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Small changes to what we eat can have big effects on our physical and mental health.

By Tess Bredesen, Cognitive Nutrition Director at Thrive Global, Cognitive Health Nutritionist, National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach

You probably know chronic inflammation is bad for the body. But you might not know it’s linked to mental health issues as well, including anxiety and depression. It’s also recognized as the underlying basis of a number of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. So when we reduce inflammation, we set ourselves up for better mental health over time. And what we eat is a key factor.

For example, people consuming foods high in omega-6 fatty acids — like cheese, red meat, corn oil, or palm oil — may have a significantly higher risk of depression compared to those who consume foods high in omega-3s, like fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseed. 

One thing we can do is cut back, even a little, on foods that increase inflammation. Sugar, trans fats, and refined carbohydrates are a few additional examples of the types of foods that can activate an inflammatory response. So if you enjoy candy, fried foods, processed meats like bacon or sausage, or white pasta and bread now and then, that’s OK, but know that these foods do increase inflammation, and try to limit them.

Here are some Microsteps to try:

Find a go-to anti-inflammatory snack that you love and make sure you regularly have it stocked. Examples include a mix of nuts and seeds; veggies like carrot sticks, bell pepper, or cucumber with a dipping sauce like hummus or nut butter; or unsweetened yogurt with berries. 

Start your meal with veggies. Studies show that eating your vegetables first leads to consuming more fiber and fewer overall calories during your meal. Try a salad or veggie-heavy soup, or incorporate foods like spinach, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, lentils, pears, apples, chickpeas, and chia seeds into your meal, all of which can help calm the brain and body’s inflammatory response. 

Eat larger meals earlier in the day, and lighter meals later in the day. Synchronizing meal times with your circadian rhythm (meaning eating the majority of your energy requirements when the sun is up) not only helps reduce inflammation, it can also help you get better quality sleep.

It’s Not Just What We Eat, It’s How We Eat

Lowering inflammation isn’t just about the what, it’s also about the how: How you cook these foods matters more than you may think. When cooking, use the motto “Low, Slow, and Moist.” Keeping temperatures low and cooking foods slowly helps preserve their nutrients, while preventing the production of harmful compounds that increase inflammation when foods are cooked at high temperatures. Moist cooking methods like simmering, steaming, and boiling are also more protective and less damaging than dry-heat methods like roasting, grilling, or broiling.

When prepping your next meal, use a moist cooking method. Simmering, poaching, stewing, boiling, braising, pot roasting, steaming, pressure cooking, and slow cooking are all good options. To add some moisture, you can use a broth, avocado oil, ghee, or just plain water. 

Eat your vegetables and fruits whole, not juiced. While juicing retains many of the vitamins and minerals, it also removes all the fiber —- a critical component of what makes these foods anti-inflammatory. Whole foods will also keep you fuller for longer.

Add an herb or spice to each meal. Seasoning your food doesn’t just add flavor, it can help reduce inflammation and improve your mental health.

Pairing Foods To Reduce Inflammation

Here’s another fascinating thing about inflammation: it’s not just single foods, but pairings, that can trigger inflammation. 

For example, if you combine bad fats with simple carbohydrates, without adding a fiber source — like a hamburger, a pork bun, pasta with cheese, or rice with butter or beef — the lack of fiber leads to an increased absorption of these carbohydrates, which triggers inflammation and raises insulin levels.

The good news is, you can avoid this effect by making small changes. If you’re enjoying these foods, just add some spinach or steamed broccoli to your plate! Fiber is a powerful way to reduce blood sugar – the carbohydrate absorption is curtailed, not to mention you’re supporting your gut health. 

Here’s another quick and easy Microstep:

Place a jar or a small bowl of seeds on your dining room table, just like you would a salt or pepper shaker. During mealtimes, you’ll have easy access to these seeds to sprinkle on your meal, increasing both your fiber and good fats, and adding a tasty crunch.

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