Can Dietary Changes Reduce Inflammation?

Can dietary changes reduce inflammation? I can’t help thinking about inflammation this morning. My left thumb is swollen and throbbing thanks to an ant that was eating the okra pod I reached in to harvest before I noticed it. (Yes, I have gloves and I know I should wear them.)

Inflammation is detrimental to health especially when it becomes chronic. What I’m experiencing at the moment is acute inflammation that should subside in a few days. But before I knew I should be gluten-free, I experienced chronic inflammation.

Research has shown chronic inflammation to be associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Not only is it a possible contributor to serious disease, chronic inflammation makes you feel bad.

For me, it developed slowly over a period of time. I knew I had inexplicable pain that kept me awake. More than likely, that was related to inflammation. It went away when I eliminated gluten from my diet. After a few weeks, I was acutely aware that I no longer felt “tight” in my skin. Once I realized how much lighter I felt, I never wanted to go backward.

But because my condition changed gradually over a period of years, I became desensitized to the overall changes in how I felt. I knew something was going on because I was weak and tired and I ached, but the acute symptom that kept me seeking answers was an itchy rash.

With chronic inflammation, your body is constantly responding as if it’s under attack. The immune system pumps out white blood cells and chemical messengers that are helpful for a time after an injury or illness like a virus, but if the process lingers, they become detrimental. Just typing that makes me feel tired. It seems obvious that constantly fighting itself would not result in optimum health.

Diet and exercise are key to managing chronic inflammation. For me, eliminating gluten was what it took to rid myself of chronic inflammation and eventually my itchy rash. Even now, after 17 years, it doesn’t take much accidental gluten ingestion to trigger another round of blistery itching. Maybe that’s a good thing. It certainly keeps me on the straight and narrow.

To reduce chronic inflammation, eliminating foods you recognize irritate your system is a good place to start. Anything that produces an allergic reaction, stomach discomfort, swelling, redness, or rash can go in the first round. Dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish may fall in this category.

Next up, consider limiting consumption of processed foods. The chemicals in soft drinks, deli meat, baked goods, and preformed meals may trigger an undesired response from your body.

Beyond that, it may be helpful to eliminate sugary, starchy foods like white bread, pancakes, doughnuts, and pasta. This will help prevent blood sugar spikes. Keeping the body even keel allows it to use available energy to repair itself.

You may want to increase other foods like cherries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, plums, red grapes, onions, turmeric, green tea, spinach, and Swiss chard. Kale is a great option if you like it. All of these foods are high in polyphenols which are antioxidants that reduce inflammation.

Exercise plays a part in preventing conditions associated with chronic inflammation and research has shown it can directly reduce inflammation as well. Of course, movement will be more pleasant as inflammation lessens. I am intensely reminded of this when I try to move my thumb.

A change in diet can result in reducing or even eliminating chronic inflammation. Sitting here with a reminder of how inflamed tissues feel, I am grateful that it only took eliminating certain foods to bring me relief. That makes the dietary changes worth it!

Gluten-Free Basics. A Review.

The term gluten-free has appeared in the news so often over the past year that it’s easy to assume everyone knows exactly what it means. Of course, that’s a silly assumption. I remember that I read the term bitcoin in the news 3 times last week, but I don’t know anything about the newfangled currency. So rather than make assumptions, let’s do a quick review of the gluten-free basics.

Gluten-free simply means contains no gluten. If you choose to eat only foods that contain no gluten, then you are living a gluten-free lifestyle. As of August 2014, foods labeled gluten-free* will not contain more than 20ppm gluten. That means they will be free of any derivatives of wheat, rye, barley, malt, or triticale. Sounds simple enough, right?

So what is gluten anyway? Gluten is a protein that’s sticky. It gives dough the elasticity that lets it hold together while it rises and takes on a chewy texture. This protein also causes an autoimmune response in those who are sensitive or intolerant ultimately leading to a host of serious health problems. Luckily, these health problems can quickly diminish when you embrace a gluten-free lifestyle.

If you have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, gluten sensitivity, or gluten intolerance, you will only reach optimum health if you eliminate ALL gluten from your lifestyle FOREVER. Once you begin a diet devoid of gluten, you may feel better immediately or it may take up to a year before you can tell a real difference. During that first year, you may feel better for a while and then slightly worse, and then better again. This is often a normal part of the healing process.

When preparing to change to a gluten-free lifestyle, it can be helpful to focus on the foods you CAN eat. When prepared at home, you can eat all meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. This includes potatoes and corn. You can also eat some grains including rice, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, and oats that have been certified to be free from cross-contamination.

