What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, and Why Am I Eating It?

anti-inflammatory dietCopyright Natalie Maynor, Flickr.com

Remember the food cleanse that wasn’t? Turns out, all I need to follow a plant-based diet is a little extra motivation.

Somehow, beyond all reason, in the past year I’ve become a runner. As any runner will tell you, runners are crazy—they’ll do anything and continue to push themselves in order to get that running fix. Threaten to take that away from them, and they resort to desperate measures.

Such as essentially going vegan. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

There’s nothing like running (at least for the first few miles), and then walking, 13.1 miles, feeling utterly defeated and dejected that everything you’ve trained for months for is crumbling to pieces with each step. A “race” (I use the term quite loosely) that ends up taking almost three lonely hours gives you a lot of time for self-negotiation, fielding scenarios of doctor visits and PT, which will get you back to running and will actually allow you to run a half-marathon next time.

When I crossed the finish line, half a dozen steps at a painful lope, I got my medal and basically kept on going straight to PT. But therapy progresses slowly, and I’m not a particularly patient person. After nearly four weeks, I still wasn’t able to run more than 100 yards without feeling like someone was jabbing an ice pick into my left knee.

Taking a break from running gives you extra time to read, and I—subconsciously, perhaps—somehow found myself checking several health and wellness books out of the library. It started with books by Scott Jurek and Andrew Weil and culminated in Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan’s manifestoes.

All pretty much said the same thing: the current American diet is horrible for both our health and the planet. And all came to the same conclusion: cure what ails you (ITBS perhaps?) and save the world by increasing your consumption of plants and reducing your intake of animal products; processed, fatty foods; and refined sugars. In other words, eat vegan whole foods.

Now I  didn’t eat even close to the Standard American Diet (fittingly abbreviated SAD) before, but I did depend on animal products for protein at every meal and most snacks—which left less room on the plate for plant-based foods—and I have a sweet tooth that I’m trying to control but often gets the best of me. Seems like the only place I was winning was that I rarely let processed foods cross the threshold of our home. And so my desperation kicks in, and I try it.

The following week I turned a corner. PT became easier. The pain started to subside. I was able to run farther.

I’m not going to get all evangelical on you; it was no miracle, and it may have even just been coincidental with my PT finally starting to work. I still have dull aches and pains in my leg and knee, but they’re no longer debilitating, and most importantly, I can run.

So what do I eat? Basically, I’ve maximized my consumption of anti-inflammatory foods (plant-based foods chock full of micro- and phytonutrients) and mostly eliminated inflammatory foods (processed food, saturated fat, sugar). I loosely follow Dr. Weil’s food pyramid, which is essentially a pretty strict Mediterranean diet, but for now I’m trying to cut out  animal products (i.e., saturated fat) as much as possible, although I’ll have fish or an egg every so often. I’m not religious about it, I am a foodie, after all, so I’m not going to say no to a really awesome but inflammatory meal every once in a while, but for the most part I’m achieving my goal. I mostly eat greens, other veggies, beans (lentils, chickpeas, black beans), whole grains (oats, rice, quinoa, bulgur, 100% whole grain breads and pastas), and healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds), and I satiate my sweet tooth with lots of fruit. I drink green and herbal teas, and I use soymilk in my oatmeal and coffee. I don’t really like tofu, which is fine because it’s kind of processed anyway, so beans, grains, nuts, and seeds are my main proteins, although I’m trying new things like seitan and tempeh. Sweets are a rare event, except for the teaspoon of blackstrap molasses in my daily coffee and a square of 85% dark chocolate on some days.

I know I whined about it in January when I tried doing the cleanse, but it’s really not so bad. This Mediterranean diet is far less restrictive: it includes dark chocolate! And I’ve always enjoyed meat-free meals, so that wasn’t a huge leap for me, but avoiding dairy and limiting eggs is challenging: I’m hard-core when it comes to yogurt, cheese, and runny eggs. On the bright side, I’ve discovered several new and delicious meals perfect for Meatless Mondays, if that’s your thing—look for those recipes to come in future weeks. In fact, I love how creative it forces me to be, to think of new ways to pair foods or to find substitutes that achieve a similar purpose in a dish, such as adding richness, saltiness, and creaminess with salted nuts in a salad or pasta dish instead of cheese.

Honestly, the only thing that persists from my January “vegan day” experience is that I’m still having trouble reconciling my two worlds. Part of me feels like I’m failing as a foodie because I’m restricting specific foods right now—exactly the thing I chastised myself for doing in January. I avoid calling my diet “mostly vegan,” and more importantly I avoid calling myself “mostly vegan”—there’s such a stigma with that word in the food world, although maybe I’m just hypersensitive. Plus I don’t think we should label ourselves according to our diets. You don’t hear people going around saying “I’m a low-fat” or “I’m a low-carb” or even “I’m a whole foods.” (You do occasionally hear “I’m a carnivore,” I’ll give you that.) I realize that for true vegans it’s more than a way of eating, it’s an entire lifestyle, and for that I fully support and embrace the label. But for dabblers like myself, I struggle with it.

It’s funny: one of my favorite food celebrities, Michael Ruhlman, just recently announced on his blog that he was going vegan, at least until he lost 20 pounds. I literally pounced on the news, thanking him for proudly owning up to the term for the reasons I cited above, although in hindsight I realized he was being a little cheeky although still sincere. Mark Bittman also recently came out with a new book further advocating the “vegan before 6” way of eating he originally proposed in Food Matters. So if these famous foodies (and I’m sure there are others) can do it—and proudly—I have nothing to be worried about.

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2 responses to “What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, and Why Am I Eating It?

  1. I think that’s great you’re doing this. I swear I’m going to try this one day.

    • Good luck to you! Although mentally it can be a little challenging to follow, physically I feel really, really good eating this way. At some point I’ll find the happy medium.

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