Foods that Contribute to Inflammation and Moving Towards an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

by: Kate Cartwright

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Understanding Diet & Inflammation

Last month, our Inflammation Series on the Cryo Recovery blog discussed Environment, along with the 5 Environmental Factors that Contribute to Inflammation. Because inflammation is tied to disease, dysfunction, and premature aging, it is imperative that we manage the variables that we are capable of controlling.

As discussed in our inaugural Inflammation Series post, there are six major categories that contribute to systemic inflammation. These categories include: environment, diet, relationships, structural problems, stress, and toxins. In today's blog post, we are examining the foods that contribute to diet-related inflammation, and taking a deeper look at the ways under which we are able to alter our food choices to better combat inflammation.

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1. Sugar

When we discuss diet-related inflammation, refined sugar is often considered to be the number one culprit. The moment that we ingest sugar and refined carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels surge. When this happens, the pancreas must produce more insulin in order to process the glucose. This taxing process activates the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and advanced glycation end products (AGEs), both triggering inflammation throughout the body. Furthermore, when individuals have high blood sugar for extended periods of time, they can become insulin resistant, leading to the storage of pro-inflammatory visceral fat inside of the body. Bottom line: consuming excess added sugar drives widespread inflammation.

Pro Tip: Try to slowly decrease your added sugar intake over a period of time, paying attention to the way that your body responds. Incorporate nutrient-dense fruits into your diet to satisfy your sweet tooth, and make healthy swaps when baking. Pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, and raw brown sugar are all healthy substitutes for refined white sugar.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

While refined sugar is highly inflammatory, consuming a diet high in artificial sweeteners can also be detrimental to your health. Artificial sweeteners including aspartame (Sweet N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Equal) have been linked to not only inflammation, but also glucose intolerance and metabolic disorders--both conditions that can lead to Type II Diabetes. Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to gut dysbiosis, an imbalance that inhibits your body from protecting itself against pathogenic microbes. Gut dysbiosis triggers inflammation throughout the body, and can actually lead to additional chronic conditions. Moreover, a comprehensive study reports that in addition to hiking your risk for diabetes, these sweeteners can actually increase your risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Pro Tip: Ditch the chemicals! While zero-calorie sweeteners have gained a following over the years, don't believe the hype! For a safer option, look for naturally-derived low calorie sweeteners, or just opt for natural, unrefined forms of sugar in moderation.

3. Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed carbohydrates that have been stripped of their fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and can often be considered "empty" calories. Refined carbohydrates are quickly digested, and have a high glycemic index. As discussed above, high GI foods are digested similarly to sugar, and lead to a surge in blood sugar, negatively impacting insulin levels. The main sources of refined carbohydrates are white flour, white bread, white rice, pastries, sodas, boxed snacks, refined pastas and cereals, and packaged sweets.

A note on gluten intolerance: While there is immense research linking glutenous grains to inflammation, we are also aware that some people seem to tolerate gluten-containing foods without ill effects. The rise of gluten intolerance (aside from celiac disease) began with commercial milling of grains. In order to produce wheat that was both drought and bug-resistant, grains began to undergo a process known as hybridization. In this process, wheat is broken down, and later enriched with fillers, powdered vitamins, and proteins in order to match traditional nutritional requirements. All of this over-processing has lead to the rise of gluten-intolerance, due to the fact that the products we are consuming aren't actually the same products consumed decades ago. The best way to avoid these new proteins is to stay away from processed wheat products, opt for freshly-milled grains, and be mindful of the way that your body responds to the foods that you are eating.

4. Inflammatory Cooking Oils

Over the last several years, there has been a push to incorporate "healthy fats" into our diets; more specifically, omega fatty acids. But what many people do not know, is that there are different kinds of omega fatty acids, and when the ratio between these fats gets out of balance, inflammation can occur. Oils like canola, corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils, as well as margarine and vegetable fats, are highly processed products that can all cause inflammation. These oils and fats contain an unhealthy ratio of inflammatory omega-6 to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Simply put, a diet high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s will increase inflammation, and a diet high in 3s and low in 6s reduce it.

Pro Tip: As a first step, switch all of your cooking oils from canola and vegetable-based oils to coconut, avocado, or olive oil. This is a great resource for optimal cooking oil options.

5. Dairy

Recent research shows that up to 2/3 of the population may not be capable of properly digesting the carbohydrate (lactose) and proteins (casein and whey) that are found in dairy products. Unfortunately, consuming dairy if you are sensitive or allergic to its components can contribute to inflammation inside of your body. Dairy products can also be highly processed and filled with hormones, antibiotics, and fillers, and these additives can often be a source of digestive upset, bloating, or discomfort.

