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Inflammation may play a role in premature aging, periodontal disease, obesity, skin aging, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, among many other chronic health concerns.

Antioxidant-rich diets appear to protect against stroke by preventing the circulation of oxidized fats in the bloodstream that may damage the sensitive walls of small blood vessels in the brain. They can also help decrease artery stiffness, prevent blood clots from forming, and lower blood pressure and inflammation. Whereas all whole plant foods may have anti-inflammatory effects, some plants are better than others. High-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, such as berries and greens, have been found to douse systemic inflammation significantly better than the same number of servings of more common low-antioxidant fruits and veggies, such as bananas and lettuce.

Research dating back half a century suggests tart cherries are so anti-inflammatory that they can be used to successfully treat a painful type of arthritis called gout. Cherries can reduce the level of inflammation among healthy people too (as measured by a drop in C-reactive protein levels). A note of caution: For the same reason that high doses of anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin should be avoided during the third trimester of pregnancy, cocoa, berries, and other foods high in anti-inflammatory polyphenols should only be eaten in moderation in late pregnancy.

Studies have shown that consuming more fruits and vegetables may not only halt progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but appears to improve lung function, and risks of suffering from allergic asthma may be halved by eating two or more servings of vegetables a day.

What about our mental health? Components in certain foods may increase the risk of depression, such as arachidonic acid, that is blamed for potentially impairing mood by inflaming the brain. The top-five sources of this inflammation-promoting compound in the American diet are chicken, eggs, beef, pork, and fish, although chicken and eggs alone contribute more than the other top sources combined. There are data suggesting that people with higher levels of arachidonic acid in their blood may end up at significantly higher risk of suicide and episodes of major depression. Overall, those eating the Standard American Diet may consume about nine times more arachidonic acid than those eating plant-based diets.

Image Credit: Vonschonertagen / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

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