If you are looking for dietary advice for supporting general health and how you can use foods to help prevent chronic inflammation and long-term illness, then you’ve come to the right place. If you have an existing health condition and would like to know more about nutritional support for this, more specific advice can be found on our health pages.
A diet that promotes health and prevents inflammation is one that contains an abundance of natural, unprocessed, seasonal, organic, whole plant foods; a broad range of wild, grassfed or pastured organic animal proteins; plus an array of ‘good’ fats.
To maintain optimal health, we advise basing your diet around:
- Organic in-season local vegetables of all colours of the rainbow, as well as lots of leafy greens and some raw vegetables daily (ideally 7+ palm sized portions per day)
- High quality proteins from pastured, grass-fed livestock and poultry and organic plant foods ( minimum 0.8-1.2g/kg of your body weight daily)
- 2 portions of wild fish each week, of which 1 is oily
- Additional healthy natural fats from nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut products, olive oil and organic, pastured, full fat dairy (1 thumb sized portion 3 – 4 times per day)
- Complex carbohydrate and fibre from organic wholegrains and legumes and starchy vegetables (as long as you have no known reactions to these foods)
- A broad range of fresh herbs and spices, garlic and ginger and cooked Asian mushrooms
- In-season, organic fruit – local if possible
- Probiotic foods such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut etc.
Maintaining optimal health also requires avoiding less healthful foods
Food processing, refining and use of added ingredients such as preservatives, flavour enhancers and sugar, all increase the inflammatory load in the body as we are not equipped to deal with these ‘alien’ foods and chemicals. Many processed, refined and altered products actually use up more nutrients during their processing than they add to the body and so we need to eat even more healthy natural foods to prevent this having a detrimental effect on our health.
The food industry is a multi-billion pound business and over 95% of what we find in the supermarkets today is actually a ‘product’ not a food. With the use of hormones, antibiotics, indoor livestock rearing, pasteurisation, chemical fertilisers, antibacterial sprays, genetic modification and artificial ripening techniques, most of our foods contain much lower levels of nutrients than they should. These techniques speed up the rate at which even ‘natural’ plant and animal products are grown and developed, resulting in much less time to ‘accumulate’ nutrients to pass on to us.
Certain foods are best totally avoided!
- Trans fats (largely eliminated form UK market – not the USA yet)
- Vegetable oils and margarines (excluding rapeseed and olive oil)
- Processed and refined carbohydrates e.g. white flour and white sugar and products containing them
- Most commercial soft drinks and energy drinks that are laden with sugar and artificial sweeteners
Food best kept to a minimum
- White rice, pasta, bread and to a lesser extend white potatoes
- Processed meats
Exceptions to the rule
- Alcohol – which can actually benefit health when intake is kept within government guidelines. Organic red wine and beer are both high in antioxidants so can be better options than spirits mixed with sugary soft drinks
- Chocolate – choose 70%+ cocoa dark chocolate
It is important to choose products that are as close to nature as possible and top up your diet with supplements that provide key nutrients known to be lacking in our modern foods due to soil depletion, mass farming techniques and increased lifestyle demands.
What about red meat and dairy?
Whilst for some people dairy poses a problem, for most it is actually very beneficial as a source of good fats, probiotics, protein, vitamins and minerals, including calcium. If you have no symptoms following dairy consumption then you likely don’t need to worry so long as you are choosing organic (ideally unhomogenised) dairy from grass-fed cattle. Though hard to get hold of, raw dairy can be very nutritious and is often tolerated by those with lactose intolerance.
Some research has in the past linked high red meat consumption to increased inflammation and chronic illness and it is indeed recognised that mixing up your sources of protein to include lots of fish, poultry and eggs, wild game and some red meats (this includes pork) helps to prevent any unwanted health concerns. The difficulty with research into meat choices is that studies rarely separate out pastured grass-fed meat (that is very nutritious) from intensely farmed and processed meats. Correlations between high red meat consumption and other poor dietary choices also indicate that some of the risks of a high red meat diet found in studies may actually be influenced by other dietary factors. Much of the more robust and in-depth research has made it very clear that, whilst a high red meat diet can increase disease risk, this only really occurs in the absence of high fibre. This why plant based diets have such a good reputation, as fibres found in vegetables and plant foods such as sweet potatoes, legumes, squash and yams are highly beneficial and protect our gut and total health. The great news is you don’t have to be a veggie to benefit, but you do need to eat a lot of veg!