If you lived in your grandmother’s day, the switch to this lifestyle would be so minor you would hardly notice. Yes, you’d have to thicken gravy with cornstarch, leave the flour out of the cornbread, and lay off the rolls, but most of your diet would be the same as the rest of the family.

The reason gluten-free sounds like such a big change now is our increase in dependence on cheap, prepackaged, convenience and fast foods. Packaged foods are designed to be resilient to being transported long distances. They are also formulated to maintain consistent texture, appearance, and taste after sitting on store shelves for months or years. Sticky, gluey substances like gluten and gums help achieve consistent texture.

Eliminating the majority of prepackaged food from your diet will give you a head start in improving your health, but you can now find plenty of gluten-free substitutes on the shelves of local grocery stores when you need to grab something in a hurry. You don’t even have to choose items that are labeled gluten-free. Once you learn how to read labels, you’ll discover many more choices in the regular store aisles.

Want to get started today? It’s as easy as leaving behind wheat, rye, barley, malt, and triticale. Don’t eat traditional bread, rolls, biscuits, pasta, pizza crust, cake, piecrust, breaded meat or vegetables. Avoid sauces, soups, and salad dressings thickened with flour or food starch other than corn. Eliminate malted vinegars (unmalted are fine), malted milk balls, and malts. Switch to gluten-free beer. Distilled grain alcohol is usually gluten-free. Ask for a gluten-free menu at your favorite chain restaurant. You’ll be surprised how many have one readily available. Use the internet to find fast-food nutrition information.

You don’t have to learn any more than you want to learn, cook any more than you want to cook, or stop enjoying favorite family recipes. Anyone who tells you this will be a difficult change for you to make doesn’t realize how incredible you are. Shame on them for selling you short. I believe you can do what it takes to feel your best! It’s easy to get started today.

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Convenience Foods – Is All Convenience Created Equal?

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In our overworked, overachieving, over-busy culture, we have come to value convenience. Our gas stations offer convenience stores filled with edible packaged products just down the street from a row of drive-through restaurants that promise quick meals we can eat in the car on the way to our next deadline.

When we want a full meal at home, we grab a frozen entrée and pop it in the microwave for five minutes. If we’re worried about health, it’s easy to read the nutritional information on the label for reassurance that we are on the right path. In fact, the label may contain familiar platitudes: Fat-Free; No Added Sugar; No Trans Fats; Low-Carb; High-Fiber. Attractively packaged and ready to consume, processed foods have become a family meal mainstay.

Convenience isn’t a bad thing per se. Incorporating convenient food allows us to move faster, do more, and increase accomplishment. As a culture, we value accomplishment so much that most of us keep adding duties and activities to our family lives so that we have more and more opportunity to achieve it. In the process, we have come to view all convenience as inherently good. We give no thought to the possibility that there is any other way to view it.

As the health of our nation declines, it is time to ask:  Is all convenience created equal?

When I say “convenience food”, what is your first thought? Perhaps it’s a frozen waffle, a protein bar, or your favorite drive-through French fry. Most likely it comes in a brightly colored cellophane package or paperboard box. It is much less likely that you immediately visualize an apple, a banana, a bowlful of fresh cherries, a chunk of Manchego cheese, some raw carrots, or a handful of raw cashews, but are these fresh items any less convenient to consume? Are they any less tasty than their processed counterparts?

It is true that fruit, a chunk of cheese, or a few loose nuts may require a few minutes of time to clean or package for transport to your office. Does such preparation take more time than you would spend in a drive-through line? Does it take more time than you would spend walking to a vending machine? Must a carry home meal on a busy night be from a fast-food drive through? Why do we restrict our view of convenience foods to prepackaged, processed choices?

Advertising supports our belief, although false, that without processed foods we’ll be missing the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber with which they are “fortified”. Package design entices with words like rich, creamy, crunchy, nutritious, and delicious. Many of our favorite convenience foods are filled with sugar, carbohydrates or high fructose corn syrup that makes us crave more sugar and carbohydrates. Some are filled with salt that can trigger craving as well. Perhaps the reason most significant reason we grab packaged food is habit.

