What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is our immune system’s normal response to injury or infection. It occurs when the body’s white blood cells and other inflammatory compounds migrate to an area of infection in order to remove damaged cells and/or harmful organisms. This leads to the redness, swelling, warmth, and pain we have all experienced during an illness such as strep throat or after a skin wound. Inflammation is an essential bodily function, but it can also cause damage and contribute to disease when the response is excessive and prolonged, which is the case with what we call “chronic inflammation.”
Which diseases are associated with excess inflammation?
Chronic inflammation can contribute to or worsen disease states including:
- Musculoskeletal pain: arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis
- Cardiovascular disease: strokes and heart attacks
- Neurodegenerative diseases: alzheimer’s and depression
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Is diet associated with inflammation?
Without getting into the nitty gritty biochemistry of it all, YES! There is conclusive evidence that a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, excess salt, and sugars lead to the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals which affects our brains, joints, guts, and cardiovascular systems.
You’ve probably felt the affects of eating those pro-inflammatory foods at times…that feeling when you overindulge in lots of processed, fried, or sugary foods: your body feels sluggish, your joints and muscles ache, you can’t concentrate, your energy lags…you get the picture! I know I’ve been there, and it is the WORST feeling!
How do processed foods, refined carbs, and sugars cause inflammation?
First of all, I consider processed foods = refined carbohydrates = sugar since most processed foods contain either refined carbs or sugars, and refined carbs are broken down quickly in the body to simple sugars. Processed foods also usually contain hidden salt and fats that increase bad cholesterol (see our blog post on cholesterol here).
So what’s bad about sugar? Well, high sugar content in the body increases advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), proteins bound to a glucose molecule, which are damaged proteins. As the body tries to break these damaged proteins apart, immune cells secrete pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines which accumulate all over the body, causing inflammation and worsening of inflammatory conditions.
There is also significant evidence that salt leads to higher levels of disease-causing inflammatory chemicals to be released in the body, and we know that a high salt diet contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis, ulcers, and certain cancers.
What are “processed foods” and which ones should be avoided?
Not all processed foods are created equally. A can of black beans or a bag of frozen spinach are “processed,” but in a way that actually locks in nutrients at the their peak. Items such as crackers, chips, frozen microwave meals, and deli meats are processed with lots of added salt, sugar, or bad fats.
Here’s my advice regarding processed foods:
- Buy “processed foods” that are minimally processed such as frozen vegetables, when fresh ones are not in season.
- When buying pre-made soups, broths, beans, sauces, etc. in canned form, look for a brand that has low sodium and no added sugars or fats (especially trans fats or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils).
- Rinse canned beans and vegetables, as this will reduce the sodium content by almost half. You can always add a pinch of iodized sea salt (good source of iodine and electrolytes) later if needed.
- Sugars show up in many forms so be on the look out for the following: fructose, sucrose, maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice,beet sugar, fruit juice concentrate, and cane sugar.
- When buying yogurt, choose a plain greek variety and add some fresh fruit & nuts (and even a little pure maple syrup or honey). Avoid yogurts with sugar and fruit in them.
- Find good whole grain breads and cereals that do not contain sugar. You can even bake your own chips out of a good whole grain or corn tortilla (see Clean Cuisine’s website for a good recipe).
Does fat matter and why all the fuss about omega-3 vs. omega-6 fats?
The issue is more to do with ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. They are both essential fatty acids meaning our bodies cannot synthesize them, so we must consume them from a food source. They are both polyunsaturated fats (containing double or triple bonds) as opposed to saturated fats (containing single bonds). Polyunsaturated fats are primarily obtained from plant sources and, along with monounsaturated fats, are thought to be healthier than their saturated counterparts obtained from animal products, which are not essential fats.
The Standard American Diet (I like to call it “SAD”) is generally high in omega-6 and low in omega-3 due to the amount of omega-6 fats in processed foods. When Americans did not rely on processed foods, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was close to 1:1. I have read statistics that we now eat diets with up to a 30:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, and the average ratio is 15:1. Omega-6 fats are not ALL bad. The problem is when we consume too much omega-6 fats and not enough omega- 3 fats.
The reason omega-6 fats are more harmful is because they are used to make inflammatory compounds. So, the more omega-6 fats we eat and store in our body, the more constant low-level inflammation we will experience. In contrast, omega-3, particularly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is used to make compounds that resolve inflammation.
What type of foods contain omega-6?
Just about anything processed is likely to contain omega-6 fats or trans fats. Trans fats were invented to prolong shelf life of processed foods and are, by far, the worst fats you can consume! Back to omega-6, here is a list of ingredients to look for when purchasing pre-made foods. Try to avoid or consume these in moderation:
- Vegetable oils
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- All store bought salad dressings which contain the above oils
What types of foods contain omega-3?
There are 2 main sources of omega-3 fats: animal sources and plant sources. I highly recommend eating wild-caught fish because plant sources contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which the body has to convert to DHA and EPA (eicosapentanaenoic acid). Our bodies are not very efficient at this conversion, and there are some sources which say that as little as 0.5% of ALA is actually converted to DHA (the most essential fatty acid). Seaweed is the only plant source that contains DHA, but most of us do not eat a lot of seaweed on a daily basis.
