Look up anything health and wellness-related these days and you can be sure the subject inflammation will be at the top of the list.
But what exactly is inflammation? And when should we be concerned?
Can chronic inflammation in our bodies be affected by our eating habits?
Acute inflammation is a good thing
Most people are familiar with acute inflammation, which is a normal, fairly quick response by your body to defend you against foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria. During injury or infection, inflammation in your body works by sending immune cells to the damaged or infected area to protect and “clean up” any foreign substances and promote tissue repair and recovery.
Remember the last time you cut your hand while chopping veggies for dinner? Ouch!
The acute inflammatory response most likely showed up in symptoms like pain, heat, redness, or swelling at and around the cut site on your hand. But that’s a good thing! It just means your immune system is working. And once the infection or injury is cleared, the inflammation goes away. All better.
Chronic inflammation is not so good
As opposed to acute inflammation, which is short-lived and typically beneficial to healing from an injury, chronic inflammation can be extremely detrimental to overall health and vitality. Chronic inflammation occurs when the body attempts to rid harmful substances like toxic chemicals and pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi over months or years. These long-term or chronic levels of inflammation can damage body tissue and lead to diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cancer, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. Even polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, has been linked to chronic inflammation.
And while there are many potential contributors to chronic inflammation, perhaps one of the most important, and manageable, ones we should consider is diet.
Certain foods can cause inflammation
It’s true what your mother always told you: you really are what you eat.
When it comes to reducing or preventing chronic inflammation, the food choices you make can go a long way in determining the level of inflammation in your body.
And while there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to eating certain foods to reduce inflammation, there are certain food items that should definitely be reduced or avoided altogether since these foods are considered to be more pro-inflammatory than others. This would include foods like processed meats like lunch or deli meats, refined carbohydrates (think white bread, white rice, white sugar), and sweetened beverages like juices, soft drinks, and sports drinks.
Processed meats, like salami and bacon, can contain carcinogens or other substances, like nitrosamines and nitrite, that can lead to the development of inflammation and cancer-causing processes in the body. When such meats are processed at high temperatures, the nitrites more easily form nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing compounds.
Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar lead to low-grade inflammation, obesity, and insulin resistance. One study found that one 12 ounce can of soda containing about 40 grams (10 teaspoons) of added sugar led to an increase in inflammatory markers (hs-CRP), LDL cholesterol, and insulin resistance as well as weight gain. Another study found that the consumption of high glycemic foods (like refined carbohydrates, pretzels, candy, breakfast cereals) led to an increased risk of death from inflammatory diseases.
Foods can also be anti-inflammatory
If your mom’s adage is true, and you really are what you eat, then why not consume foods that contain inflammation-reducing substances?
Green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collard greens, yellow and red vegetables like squash and bell peppers, fruits (especially berries), or pomegranates as well as tea and coffee are all nutrient-dense and contain anti-inflammatory compounds like polyphenols. Polyphenols are plant-based compounds including flavonoids (quercetin, catechins, anthocyanins), carotenoids, and fiber, all of which have been shown to aid and support the reduction of inflammation in the body.
Even how we prepare our food may contribute to its effect on inflammation. For example, advanced glycation end products (AGEs) form in foods like highly-processed meats, cheese, oils, and nuts as the protein or fat combine with sugar when exposed to high temperatures such as in grilling, frying, or toasting. High levels of AGEs cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Cooking these foods at lower temperatures and steaming, stewing, or braising can reduce the levels of AGEs produced, thereby reducing the potential for inflammation.
Super Cooking Tip!
Additionally, plants rich in phenolic acids like citrus fruits (lemon and limes) inhibit AGEs during cooking. Marinating meats in vinegar or citrus juice can inhibit the formation and reduce the level of AGEs produced when the meat is cooked.
While there is no one right way to eat well to optimize your health, there is no doubt that eliminating highly processed and high-sugar foods from your diet is one of the best things you can do to reduce the disease-causing effects of chronic inflammation. It’s probably no surprise that these foods have zero nutritional benefits, but understanding their role in contributing to chronic inflammation and potentially disease can help us make smart food choices as we work to maintain a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. And by incorporating inflammation-fighting foods like some of those described here, you’re also supporting your body’s ability to fight chronic inflammation. I’m sure Mom would be proud!