  • Casein makes up about 80 percent of total milk protein, and can often cause an immune system reaction called a histamine response, causing headaches, gastrointestinal upset, asthma complications, and seasonal allergies. Furthermore, casein also shares structural similarities with gluten, meaning that if you have a gluten sensitivity, you are less likely to tolerate casein proteins, and are more likely to experience an inflammatory response when you consume dairy products.

  • Whey is another protein component of dairy. It is a blend of multiple types of smaller proteins and hormones, including: immunoglobulins, insulin, insulin-like growth factor 1, estrogens, and other growth factors. This protein and hormonal composition makes milk a highly insulinogenic food, causing a large release of insulin when consumed. Anyone who experiences insulin sensitivities or metabolic syndromes may benefit from eliminating this protein.

  • Lactose is the carbohydrate component of dairy products, and is probably the most well-known culprit of dairy intolerance. If lactose cannot be properly digested, inflammation, bloating, and gastrointestinal distress may occur.

Pro tip: Thinking dairy might be the cause of your inflammation? Try eliminating it from your diet for a few weeks, and see if your symptoms are alleviated.

6. Trans Fat

Trans fats, or trans fatty acids, are a form of unsaturated fats that have been linked to a multitude of health concerns. Trans fats are unique, because they have a specific chemical structure, and impact the body differently than other unsaturated fats. There are two types of trans fats: natural and artificial. Based on what we know about nutrition, artificial products are typically problematic in regards to optimal health and wellness. While natural trans fats are found in some animal products and pose no risk to our bodies, artificial trans fats are made by the hydrogenation of vegetable oils and fats. There is strong evidence that consumption of trans fats increases systemic inflammation throughout the body. This Harvard study determined that the consumption of trans fats was associated with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers, especially in people who are overweight or obese.

Pro tip: Make sure to look at the nutritional labels of the foods that you eat. Don't eat foods that have the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on the ingredients list, as these are key indicators of hidden trans fats.

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1. Eat the rainbow

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, phyotonutrients, and phytochemicals. Antioxidant-rich foods fight free radicals, which contribute to inflammation. Try to stick with what's in season, as fresh, seasonal produce is the most nutrient-dense. In terms of nutrient-dense foods, leafy greens are by far the winner in the vegetable kingdom. In addition to leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage) are full of antioxidants, and are great natural detoxifying foods.

2. Raw nuts

Nuts have been shown to reduce inflammatory biomarkers, promote healthy lipid profiles, and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Walnuts are especially rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is converted to the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in the body.

3. Tea

Yes, tea! Black, green, and white teas are all derived from the camellia sinensis plant. This miracle plant is a true antioxidant powerhouse. In addition to being rich in antioxidants, teas are a source of polyphenols, which stimulate immunity, and block inflammation in the body.

4. Spices

Garlic, ginger, and turmeric have all been linked to a myriad of health benefits. Adding these spices to your cooking repertoire aids in digestion, reduces the occurrence of gas and bloating, and promotes anti-inflammatory activity. The curcumin in turmeric and the gingerol in ginger are especially potent anti-inflammatories. Can't handle the taste? All of these spices can be found in capsule form at your local health food store.

5. Healthy Fats & Omega-3s

As stated above, healthy fats are a key component of optimal health. Not only are they great protein sources, but healthy fats are also linked to lower levels of inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids are some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory compounds found in nature. In fact, research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis (all diseases that have inflammation in common). Great sources of omega 3’s include: chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and seaweed. For those who enjoy fish, incorporate fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines into your diet two to three times a week.

What Diet is Right For Me?

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It’s 2018, and people are still looking at each other saying, “what in the world are we supposed to be eating?!” Conflicting research and opinions make it increasingly difficult to break through the diet-related hype, and ascertain which foods will properly fuel their bodies. Keto, low-carb, high-carb, intermittent fasting, plant-based, paleo, grain-free, gluten free, IIFYM, etc. The options are virtually endless.

While we cannot recommend one particular diet for our entire reader base, it is important to remember that there are foods that are inextricably linked to inflammation. Traditional “junk foods", such as: processed chips, candies, breads, and fried foods, are all sources of highly inflammatory vegetable oils, simple carbohydrates, refined sugars, and contain little to no nutritional value. In order to move more towards an anti-inflammatory diet, it is important to eat less of these processed, refined foods, and to consume a wide variety of nutrient-dense, balanced meals. This kind of adjustment in your eating habits can lead to significant health changes over time.