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Inflammation and Superfoods

This month, PCF is running a healthy eating challenge. A lot of the foods on our list are plant-based. They are on the list because they help reduce inflammation in the body. But what does that mean? Why is it so important? Researchers are now discovering that chronic inflammation can fan the flames of cancer’s growth.

First, it’s important to distinguish chronic inflammation from your body’s natural immune response to a “threat” such as a cold or a sprained ankle. The inflammatory response normally helps route cells to where they need to be in the body to begin healing and restorative processes.

The problem arises when inflammation occurs in response to stimuli in our everyday lives, all the time – such as chemical exposure or poor diet. That’s called chronic (long-term) inflammation, and research shows that it can put you at risk for many chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

Chronic inflammation is complex and occurs in several ways. As just one example, it results in an excess of what are called “free radicals” – molecules that can damage cells and DNA. When cells with DNA errors try to replicate, the errors are passed along to the new cells. That process is what forms the foundation of cancer growth.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to manage inflammation, including exercising regularly and eating well. Obesity (often worsened by eating processed, sugary foods) and a diet high in saturated fat (e.g., red meat) are associated with chronic inflammation. On the other hand, many of the foods we’re recommending in the 30 Foods in 30 Days challenge are anti-inflammatory. You might even call them “superfoods” – not only do they not cause inflammation, they actually flush it away.

Have you ever heard the term “superfood?” It’s not a scientific term, but it is often thrown about. According to the standards set out in our guide, The Science of Living Well, Beyond Cancer, superfoods for fighting cancer should be 1) brightly colored (which comes from being high in phytochemicals like carotenoids and anthocyanins), 2) unprocessed and high in fiber (to support “good” immune-boosting gut bacteria), and 3) rich in vitamins (like A, C, and E, which act as antioxidants).

Let’s take tomatoes as an example. Their bright red color comes from lycopene, part of the class of carotenoid antioxidants that can protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Lycopene in foods accumulates in the prostate, which may help to explain why tomatoes have been linked to a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer. Tomatoes are also high in vitamins A and C and are a moderately good source of fiber.

The 30 Foods in 30 Days. Challenge aims to introduce you a wide variety of foods – some new and some familiar – that you can easily access and incorporate into your existing favorite dishes or new ones, in order to reduce inflammation and help prevent cancer and chronic disease. As with many things in life, the door to good health can often be unlocked with a healthy dose of moderation: your meals don’t need to contain all brightly-colored foods (yet!), but every meal can benefit from the addition of some brightly-colored fruits and vegetables to the plate.