- Pastured or omega-3 enriched eggs
- Wild caught salmon
- Lake trout
- Albacore Tuna
- Fish oil supplements
- Animal foods not fed a corn, soy, or grain-based diet
- Grass-fed meat
- Flax oil/seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
What should we eat to DECREASE inflammation?
Let me start by introducing you to this wonderful and interactive anti-inflammatory food pyramid, brought to you by Dr. Andrew Weil:
Click on any portion of this pyramid and you will find helpful hints on how often to eat a group of foods, which foods to buy, and how to cook them.
Avoid if possible:
- Microwavable foods: popcorn, frozen entrees, boxed mac & cheese
- Pasta sauce with added sugar
- Fruit juices and bottled smoothies
- Ice cream
- White bread
- White pasta
- Anything with sugar listed as a top ingredient
- Any fast food
Eat/Drink these, but in moderation:
- Dark chocolate (when craving sweets, at least 70% variety)
- Red wine
- Nuts and nut butters
- Cheeses from grass fed animals
Eat/Drink LOTS of:
- Herbal Teas
- Green, oolong, & mate caffeinated teas
- Whole grains: brown rice, bulgur wheat, oats, quinoa
- Beans and lentils
- Fish and Seafood (wild-caught): eat at least 2x/week
- Herbs and spices (especially ginger and turmeric)
15 General Eating Tips:
- Drink lots and lots of water all day long! See our blog post on hydration here.
- Eat the rainbow: AKA include lots of different colored fruits and veggies, especially green leafy vegetables. Make lots of salads with homemade dressing.
- Include carbs (mostly veggies), fats (mostly omega-3), and protein (such as beans, lentils, or quinoa) in each meal.
- Make ½ of your plate veggies and whole grains, ¼ of your plate healthy fat, and ¼ of your plate protein.
- Choose organic produce when possible (click here for a list of which to focus on).
- Try to avoid breads and sugary foods as well as processed snack foods that may seem healthy (like pretzels).
- Snack on veggies and fruit ONLY when you’re really hungry between meals.
- If you’re craving something sweet, eat a small square of dark chocolate and take time to savor each little bite.
- When making pasta, cook it “al dente”, and choose brown rice or whole grain varieties.
- When eating grains, eat them in their unprocessed forms (oats, brown rice, bulgur wheat).
- Cook with extra-virgin olive oil and choose a high quality brand (it’s worth the expense).
- Add ginger or turmeric to foods as often as possible (I add turmeric to just about everything and always include ginger root in vegetable stir fry).
- When going out to eat, choose restaurants where you know they serve organic or local ingredients and have lots of vegetables on the menu (Thai or Indian food often contains lots of good veggies and spices in their dishes).
- Sip on a nice glass of red wine (on occasion) or a cup of herbal tea at the end of your meal and savor it instead of reaching for baked goods or ice cream.
- If your local water source is questionable, invest in a good water purification system.
10 Helpful Replacements:
- Instead of processed snack foods choose chopped vegetables & hummus dip
- Instead of noodles choose spiralized veggies (zucchini works well and a veggie spiralizer is not too pricey)
- Instead of bread choose cooked quinoa, bulgur wheat, or brown rice
- Instead of a sandwich choose smoked salmon or tuna salad with a salad of leafy greens
- Instead of a soda or juice choose plain or sparkling water with lemon or lime
- Instead of a latte choose black coffee, or even better, teas: oolong, green, mate
- Instead of store bought salad dressings choose homemade salad dressing (combine olive oil, red wine or cider vinegar, a squeeze of mustard, spices including ginger and turmeric, salt, and pepper, honey or maple syrup)
- Instead of red meat choose beans, lean chicken without skin, or fish
- Instead of store bought cereals choose steel cut oats or whole oats with nuts, fruit, a dash of pure maple syrup, coconut oil, and coconut or almond milk
- Instead of plain white sugar choose coconut sugar (low glycemic index), sucanat, honey, or pure maple syrup
Which supplements should we take?
If you are eating a balanced diet, then you likely don’t need to take a lot of extra vitamins and supplements. The types of supplements each person needs is likely to be variable, so consulting with a physician or naturopathic practitioner who specializes in micronutrients may be helpful.
I generally recommend the following:
- A basic multivitamin a few times per week
- Fish oil with high DHA content to increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol (especially if you don’t eat a lot of fish)
- Vitamin D to improve overall health and energy
- Calcium citrate for women to improve bone health
- Glucosamine/Chondroitin/MSM complex for joint health
- Probiotic for gut health (good bacteria have been associated with preferences for healthy foods)
- Ginger and turmeric in capsule form if not using them in your cooking
- Vitamin C which promotes healing
Other Ways to Decrease Inflammation:
- Please don’t smoke cigarettes!
- Get 7.5-9 hours of sleep: melatonin and/or a magnesium supplement like Calm before bed can help
- Reduce stress: I like breathing exercises, meditation, and walks outside
- Do some form of exercise 5 days/week or more
I seriously love this stuff, so please email me with any questions and I’ll do my best to give you well-informed and reliable information!