrition matters, I came to rely more and more heavily on David Katz. Later, we became friends and, in 2018, I asked him to sit down and talk with me about how we should be eating, for a Grub Street piece that ran (untruthfully) as “The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right.”

The response was tremendous — it was one of the most-read articles of the year. Not just in food, not just for New York Magazine, but online, period.

What we didn’t realize until then was the degree to which people are looking for guidance on how to eat from people they can trust. And that we qualified.

The net result is our new book, “How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered.” In it, we answer what we hope are the most pressing questions about diet that confront many readers. We think it’s a useful tool to understand, commit to, and maintain a truly healthy diet, and one that will serve as a useful counter to all the bullshit out there. Here’s our fourth excerpt.

“How to Eat” by Mark Bittman and David L. Katz, M.D., is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available here.


What’s the hype about anti-inflammatory diets? I see “anti-inflammatory” as a benefit on a lot of foods.

In short: Certain foods encourage inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet avoids these foods. The body makes compounds called prostaglandins that can be either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Both saturated fat and omega-6 unsaturated fat are building blocks for pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Too much omega-6 — which is abundant in ultraprocessed foods — is not a good thing; it can contribute to excess inflammatory response.

So this is yet another reason to steer clear of ultraprocessed foods?

For several reasons: Many ultraprocessed foods contain omega-6-heavy oils as well as highly refined carbs, like white flour and added sugars. Starch and sugar don’t directly flow into the production of inflammatory prostaglandins, but they drive up insulin. And insulin — a growth and stimulating hormone — enhances the activity of the immune system in a way that increases inflammation. Finally, diets high in ultraprocessed foods foster obesity, and excess fat cells contribute more inflammatory compounds to the bloodstream.

Are there certain fats that aren’t inflammatory?

Yes. Some fats are even anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 fat is most associated with anti-inflammation. Monounsaturated fat, the kind that predominates in olive oil, is less distinctly anti-inflammatory, but does not increase inflammation, either.

What other foods should I be eating to keep my immune system in balance?

The very foods you should eat to balance health overall, and by now you know the drill: vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. For optimal health, these are the foods to increase. And sure enough, all of these are associated with dialing down inflammation.

Is an anti-inflammatory diet something most people should worry about?

Well . . . worrying is inflammatory! So, let’s say it’s something worth being conscious of.

Insulin resistance (prediabetes) is widespread in the United States, and remember that insulin is pro-inflammatory. Fixing this with diet and lifestyle is pretty much a universal priority. But fixing it with diet is easy, and requires no special effort, as long as you’re fixing your diet anyway: You just need to move toward an optimal diet for general health. You can think about it in terms of anti-inflammatory, or you can think about in terms of “healthy.” You’ll be making all the same adjustments either way.

Are there other contributing factors to inflammation besides food?

Absolutely. Psychological stress is inflammatory; it is associated with stimulation of the adrenal gland. Sleep deprivation is associated with disturbances in hormonal balances that increase inflammatory responses. So although the narrative has become “inflammation is bad and you want an anti-inflammatory diet,” the underlying reality, again, is that imbalance is bad. The prevailing imbalance is what causes excess inflammatory responses, and can be addressed, fortunately, by the same good kinds of eating patterns we’re talking about here.

  • By Dr. David L. Katz and Mark Bittman
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