Fighting Inflammation with Salmon and Sweet Potatoes
Veggiefeed was initially conceived as an outlet for me to express my opinion on our current food environment and to further my study of holistic nutrition. Lately it seems that the majority of my posts have been more focused on the former and I think it is about time to share a little bit more on the later. That being said, here is the initial draft of a report I recently wrote in for Food Therapy, a class predicated on utilizing food therapeutically to heal myself and others. Enjoy!
Fighting Inflammation with Salmon and Sweet Potatoes
The human body is truly miraculous. It has the ability to perform multiple high level functions integral to survival (nutrient absorption, impulse transmission and muscle contraction) while simultaneously managing multiple unbelievably intricate homeostatic mechanisms that allow the body to withstand the increasingly abrasive environment in which we live (temperature regulation, immune function and tissue repair). However, if we neglect to provide it with the nutrients essential for survival while periodically allowing it to recover from the stress we place upon it, the body can break down and enter a cycle of unsavory adaptations that may impair our health and our ability to participate in the activities that we enjoy. To obtain the level of physical and mental wellbeing for which we all strive, we must develop a fundamental understanding of the vital biological mechanisms that allow us to excel. To stay spiritually and emotionally connected to our environment we must develop a keen awareness of our body’s unique needs and the choices that may hinder our ability to enjoy all that life has to offer.
In following report, we will discuss one such mechanism, inflammation, and discover ways in which we can utilize food to ensure that it works efficiently and effectively in our favor. We will begin by developing a very basic understanding of the inflammatory process and then identify a few factors that may cause this inherently beneficial process to be detrimental to our health. We will then review a few specific nutrients that support the proper function of the immune system and than select a few foods that work to reduce inflammation. We will end our discussion by developing a menu that utilizes the most potent inflammation fighting foods and discuss a few strategies that will help make our transition to a healing diet a little easier. The food we eat can unlock an unbridled source of vitality in the human body and when we learn to harness its natural energy we can begin to develop lasting health and wellness
Considered an innate immunological reaction, the inflammatory process is a nonspecific response of vascular tissue to harmful stimuli that functions to prevent and repair the progressive damage of vital tissue. The inflammatory response can be separated into three distinct stages with symptoms specific to each. First, vasodilation and the increased permeability of blood vessels can produce heat and redness as blood collects in the damaged area. Next, the movement of white blood cells into damaged tissue can cause swelling and loss of mobility. Finally, the body works to repair damaged tissue by removing damaged cells, pathogens and irritants so that the body can begin the rebuilding process. When inflammatory process is working as intended, it is of extreme value when the body is exposed to routine infections or injuries. But, if the body is unable to eliminate or neutralize the harmful stimuli, inflammation can become chronic and eventually contribute to several severe conditions including atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
Considering the severity of the aforementioned conditions, it may be beneficial to reduce or eliminate the impact of factors that spark the inflammatory process. First, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that being overweight or obese may contribute to a chronic state of inflammation that may advance the development of disease. This is evidenced by changes in both inflammatory cells and biochemical markers of inflammation in conjunction with the accumulation of excess lipids in adipose tissue and in the liver.
Also, the food we eat can also have a dramatic impact on the level of inflammation we carry and, ultimately, or risk for disease. It has been found that a diet high in saturated and trans fats, the habitual consumption high-GI carbohydrates and the unfavorably high omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acid ratio are associated with increased levels of inflammation.
Finally, although the inflammatory response to modest levels of activity is fairly minimal and the body is well equipped to manage the response, when exercise is done at high intensities or for extended periods of time, it can damage skeletal muscle, which may generate a substantial amount of inflammation in order to facilitate repair. While the bodies of athletes with a high level of fitness will better be able to manage any exercise-induced inflammatory response, those less accustomed to bouts of strenuous exercise may cause more harm than benefit.
Although this illustration of the inflammatory response may seem fairly straightforward, it’s function is extremely complex and dependent upon an endless variety of individual circumstances that can either exacerbate or mitigate its benefit. However, utilizing foods to develop an anti-inflammatory diet will help us take a large degree of variability out of our body’s reaction to the environment and our lifestyle choices.
