Fresh cherry tomatoes.
Beat chronic inflammation—and all of its side effects—with a vegan diet. And if that won’t work, there are other options. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

As it relates to biological processes within the human body, inflammation is often considered a necessary process.

When the body recognizes a threat from something foreign—an invading bacteria or virus—it activates the immune system to protect itself. Much benefit is derived from the inflammatory process, but only when it truly alerts the body to fight the foreign invaders.

Chronic inflammation is another story altogether. It often presents itself in well-known inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disorders and ulcerative colitis, among various other illnesses.

But chronic inflammation has even a darker side, according to Thomas Boyden, MD, medical director of preventive cardiology with Spectrum Health.

Chronic inflammation can cause coronary artery disease and contribute to the process that causes heart attack and stroke, Dr. Boyden said.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to help reduce the harmful effects of chronic inflammation: Eat a healthier diet.

In a society where the penchant for meats and over-processed foods runs high, it is admittedly no easy feat for most people to follow a proper diet.

But the most ideal way to reduce chronic inflammation is, in fact, to follow a plant-based diet, Dr. Boyden said. Basically, you would eat nothing that was once alive and moving, such as red meat, poultry, pork or fish. Stay away from animal products such as dairy.

Those who can accomplish this vegan regimen could reduce their risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, Dr. Boyden said.

Realistically, this type of diet doesn’t work for most people, so he highly recommends the Mediterranean diet as the best alternative.

“You can eat fish, poultry and dairy, but it is basically a plant-based diet that allows you to eat small portions of animal-based foods,” he said.

A workable diet

The Mediterranean diet is an entirely accessible, achievable solution for eating.

Spectrum Health offers a 10-week program, Eating the Mediterranean Way, presented by Irene Franowicz, RD, CDE, outpatient dietitian and certified diabetes educator.

“I always find it interesting to hear the different reasons that people want to join the program,” Franowicz said. “We’ve had a lot of success with weight loss, lowering blood sugars and cholesterol. Besides these factors, I also have people join because they may have Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer in their families, and they want to reduce their risks.

“I think people have great success with long-term weight loss because the diet is sustainable, delicious and satisfying,” she said.

Another reason people often find success with the Mediterranean diet: It emphasizes good fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and omega-3 fatty acids. These types of fats are not only delicious and satisfying, they also keep people from feeling deprived of food.

Better still, these fats help fight inflammation.

To reduce inflammation, it’s generally smart to avoid animal products as often as possible, Dr. Boyden said. Avoid saturated fats, too, which are often found in those products.

And more specifically: Stay away from foods that are fried, sugary or processed.

You should avoid artificial sweeteners, too. They’re made from chemicals—and why would you want to put a synthetic chemical in your body?

“They are not healthy,” Dr. Boyden said, explaining how artificial sweeteners can actually stimulate the brain to tell you you’re hungry. They can also make you gain weight.

“Truthfully, if you change your diet, you really do change your life,” Dr. Boyden said.

Dr. Boyden and Franowicz listed some of the obvious foods that exacerbate inflammation, as well as those that help fight it.

Foods that cause inflammation:

  • Butter and margarine
  • Fast food and fried foods
  • Red meat (burgers, steak) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage)
  • Refined carbohydrates such as white breads, sweets and pastries
  • Sodas and sweetened beverages

Foods that fight inflammation:

  • Olive oil, nuts and avocados
  • Fatty fish like salmon twice a week
  • Tomatoes and greens like kale, spinach, swiss chard
  • Blueberries, strawberries, cherries, oranges
  • Whole grains (farro, quinoa, wheatberries)
  • Small amounts of dark chocolate