Hi Adrienne, today we’re talking about healthy food, and more specifically about the anti-inflammatory diet. What is it and why do we need it?

The anti-inflammatory diet – or rather lifestyle – is a set of habits and practices – primarily food, but there are others as well, such as sleep, that help our body with its natural processes.

In our day and age we eat many foods that overwhelm our body. As a result, our body rebels, leading to inflammation. It’s the root cause of many illnesses, such as the irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, artery diseases, heart conditions, but also things like arthritis. Yeast infections are another big consequence. They can be in the digestive tract, the reproductive tract, on your skin. This also means that changing your food habits can play a huge role in treating things like eczema or psoriasis. And then there is our mental health – our gut directly influences things like our concentration and mood.

I’m always a bit surprised that there isn’t more knowledge about inflammation in the gut and ways to avoid it, because it’s such a big influence on our health.

‘Diet’ suggests we should avoid certain types of foods. What are typical foods that cause inflammation?

Mostly, these are foods we learn to eat through our culture, rather than our nature. So your body isn’t equipped to deal with it. A couple of important villains are dairy, wheat, refined sugar.

Let’s start with dairy. The main problem with dairy is that it’s not intended for people, it’s intended for baby cows. Since baby cows need to grow into massive big cows, milk is very potent, a great source of nutrition. But we are not meant to become big cows and so milk can be too much for your body to process, especially because of the big part it plays in the Western diet. Just think about it: people drink milk, eat yogurt and cheese, put it in sweets… It’s a lot. On top of that, most cows are farmed with lots of hormones. These end up in the milk and eventually in our body.

Like I mentioned, gluten is another one. This is actually very much influenced by our exposure to it. Here, too, most people aren’t hypersensitive to for instance wheat in itself. Their bodies just experience an overload. That’s why for Westerners, rice is a good alternative. Surprisingly, it’s the other way around in parts of the world where rice is the main staple. People there can eat wheat without any problems, but their bodies often respond very sensitively to rice.

Another source of inflammation is simple carbs. Simple carbs are absorbed into our body immediately, unlike other types of carbs (fibers and polycarbs, such as potatoes). Simple carbs cause a spike of insulin, blood sugar. They also cause a large release of hormones that metabolize it, putting your body in overdrive to process the peak and exhausting it. That’s why key to the anti-inflammatory diet is letting go of extremes.

Speaking of sugar: from a chemical point of view, alcohol is sugar. It affects your digestion as sugar would. That’s why especially sweet beer and wine can cause a massive hangover. Then there’s hard liquor. That’s definitely damaging for your digestion: it doesn’t just burn in your throat, but also in your gut. On the other hand, a glass of red wine is full of antioxidants and can make you feel better, especially if you’re not dependent on this feeling. In the end, it’s less about making the diet a religion and more about finding the balance to do what is good for your body in a particular moment.

 

Okay, so less dairy, gluten and sugar. What foods would make us feel amazing then?

Anything that’s green is generally good: leafy greens such as spinach and kale, cruciferous veggies, such as brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage. These are all full of antioxidants, chlorophyll and minerals that make our body really happy. That’s why it’s great to incorporate these in your diet at least once a day. You can also get a lot of nutrients from nuts and seeds. Besides, they are also just delicious.

Another thing that’s great for your gut is fermented foods. There’s kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso… Strictly speaking, kombucha is not anti-inflammatory: in order to feed the fermentation you use sugar and there’s always some left in the actual drink. There is also some alcohol. It’s one of those things where moderation is important.

Omega-3 is also something that’s really important. A common source of it is fish, either through actual fish or through oil capsules. These days, there is also a great alternative: omega-3 capsules derived from algae. Apart from these capsules, there are also other supplements and herbs that are great for reducing inflammation: curcuma, rosemary, oregano… But also maca powder and ashwagandha.

Does it matter how you prepare your food?

It does. Some foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, are really fibrous and a bit hard to digest. Steam them or cook them briefly. If you overcook them, you’re left with less nutrients, but cooking or even baking is just easier for some things, such as broccoli or cauliflower. In the end, it’s better to prepare these in a way you’ll enjoy than not to eat them at all.

Oil is usually great. Sunflower oil is fine, olive oil and any other cold-pressed oil is great. Walnut oil, coconut oil, sesame oil. Sesame oil and peanut oil are actually great for baking and frying: they have a high burning point, so you can heat them without them turning carcinogenic (like olive oil does).

Let’s get real here – food is also supposed to be fun. How do you deal with things like snacks and baking?

I love this part, because it really calls for creativity. Instead of sugar, I often use stevia. It’s not sugary and has this clingy aftertaste, but you get used to it fairly quickly. When you do, it’s just your new standard for what sweets taste like. Stevia also has no carbs.

When I’m craving something really sweet I soak dates and raisins in water for a few hours. Once mushy, I drain and blend them into this sweet paste that I for instance mix into dough. It’s still fast sugars, but it’s definitely better than granulated sugar and my body doesn’t have such a strong response to it.

With dairy being a no-go and omega-3 coming from algae, does this diet work for vegans?

Absolutely. Depending on the person eggs can be inflammatory or anti-inflammatory, but it’s not a problem to avoid them altogether. Apart from the fish oil that you can replace by algae, and apart from the eggs, that aren’t mandatory, the anti-inflammatory diet is plant based.

What’s a good way to keep up with this diet if you eat on the go a lot?

An obvious one is meal prepping and bringing your own snacks, especially if you’re in an environment with few choices, such as the workplace cafeteria or a gas station. If you have restaurants to choose from, Indian or Japanese food has great options. Both use little dairy and have great vegan options.

You mentioned that sleep can help against inflammation too. How does that work?

Your body is an intricate machine and this machine does many different things without our knowledge or awareness. Our organs work each with their own set schedule. They have times when they work and times when they rest. Our hormones take care of these processes and the balance. But if we don’t take the time to rest, our organs also fail to do their work. Sure, we can cheat a day or two, but getting used to a really chaotic lifestyle can have a lot of negative effects on your health.

If you struggle with going to bed early, I recommend establishing a nice routine. After a while it becomes as good to go to bed early as it is to sleep in. Personally, I set an alarm for 9 pm, alerting me that it’s time to prepare for bed. When it goes off, I know it’s time for my evening journaling practice: a few questions that help me reflect on the day I had and plan my next one. This puts me into a kind of sleepy rhythm. And if I don’t feel sleepy enough, I might still read before drifting off to sleep.

Great tip. And speaking of recommendations… Let’s end this interview with your favorite recipe!

It’s actually very simple: veggies in the oven. Get whatever vegetables you have and chop them up into irregular pieces. The more irregular, the better: they will bake in a different way. Some will be softer, others will be crunchier or more caramelized. Put your veggies in the oven for 40 minutes, then take them out and eat them in any way you like.

You can combine them with any staple. Sometimes I’ll add potatoes or rice and I instantly have a full meal. Other times, I make a green salad with spinach, rocket salad and lots of greens. The combination of raw and cooked or baked vegetables together is great. Just mix some olive oil, lemon juice and herbs for a delicious dressing and you’re good to go. Satisfying, yummy, nurturing and anti-inflammatory.

Bon appetit!

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