Nutrients and Foods of Interest
There are a wide variety of nutrients that are of value in relieving inflammation, but focusing our attention on omega-3 essential fatty acids, the B vitamin complex, selenium, a couple of antioxidants (vitamin C and vitamin E) and foods that exhibit antioxidant properties (specifically those labeled carotenoids, which the body converts to vitamin A) will help us to start incorporating foods that may have the greatest benefit. But, before we get to the good stuff, let’s look at how each of these nutrients interacts with the body and identify a few food sources for each that will help the body fight inflammation.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids work both directly and indirectly to modulate cellular activity associated with inflammation. For example, omega-3’s can bind with macrophages to reduce the secretion of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines and can also interfere with arachidonic acid metabolizing into inflammatory compounds. Further, supplementing or eating foods rich in Omega-3s can help offset our increased exposure to Omega-6s that have been shown to trigger inflammation. Cold-water fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines as these are rich sources of Omega-3 EFAs. The best plant sources of Omega-3’s include walnuts, Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, canola, soybean and flaxseed oil.
- B vitamins have been found to help reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that the body converts from another amino acid methionine that may be obtained from protein-rich foods and has been associated with inflammation. Salmon is also a great source of vitamin B12 where a 3 oz. portion contains approximately 2.4 micrograms, which is 40% of the recommended 6mcg/day. Unfortunately for vegetarians, especially those who forgo dairy and egg products, vegetables are void B vitamins and supplementation may be required.
- Selenium is important for initiating immunity via T cell differentiation, a.k.a. prioritization, and is also involved in regulating excessive immune responses and chronic inflammation by restoring cytokine regulatory mechanisms. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, salmon, garlic and onions are great sources of selenium. However, we should be careful not to consume more than 400 micrograms per day, which can lead to selenium toxicity.
- Vitamin C can reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and is a powerful antioxidant that aids the immune system by fighting free radicals to eliminate or reduce inflammation. Bell peppers, kale and Brussels sprouts are great vegetable sources of Vitamin C, while orange, papaya, kiwi, strawberries and guava are awesome fruit sources of the same.
- Vitamin E acts as a peroxyl radical scavenger, preventing the propagation of free radicals in tissue, which increase the inflammatory response. Also, vitamin E’s fat-solubility means that it gets incorporated into cell membranes to protect them from oxidative damage. Almonds, sunflower seeds and pine nuts are great ‘food’ sources of Vitamin E and provide 26.2 mg (175% DV), 36.6 mg (222%) and 9.4 mg (62%) for each 100g serving, respectfully.
- The antioxidant properties of carotenoids, including beta-carotene that the body converts to vitamin A, fight the harmful assault of reactive oxygen species to prevent DNA damage, protein denaturing and the destruction of cell membranes. Orange colored fruits and vegetables are the most well known sources of carotenoids (beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin) and include sweet potatoes, carrots, and butternut squash. Green vegetables like spinach, kale, and collards are great sources of lutein and provide a good amount of beta-carotene. Tomatoes and grapefruit are good sources of lycopene.
It is important to note that there are a few therapeutic herbs that act as strong antioxidants and can improve our ability to reduce excess inflammation while adding depth to the foods we make. The inflammation fighting herbs of particular significance includes parsley, ginger and thyme.
Looking over the foods mentioned above, it’s fairly evident that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables that is supplemented with healthy fats in the forms of fish and nuts is the best way to fight inflammation. Additionally, there are a few foods that we should try to avoid in our fight against inflammation. Foods that contain high levels of saturated, trans fats and those that contain a large amount of polyunsaturated fats that are high in Omega-6 fatty acids (corn, cottonseed, and sunflower seed oil) are pro-inflammatory and can increase the risk of chronic inflammation. Also, processed ‘junk’ foods that are made with excessive amounts of sugar and refined white flour can also heighten the inflammatory response.
Keeping all that we have learned thus far in mind, let’s take a look at what an inflammation busting meal might look like and highlight the specific elements that are high in the nutrients important to the healing process.
Let’s start our meal with a creamy Messaged Kale and Avocado salad topped with halved cherry tomatoes. This raw salad takes extreme advantage of kale’s nutritional bounty and each serving provides 230%, 172% and almost 10% of our daily vitamin A, vitamin C and Omega-3 essential fatty acid quota. This healthful salad is also highlights one of the major healing herbs, parsley, which is rich in another group of antioxidants, flavonoids.
Moving to our main course, let’s dine on some Baked Garlic and Ginger Salmon and colorful bounty of Roasted Vegetables anchored by carotenoid rich sweet potatoes and butternut squash. One serving of this amazing salmon and the not-so-subtle transfusion of root vegetables, winter squash and Brussels sprouts provides 280%, 123%, 183%, 49% and 63% of the daily recommended intake of vitamins A and C, the vitamin B complex, selenium and omega-3 essential fatty acids. You will notice that the salmon is dressed with garlic, an exceptional source of heart healthy selenium, and ginger that inhibits the formation of inflammatory compounds with the added benefit of soothing stomach distress. Also, the deceptively delicious vegetables happen to be tossed and baked in thyme to complement the powerful anti-inflammatory carotenoids of the sweet potato and squash with antioxidant flavonoids that serve the body in a number of ways.
