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Book Reviews: Controlling Inflammation Through Diet

Posted by bmagnus On March - 17 - 2010

Most people know that inflammation is what makes arthritis and headaches hurt. That’s why many people use NSAIDS — Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs — like Ibuprophen to treat pain. Many people also know that conditions like Heart Disease also have an inflammatory component. That’s one of several reasons why aspirin therapy is recommended for many people at risk of a heart attack. We have talked several times about inflammation, but can you control it without popping pills daily?

Today we review not one, but 3 books that say yes, you can control inflammation primarily through diet. Moreover, these books claim that through their diet you can prevent and/or reverse such diverse conditions as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, allergies, asthma, cancer, ADD, depression, and even wrinkles. Wow, big claims.

The Perricone Weight Loss Diet claims to be “A simple 3-part plan to lose the fat, the wrinkles, and the years.”  While Dr. Perricone set out to control inflammation, he found that many of his patients were losing weight when they followed his program. He begins by giving you the basic science behind inflammation, the problems it causes, and how obesity itself contributes to inflammation. He very quickly progresses to the importance of Omega-3 fatty acids before presenting us “step one,” his top 10 food “SuperGroups” for weight loss. Not surprisingly, he thinks we should eat more cold-water fish, fruits, monounsaturated fats, spices (not for flavor, but for their phytonutrients), seeds and nuts, beans, pro-biotic dairy products like low-fat yogurt, whole grains, and non-starchy vegetables. Note the lack of processed grains and most dairy products. “Step 2” is a potent cocktail of 12 nutritional supplements, headed up by Omega 3 fish oil and notably not including any of the standard vitamins and minerals you would likely find in a multi-vitamin. “Step 3” discusses an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, which includes exercise, stress reduction, and tea. The plan itself includes a 14 day menu with 33 new recipes. This poses a problem for most dieters: where will most people find the time to prepare over 30 new recipes, many of which include unfamiliar ingredients?

The next book is The Inflammation Syndrome by Jack Challem, which boldly proclaims itself “the complete nutritional program to prevent and reverse heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, allergies, asthma” on the cover. Mr. Challem presents you several quizzes through the book to see just how bad your personal inflammation problem is and how your diet contributes to the problem. While many of his recommendations are similar to Dr. Perricone’s — including plenty of salmon — Mr. Challem stresses the “paleolithic aspects”: don’t eat it if a caveman wouldn’t recognize it as food. This results in a relatively low glycemic index diet. His supplement recommendations not only include Omega-3 fatty acids, but several traditional vitamins such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and B-Complex Vitamins. There is space devoted to avoiding foods to which the dieter may be sensitive, specifically gluten, nightshades such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, or cow’s milk products. He does specifically recommend organic foods over conventionally grown foods. A total of 26 recipes are included, which for the most part include familiar ingredients, with a few exotic items that a large grocery store is likely to stock. This book is littered with anecdotes about people whose chronic medical conditions improved with this plan, but the medical details given lead me to wonder if they aren’t altogether made up. The final chapter presents recommendations for conditions ranging from “age-related wear and tear” to “infections” to “skin disorders”.

Finally, we have The Anti Inflammation Zone by Dr. Barry Sears. While the cover only claims to be “reversing the epidemic that’s destroying our health” — a downright modest claim by comparison — inside he does discuss the role of inflammation in obesity, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune disorders, and a variety of mental disorders. Dr. Sears does a good job of presenting the science behind “why inflammation is bad for us” and actually encourages readers to get lab tests to determine levels of inflammatory markers. Building on his “Zone” franchise, meals are built on “Zone Points” and “Zone Carbohydrate Blocks.” This is of course familiar to people who have been on one of Dr. Sears’s diets before, but a little bewildering to the novice. In short, this is a low glycemic load diet . He recommends lean sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, and egg whites. Like the others, he recommends fish oil supplements. There is an exercise component, with a twist: the exercise is designed to be one while watching your favorite TV shows: do aerobic work like marching in place or stair stepping during the show, and weight training (using canned food) or flexibility training on alternate days. It’s a good start for the couch potato. Dr. Sears includes two 7 day menus, one for men and one for women. While the recipes are not difficult, it poses a problem for various family members to be on different menus.

The common themes in these books are simple:

  1. Eat plenty of fish, particularly cold water fish like salmon
  2. Since you can’t possibly eat enough fish, take 1-5g of fish oil or Omega-3 supplement daily, depending on your condition and which plan you follow
  3. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
  4. Limit your intake of starches and grains
  5. Don’t eat processed sugars
  6. Do eat olive oil and nuts
  7. Tea is good for you
  8. Exercise is good for you

One point that both Dr. Perricone and Dr. Sears make is that in their opinion, more than about 45 minutes of exercise daily is bad because it increases cortisol levels. While it is true that the novice health enthusiast should not exceed this level, many people enjoy great health working out an hour or more daily.

There’s no revolutionary knowledge in any of these three books, and frankly no real new spins on old thinking. There’s little to be found in these books that we haven’t seen offered up as well if not better in older works. If you’re really looking to understand the science of inflammation and the impact diet can have on it, get the Perricone book as it is by far the best of the three.

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