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Dear Doctor: Can the food we eat affect chronic inflammation in the body?

Dear Reader: In our previous column, we addressed the first half of a two-part question about inflammation -- what it is, and how it can be affected by diet. In answering the first half of the question, we discussed the two main types of inflammation and how they take place.

To (briefly) recap: Inflammation is the body's immune response to a perceived threat. Acute inflammation, a short-lived reaction to injury, trauma or infection, causes swelling, redness, and a sensation of heat and pain. Chronic inflammation, a low-level reaction, takes place below the threshold of pain. As a result, it tends to fly under the radar. But unlike acute inflammation, which abates when the threat has been neutralized, chronic inflammation continues. It has been linked to heart disease, cancer, arthritis, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer's disease.

Does what we eat have an effect on chronic inflammation? Research shows that yes, components of certain foods can activate the inflammatory response, and others inhibit it.

Unfortunately, many staples of the modern diet encourage inflammation. Refined carbohydrates and processed foods such as chips, sodas, sugary breakfast cereals, luncheon meats, fried foods, red meat, candy bars, breakfast pastries, and that addictive blended mocha with a swirl of whipped cream all have an inflammatory effect.

Foods that combat inflammation are high in natural antioxidants and contain polyphenols, which are beneficial compounds found in plants. These include:

-- Dark leafy greens such as spinach, collard greens and kale

-- Vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli

-- Beans, which are high in fiber and antioxidants

-- Whole grains, which are high in fiber and help with inflammation

-- Protein sources that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna

You don't have to completely cut out beef. But use it sparingly, more as a side dish rather than as the main event. Lose the sunflower, canola and corn oils and choose olive oil instead. Satisfy your sweet tooth with strawberries, cherries, raspberries, apples or blueberries. When you need a snack, swap out that bag of potato chips for a handful of almonds or walnuts.

While it's never too late to change your diet for the better, research here at UCLA suggests that it can't be done too soon. According to the findings of a recent study, women who ate a diet high in inflammatory foods during their adolescent years had a statistically greater risk of developing pre-menopausal breast cancer as adults. The thinking is that chronic inflammation associated with diet contributed to the increase in breast cancer risk.

The research into inflammation and diet has good news, too. Participants in a clinical trial at Ohio State University who ate an anti-inflammatory diet high in fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains did better on bone density tests than did their chips- and sugar-eating counterparts.

How to move forward? There's no shortage of books and cookbooks devoted to anti-inflammatory eating. Grab your library card and hit the stacks -- the results will be both healthful and delicious.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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