Though diets like Atkins and South Beach are the current rage, an emerging eating philosophy may do more than temporarily take off pounds: It could help treat disease.
Described as an "anti-inflammatory diet" by proponents such as holistic health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, the food plan addresses inflammation, a burgeoning area of medical research.
Although inflammation has long been implicated in arthritis, scientists increasingly are linking excessive inflammation to mental health problems as well as heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.
Anti-inflammatory medications have shown to be effective in lowering the risk of Alzheimer's, but critics say they don't address the problem - just the symptoms - and can have unpleasant side effects, including headaches and nausea. As a supplemental approach, some doctors recommend following the ancient Hippocratic idea that suggests using food as medicine.
At the first Nutrition and Health: State of the Science and Clinical Applications conference, held here recently, Weil told a group of more than 300 physicians, nurses, registered dietitians and chiropractors that the anti-inflammatory diet was a key part of a rising field called "nutritional medicine."
"The idea on the medical horizon is that chronic inflammation is a root cause of degenerative diseases that now seem unrelated," said Weil, founder and director of the University of Arizona's Program in Integrative Medicine, who hoped the conference would spark a movement to improve nutritional education in medical schools. "Keep your eye on the hypothesis and how it touches parts of medicine."
Inflammation, better known as redness, heat, swelling and pain that come with a jammed finger or an overused knee, for instance, is actually the cornerstone of the healing process. We need it to survive.
But when the inflammation process doesn't shut down and becomes chronic, it injures tissues. The body works to heal and repair itself but with prolonged inflammation is subjected to a vicious cycle.
One theory is that the pathetic American diet - high in processed and fast foods - promotes abnormal inflammation.
Until recently, people ate a balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory nutrients, according to Jack Challem, author of "The Inflammation Syndrome."
"Today, because of extensive food processing, our diet has become seriously unbalanced," he wrote. "The typical Western diet now contains at least thirty times more of pro-inflammatory nutrients than just a century ago."
Fatty acids might be one reason. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical in preventing inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids promote it.
"We need both in the diet, but the ratio is changing," Weil said. One possibility is that grass-fed animals store omega-3 in their fat. But today's meat is finished on grain, a source of omega-6 fatty acids.
The science, however, is still evolving. In a 2003 study published in the journal Circulation, Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that omega-6 fatty acids did not inhibit the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids and that people with high amounts of both omega-3 and omega-6 had the lowest levels of chronic inflammation.
The diet itself stresses eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, including wild salmon - not farm-raised - sardines, herring and walnuts.
Omega-3s can also be obtained through hempseed, flax seed and flax oil. Ginger and turmeric can be powerful anti-inflammatory agents, but the effects take time to kick in.
Pro-inflammatory foods to avoid include red meats, commercial baked goods with trans fats, saturated fats, fried foods, carbonated drinks, margarine and many microwavable foods.
Other major aspects of the diet, according to Challem, include eating a variety of fresh and whole foods, including fresh vegetables; eating more fish, especially cold-water varieties; eating lean meats (not corn-fed); and cooking with olive oil.