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Being diagnosed with osteoarthritis can be devastating. At the time of my own diagnosis, I could barely walk, and pain kept me from sleeping for weeks. Now, four years later, I have 80 to 85 percent less pain and a significantly improved mood, without taking any prescription pain medication, thanks to an active lifestyle and a diet filled with freshly grown vegetables. In moving toward wellness, I’ve taken a largely natural route to reduce my severe inflammation. I walk an hour every day, exercise in the sun whenever possible, and consume a largely anti-inflammatory diet prescribed by a nutritionist.
Find Your Food Plan
According to Wendy Marcason of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Knowledge Center Team, “[Inflammation] is the natural way the body’s immune system responds to attack, infection, or injury. … The links between diet, inflammatory processes, and diseases are the topics of intense current research.”
Scientific studies on inflammatory foods are confusing because they vary and sometimes conflict. For instance, some say you should avoid nightshade-based vegetables, other diets say only avoid wheat, while still others claim you must completely give up carbs. Definitively, anti-inflammatory foods are foods that don’t contribute to an inflammatory response in your body. Each person has different reactions to foods. Therefore, building an anti-inflammatory food plan should be an individualized experience.
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When I eat a heavy dessert loaded with dairy and wheat, for instance, my reaction is bloating and discomfort in my gut, as well as swelling and pain in my arthritic joints. It’s not severe on its own, but combined with the daily toll on my body from all other foods and activities, there’s a substantial pain reaction. My reactions have taught me that it’s not just one thing that causes inflammation, such as overworking a joint, but a series of regular pain responses from my system related to particular foods I’ve consumed in combination with my activity. Once I realized this, I asked a nutrition expert to help me focus on my individual needs. Finding an expert to help you better understand your own body and what reactions you have to certain foods is more likely to help you achieve inflammation reduction and pain relief than fad diets or researching online.
Generally speaking, an anti-inflammatory diet starts with consuming more leafy green vegetables, healthy proteins and fats, and low-sugar vegetables and fruits, while simultaneously reducing dairy and sugar consumption. My own food plan is roughly based on these principles. I consume no dairy, soy, or grains, because every time I do, I react heavily with gut bloating and joint pain. (If you consume grains with no reaction, keep whole grains in your diet.) I eat large quantities of vegetables every day. For protein, I eat eggs, chicken, fish, and pork, but I avoid red meat. I also avoid saturated and trans fats, but have increased my intake of good fats from seeds, avocados, olive oil and other non-saturated oils, oily fish, nut butters, and nuts. I continue to consume nightshades, such as tomatoes and peppers, because my system doesn’t react to them.
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My food plan is complemented with daily walks and a lot of time spent out in a garden cultivating the vegetables I consume. Growing vegetables as a part of your health plan makes a lot of sense, not only to keep you active, but because vegetables are one of the key foods that contribute to an anti-inflammatory food plan.
Grow Anti-Inflammatory Heirlooms
Gardens are fantastic places to tap into your own health. One thing most doctors agree on is that there’s no single fruit, herb, seed, or vegetable that can provide all the nutrients for you to be healthy and well. They recommend a diet filled with a variety of plant-based foods to help prevent cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Reducing inflammation starts with eating green leafy vegetables, as well as vegetables with low sugar and carbohydrate content, as they have fewer inflammation-causing components.
When I first began telling people about growing herbs and vegetables that have anti-inflammatory properties, their opinion was that the gardens would be unattractive, because nutritional vegetables are utilitarian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gardens can be utterly astonishing when filled with ornamental edible plants, especially heirloom cultivars. Kale and cabbage have amazing blue shades in their leaves, for instance, while beets and Swiss chard can be filled with an intense burgundy color. Best yet, these plants are particularly good for inflammatory conditions. Growing with both health and beauty in mind makes the gardening experience even more powerful; your heart, mind, and body are filled to the brim with health in a garden that inspires wellness.
See “A Few Healthful Heirlooms” below for a list of some of my favorite colorful herbs and vegetables. Each of these annuals are also anti-inflammatory and filled with strong nutritional content.
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Heirloom vegetables are annual plants, experiencing their entire life cycles in one season. Ornamental edibles are typically heavy feeders and have heavy watering requirements in order to successfully develop, so plant in well-drained soil amended with compost to help retain moisture. Add organic fertilizer after planting and when the plants appear to need it throughout the season, to help increase vegetable production.
My favorite vegetable is ‘Nero di Toscana’ kale, an heirloom that’s also known as “dinosaur kale.” It’s an architectural gem in container gardens, and a foundational plant in a mixed bed, making it a surprisingly versatile ornamental edible wherever it’s planted. Dinosaur kale stands up well to dry conditions and performs like a champion in cold conditions; often a couple of frosts leave the plant tasting sweeter. Beyond making a gorgeous statement in your garden, kale is also a nutritional powerhouse that contains calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, and K, minerals, and antioxidants. Every type of kale is categorized as a “leafy green” and is an anti-inflammatory delight.
‘Nero di Toscana’ kale
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To reduce bitterness, harvest young leaves for salads. Use the larger, mature outer leaves for cooked greens. While kale is known as a cool-season vegetable for early season (March or April) or late season (July or August) planting, it also does quite well all season long as an ornamental plant. If you harvest one-third of the plant at a time, you can keep this heirloom continuously producing. Even after you’re done consuming the gorgeous leaves for the season, they’ll live on as ornamentals until early winter.
This journey you’re embarking on to reduce inflammation is a step toward permanent positive changes in your life. For me, the changes did more than improve pain levels; they also improved my allergic reactions, mood, and blood pressure. Adjusting your lifestyle to be anti-inflammatory-oriented is a daily challenge. Falling back into old habits can often mean regressing into more pain and discomfort. While relearning food and exercise habits can seem daunting at first, once you rebuild a plan to address your specific chronic inflammatory pain concerns, you have the wonderful opportunity to live with less chronic pain every day.
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A Few Healthful Heirlooms
- ‘Wild Rocket’ arugula
- ‘MacGregor’s Favorite’ beet
- ‘Aubervilliers’ cabbage
- ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage
- ‘Georgia Southern’ collards
- ‘Italiko Rosso’ dandelion
- ‘De Louviers’ endive
- ‘Dwarf Blue Curled’ kale
- ‘Nero di Toscana’ kale
- ‘Ragged Jack’ kale
- ‘Early Purple Vienna’ kohlrabi
- ‘Merveille des Quatre Saisons’ lettuce
- ‘Forellenschluss’ lettuce
- Mexican mint marigold
- ‘Southern Giant Curled’ mustard greens
- ‘Wild Za’atar’ oregano
- ‘Castelfranco’ radicchio
- ‘Monstrueux De Viroflay’ spinach
- ‘Fordhook Giant’ Swiss chard
Shawna Coronado focuses on wellness by teaching green living, organic gardening, and anti-inflammatory cuisine through her books, including The Wellness Garden and 101 Organic Gardening Hacks. You can learn more about Shawna at Shawna Coronado.