Israelis Love to Count Calories but What Foods Will Make You Healthier?

Counting calories? That's not necessarily the best way to measure what's good for you. Instead, opt for anti-inflammatory dishes that reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as vascular disease, dementia and cancer.

Do you enjoy snacking on a croissant for breakfast? Do you buy your kids hot dogs to keep them quiet?

Stop for a moment and consider the inflammation you may be causing. Many of us count calories, regulate our sugar and fat intake and pay attention to our carb and protein consumption. But we do tend to forget is that sometimes, quality is better than quantity.

There's a close connection between food and inflammation, and nutrients can either encourage inflammation or help prevent it. Food labels don’t provide any information about this, however, and awareness among doctors and the general public regarding food-induced inflammation is lacking.

"Inflammation is the immune system's way of protecting the body from infection and is manifested by fever, redness, swelling, pain and dysfunction of the inflamed organ. But it can also be sub-clinical," says Dr. Michael Weinfass, a family medicine specialist for the Maccabi health maintenance organization who is well-versed in the topic of anti-inflammatory nutrition.

"Sub-clinical inflammation," Dr. Weinfass explains, "is a silent inflammation whereby all the usual processes of inflammation occur in a much less dramatic and chronic manner than normal inflammation. It underlies the majority of severe diseases, like heart disease, vascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, rheumatic diseases and more. It is mainly due to poor diet, obesity, smoking and stress."

"We now understand that heart diseases aren’t just caused by arterial blockages but an inflammatory process, which can explain heart attacks among those who have normal cholesterol levels, for instance. The inflammation causes the secretion of free radicals and they lead to the oxidation of LDL cholesterol [otherwise known as the "bad type" of cholesterol]. This process increases the risk of atherosclerosis or other vascular diseases."

Studies have shown that "dietary factors can alleviate sub-clinical inflammation or worsen it," Weinfass notes. "The main factors that affect inflammation are obesity – especially among men and women who have excess abdominal fat. One of the possible reasons for this is that the fat cells in that area excrete excess cytokines, which are inflammatory agents in themselves, and cause CRP [a protein found in the blood, with levels that rise in response to inflammation] to be secreted from the liver."

So what's good – and bad – to eat? According to Weinfass, the dietary components that increase inflammation are saturated fat, sugars, and carbs with a high glycemic index that cause higher inflammation levels – such as those found in flour, white rice and potatoes. Preservatives, food coloring, flavor enhancers and artificial sweeteners also increase inflammation.

Foods that reduce inflammation are carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (such as whole-wheat products, barley and legumes); monounsaturated fat (found in olive oil and avocados); polyunsaturated fats (such as in corn); foods rich in phytochemicals – compounds that occur naturally in plants, such as vegetables, which may protect against diseases; and also vitamins and minerals that have antioxidants and essential fatty acids (such as omegas 3 and 6).

An anti-inflammatory menu that reduces the risk of chronic diseases is based around fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains and legumes. Below are the top-10 anti-inflammatory foods according to Weinfass:

1. Blueberries are packed full of antioxidants, and contain many phytochemicals that protect against vascular disease, dementia and cancer.

2. Sweet potatoes contain complex carbohydrates, beta-carotene, manganese, B6, Vitamin C and fiber.

3. Cold-pressed olive oil contains Vitamin E and polyphenols – compounds that are manufactured in plants and which possess anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. They help protect against atherosclerosis and vascular inflammation.

4. Garlic has a variety of sulfur-containing compounds that can fight the causes of various inflammations.

5. Lentils are rich in vitamins A, C and E, which are known to fight inflammation.

6. Cold-pressed coconut oil contains a fatty acid that has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It also contains lauric acid, which is present in breast milk. Its main purpose is to protect against infection and strengthen babies' immune systems.

7. Ginger has an active component called gingerol which is effective against cancer. Fresh ginger also contains proteases, an enzyme that helps digest proteins. It also stimulates blood flow.

8. Avocado contains carotenoids – organic pigments found in plants that act as antioxidants. It also contains phytosterols – materials found in plant cells that reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the body – and essential fatty acids.

9. Papaya is rich in papain, an enzyme that helps digest proteins. It also contains vitamins C and E.

10. Turmeric's active component, curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It is as strong as anti-inflammatory drugs such as hydrocortisone and Motrin, and doesn't have any side effects. 

Daniel Lila