Originally published November 1, 2011
I am happy to answer this question. My “one-line” advice is simple: avoid refined, processed and manufactured foods. I believe that consumption of these foods, which provide the wrong kinds of fat and carbohydrates, underlies the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and presents a major threat to physical and emotional health.
We all know that fast food, junk food and the highly processed stuff that fills the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores are not good for us. Because of widespread reliance on these processed and manufactured foods, we’re not getting the vitamins, minerals and protective phytonutrients that we need for optimal health. Today’s mainstream diet is glaringly deficient in the pigments that color vegetables and fruits; the antioxidants in olive oil, tea and chocolate; the novel compounds in ginger, turmeric and other spices and herbs; and the special fats in oily fish, all of which protect our tissues and organs from inappropriate, unhealthy inflammation.
When inflammation occurs on the surface of the body, you can see it and feel it as local redness, heat, swelling and pain. It is the cornerstone of the body’s healing response, the process by which the immune system delivers more nourishment and more defensive activity to an area that is injured or under attack. However, chronic, low-level internal inflammation is now seen as the root cause of most of the common and serious diseases of aging, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s (and other degenerative diseases of the central nervous system), and cancer.
Inflammation may also be associated with depression, due to the effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines, potent regulatory proteins made by immune system cells. The hypothesis linking inflammation to depression holds that pro-inflammatory cytokines control the behavioral, hormonal, and neurochemical alterations that are characteristic of the disorder. I cover this issue in detail in my book Spontaneous Happiness, which will be released November 8, 2011.
Processed and manufactured foods are overloaded with fats that promote inflammation. These include polyunsaturated vegetable oils, especially refined soybean oil, margarine and other partially hydrogenated and trans-fats, as well as fats in the meat of cows and chickens raised on unnatural grain-rich diets. These foods also give us carbohydrate mostly in the form of quick-digesting flour and sugar that raise blood sugar quickly and stimulate insulin resistance in those of us who are genetically at risk for it.
To counteract and prevent inflammation in the body I have designed an anti-inflammatory diet, using the Mediterranean diet as a template. It is the way I eat, and the way I recommend eating for optimum health. I assure you that it is not hard to eat this way and that doing so does not diminish the pleasure of eating.
Andrew Weil, M.D.