As studies continue to show a direct correlation between our diet and an increasing number of chronic diseases, choosing convenient, fresh, unprocessed food even when we’re in a hurry may be the most important positive health choice we can make. Fresh convenience foods are low in sodium, usually have no added sugar, no trans fats, and are often low-carb and high-fiber. Fresh foods do not require stabilizers like starches and gums, flavor enhancing chemicals to make them taste fresh after a long shelf life, plus they are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Sometimes the hardest thing to shift is our thinking. We just can’t imagine how we will feed ourselves and our families without our “habit” foods. Perhaps it will help to see what a busy day without prepackaged or typical “fast” food might look like! Let’s take a look at some options!

For breakfast you might choose:

1)Plain Greek yogurt drizzled with honey, 10-12 raw almonds, and 1/4 cup of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or golden raisins.

2)An apple, half a banana, some cheese and a boiled egg.

3)Left-over steak or grilled chicken, a grapefruit, an orange, or some grapes.

Your morning snack could include:

1)Slices of red bell pepper, yellow squash, or zucchini with store-bought hummus and a pear.

2)Dried dates stuffed with a raw pecan half and a slice of smoked Gouda cheese.

3)Celery sticks filled with all natural sugar-free peanut butter topped with raisins.

Lunch at your desk is a great time for leftovers. If you don’t have any on hand and need to grab something quick, try these options:

1)Fill half an avocado with tuna from a pouch and some cottage cheese. Eat it with baby carrots and tomato slices.

2)Run by your local home-cooking buffet and fill a to go container with grilled chicken breast, broccoli and carrots, or green beans and squash or black-eyed peas and turnip greens.

3)Pick up a container of smoked meat from a barbecue restaurant. Without the sauce, the meat can become part of many entrées. It’s great in a salad over lettuce or maché. Eat it with traditional barbeque sides from the restaurant, or substitute your favorite raw vegetable or fruit.

Instead of processed salad dressing or vegetable dip, mix 2 tbsp sour cream and add Penzey’s Brady Street Cheese Sprinkle to taste for dip. For dressing thin the mixture with 1 tbsp yogurt or 1 tsp of milk.

If you need an afternoon snack, grab some:

1)Trail mix made with raw seeds, nuts, and fruit with no added sugar, salt, or fats.

2)Eat some of the smoke meat you saved from lunch with dried apricots, mango, or cantaloupe. Just make sure there’s no sugar added. Dried fruit is incredibly sweet all on it’s own.

3)Plain yogurt with half a banana and some honey if you like the added sweetness.

Pick up dinner on the way home:

1)30 minutes before you leave the office, order hamburger steaks or grilled chicken breasts, baked potatoes, and salad to pick up on your way home.

2)Go by the grocery and pick up a rotisserie chicken, a bag of frozen green beans or English peas.  If the store has a salad bar, make a salad. If your kids have different topping preferences, put those items in a separate container to add at home. If your store doesn’t have a salad bar, grab a container of cubed fresh pineapple or one that has a mix of melons or berries. At home, mix some plain yogurt or sour cream with a bit of honey and some cinnamon to turn the fruit into a delicious fruit salad.

3)Avoid having to go to anywhere after work by buying additional smoked meat by the pound at lunch and placing it in the refrigerator at the office. If you’re competing for space there, a cooler in the car may be an option. At home, make barbecue salads or serve the meat with whatever frozen vegetables you have on hand. You don’t have to top the meat with barbecue sauce. Its smoky flavor will go with anything.

For those of you who cook on days that aren’t as busy, leftovers can make a crazy day a breeze. Frozen vegetables take only a few minutes to cook. Keeping them on hand is another way to make eating healthier easy when things get hectic. At my house, scrambled eggs are a good fallback when all other plans fail. I always have them. I can throw in some cream cheese and leftover English peas and have a tasty meal in 5 minutes. That’s less time than it takes to pick up a meal on the way home.

You may have noticed the lack of grains, breads, and crackers in these meal possibilities. Why? Because this exercise is about shifting our thinking to open our minds to healthier choices. Most of us need more vegetables, fruit, and protein every day, so recognizing that we can eat satisfying meals without relying on grain carbs can help get us out of the habit of filling ourselves with breads instead of leafy greens, berries, poultry, fish, beef, and pork. That doesn’t mean you should never ever eat gluten-free mac & cheese. It just means that it is more healthy if that’s an occasional occurrence and your habit is to reach for a grilled chicken breast and steamed asparagus.

When it comes to nutritional value, not all convenience is created equal. Next time you grocery shop, take a moment to look around the store. Look for convenient foods with as little processing and packaging as possible. Expand your horizons, eat tasty food, make healthy choices, and still get everything done on time.  You can do it, and your heath depends on it.