Finally, closing the meal with a modest indulgence of Strawberry and Almond Vanilla Kudza Pudding, we can supply our body with almost 50% of the body’s vitamin E need while adding another 62% to our daily vitamin C count. Supported by the ancient healing tradition of kudzu, or kuzu, this pudding is the perfect way to celebrate the endless bounty that our environment so humbly provides and share the joy of health and wellness with our friends and family.
For a complete nutrient analysis of the meal described above or to simply get the recipes I used, please email me at Matthew@veggiefeed.com
Some more figures that may provide some insight into the nutritional gift that this meal provides include:
- 742 total Calories: 298 (40%) of which come from very healthy fats, 318 kcal (43%) from carbohydrates and 126 kcal (17%) from protein.
- 13 grams of fiber, which is between 30 and 50% of the recommended daily allowance, depending on age and gender.
- 109 % of the recommended daily intake of manganese; 51% of phosphorus, selenium and magnesium; and 47% of calcium.
In order to better understand the more difficult aspects surrounding health and nutrition, human perception and preference, I presented the above meal to family and friends in order to gauge their response and receive their feedback to the foods presented. A few of the comments I found intriguing include:
“An excellent meal. Very far removed from my traditional high-protein, steak and potatoes diet, but every bit as satisfying. Consider my eyes opened to a whole new world of cooking healthfully and eating vegetables.”
“As an ironman triathlete, nutrition is the weakest link in my routine. But, knowing the importance of fighting inflammation and developing a better understanding of how I can use food to accomplish such means is a testament to this meal and having a highly motivated teacher.”
“Honestly, I never thought a food I have spent so much time very enthusiastically boycotting, Brussels sprouts, could be so healthful and delicious. Consider me a convert!”
And my personal favorite:
“Who know that vitamin A and vitamin C could be so tasty!?”
As we have discussed, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is of paramount importance in fighting the potentially disastrous effects of an overly inflamed body and there are a few things we must keep in mind, ‘tips’ if you will, that will help us take better advantage of the foods we eat. First, fresh fruits and vegetables will contain more of the valuable nutrients that we have emphasized than their frozen or canned counterparts. Fresh produce will also contain less sodium and fewer chemical preservatives that the majority of their more shelf stable versions. Along the same vein, when shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, we want to find the most unblemished, evenly and brightly colored pieces available. If any piece of produce is soft, wilted or riddled with dark spots, it is on the verge of spoiling, will contain fewer nutrients and may cause stomach distress when eaten. Finally, varying our cooking method from time to time will help us better capture the benefit of our foods. Steaming, baking, and sautéing our foods while leaving some dishes uncooked can provide the full spectrum of nutrients and tastes so that we can enjoy eating healthfully.
Leaving Here Today
There are a few things to remember when considering inflammation and the impact that it may have on our lives.
- Although inflammation is a natural and often beneficial process, it can become extremely harmful (heart disease, arthritis, cancer) when left unregulated in the presence of illness or certain lifestyle choices may encourage its development (weight, diet, exercise).
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are the absolute best source of the nutrients valuable in healing inflammation (vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and the vitamin B complex). We must also strive to eat our recommended daily allowance of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are most easily obtained from a variety of cold-water fish in addition to selenium rich nuts and seeds in order for us to give ourselves the best chance in overcoming an overly inflamed body.
- An inflammation fighting diet does not have to be boring. There are many healthful foods and cooking methods that will allow us to take full advantage of the healing foods that can best ensure health and longevity. Try steaming or blanching your veggies every once in a while. If you’re feeling especially risky, fire up the grill and enjoy some vegetable kabobs.
- Eating to fight inflammation is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but the more accustomed we become to preparing fresh foods the better we be able aide our body in healing. However, there are a few things we must avoid to the best of our ability, which include: trans and saturated fats; corn, cottonseed and sunflower oil; and ‘junk’ foods high in sugar and white flours.
- We are all unique in our needs and preferences, but learning how to provide the body with the highest quality nutrients is something that each of us must strive to accomplish in all stages of life and in every condition of health.
Food is meant to be enjoyed and learning how to harness its therapeutic nutrients is the best way to fight inflammation and ensure happiness, health and longevity.
I know that was a long one, but hopefully your effort was rewarded with at least one nugget of insight that might help you along in your quest to total health and wellness.