What about caffeine and coffee?
Here at Igennus we are big fans of coffee and green tea and for good reasons. The caffeine contained within them not only fuels us and super-charges our brains, but they are both also packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients that are directly health-promoting and anti-inflammatory. Choose organic brands to reduce toxin exposure (non-organic coffee is a very heavily sprayed crop!) and if possible brew your coffee from freshly ground beans to preserve the benefits. Also make sure you are acutely aware of your own tolerance to caffeine, since it does cause a moderate stress response which can exacerbate inflammation. Studies show that those who drink around four cups of coffee per day experience the most health benefits, but this is only if you can tolerate that much. Be aware that personal tolerance can change day to day depending on your stress levels and how many other stimulants are in your system. So don’t overdo it! Consuming coffee with protein or fat helps to slow the release of caffeine into the blood, reducing the amount of cortisol products and preventing compensatory insulin release which can worsen stress and cause sugar cravings.
How strict do I need to be?
When choosing to eat a healthy diet you do not have to be a saint all the time and the 80:20 rule is a good one to follow. This means choosing healthy, wholesome and natural foods 80% of the time, allowing you to still go out and socialise, have the odd indulgence after dinner, or grab something quick and convenient on-the-go without feeling like you’ve failed in your health pursuits. This rule actually helps to reduce the stress and anxiety that can be caused by trying to be ‘super healthy’ all the time, both of which contribute to and worsen inflammation.
If you or someone you know is very strict about eating well, they may actually have orthorexia, an eating disorder whereby you develop an obsession with eating foods that are considered healthy. In many cases orthrexics may not actually be eating the healthiest foods but they are fixated on their regime which itself contributes to stress and inflammation.
Now, whilst the 80:20 rule is extremely useful for reducing the guilt and anxiety associated with eating sub-optimal foods, this is not designed as a free pass to eat junk – especially if you know you are sensitive to certain foods. If you have gluten, dairy, lectin or other food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance it is never advisable to consume these foods. Each time you do, your digestive system is damaged and your immune system is programmed to ‘switch on’, both of which results in inflammation. The more you expose yourself to these foods, the more regularly you will be inflamed, which can increase your risk of a range of health conditions including depression and autoimmune diseases.
When seeking an indulgent snack you still need to be savvy and choose those that do not cause any reaction at all. Symptoms to look out for may include headaches, bloating and stomach pain, constipation or diarrhoea, skin rash or excessive dry skin, cold/flu like symptoms such as a runny nose, blocked sinuses or a sore throat and worsening of existing illness.
Which foods are anti-inflammatory?
In addition to eating an optimal baseline diet 80% (or more) of the time, there are a number of foods that are specifically important for keeping inflammation in check.
Marine foods – particularly, wild oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring, are an excellent source of the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA – both of which are essential for the correct regulation and resolution of the inflammatory process. Fish also contain a range of other fantastic nutrients that also help protect the body from inflammation and illness. Fish is also an excellent source of protein, since 140 g of fish provides about 50–60% of our daily protein needs and a range of vitamins and minerals including the vital vitamin D, vitamin A, zinc, selenium and iodine. Fish is also generally low in saturated fats, carbohydrates and cholesterol.
Turmeric contains curcumin, a potent polyphenol with proven anti-inflammatory benefits. Whilst it is high doses of the isolated curcumin that have shown to be most effective for reducing inflammation, regularly using organic turmeric in cooking can help reduce inflammation.
Your lifestyle matters too!
When it comes to optimal health, eating a natural diet comprised of natural, whole foods is a great start, but our lifestyles also play a big role in determining our long-term risk of disease.
The key things to consider are:
- Stress – even if you aren’t stressed per se,stress can still negatively impact your health. Read our tips for managing stress.
- Sleep: most adults need between 7-8 hours of restful sleep each night – if you are not getting this or you feel constantly tired, you may find some useful advice in our article on sleep.
- Exercise is important for health, but the right exercise at the right time is key to optimising your health. If you are already stressed or tired, slow down. More gentle workouts such as yoga, walking and cycling reduce additional adrenal fatigue, which can further exacerbate stress and inflammation and dramatically increase your nutritional needs.
Mixing up strength, mobility and conditioning is great to challenge both body and brain and keep you in tiptop shape. But make sure you are working with a knowledgeable fitness professional who can tailor your regime to your health and lifestyle needs.