Let's Fight Fire with Food: Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s way of healing an injury or getting rid of harmful pathogens, such as bad bacteria, viruses, or damaged cells. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. We’re all pretty familiar with the acute type, and anyone who knows me well knows I’m a little bit too familiar with injuring myself. Acute inflammation happens when you get a nasty blister after wearing new shoes all day. An army of white blood cells and other healing molecules are sent to the injury site, causing visible redness and swelling. The same process takes place when you get an infection like the flu. Acute inflammation is a wonderful biological process that typically works its magic and then goes away.
Chronic inflammation is the bad boy on the block we’ve all heard rumors about, but might not fully understand. This is the slow, low-grade inflammation that can last from several months to many years. How does chronic inflammation start? We can’t point to any one insult, instead it’s caused by a whole host of factors, including eating too much crap (and not enough plants), being overweight, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, air pollution, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, stress… Researchers are finding that chronic inflammation actually drives many scary chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic back pain, inflammatory bowel disease, and many more. Estimates from the Rand Corporation in 2014 showed that 60% of Americans have at least one chronic disease, 42% have more than one, and 12% have five or more chronic diseases. Those numbers are likely even higher today in 2019.
I know those are some scary statistics, but here’s the good news: you can influence the amount of chronic inflammation in your body. Even if you already have one of these chronic diseases you can change its course by making lifestyle changes. We have the power to change our behavior and dramatically reduce our risk of chronic inflammation.
What is Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition?
Anti-inflammatory medications, like Advil or Aspirin, act like band-aids — they reduce the body’s inflammatory response without actually reducing the stimulus causing the inflammation. It’s as if you’re in a boat with a hole that’s slowly sinking, and you’re staying afloat by dumping the water out with a bucket.
The goal of anti-inflammatory nutrition, on the other hand, is to plug the hole and reduce the cause of inflammation at its source!
There is no single definition of an anti-inflammatory diet. That’s just another catchy term, like the word “superfood” (sorry to burst your bubbles, but that doesn’t mean anything either). An anti-inflammatory diet is a healthy — whole food, plant-based — diet.
There are many different reasons why chronic inflammation and its associated diseases have been steadily rising in recent decades, but we can distill the major nutrition-related causes to what two researchers, Sears and Ricordi, described as “The Perfect Nutritional Storm.” ¹
Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white pasta, chips, sweets, etc.)
Increased consumption of refined vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids (e.g. canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, etc.)
Decreased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. fish, nuts, seeds)
I’m going to break these points down and explain exactly what you can do to reduce chronic inflammation and avoid (or manage) chronic disease. I’ll discuss numbers 2 and 3 together since they go hand in hand.
We eat too many refined carbs.
The important word here is refined. I need to make one thing very clear: not all carbs are bad.
Natural, whole food sources of carbohydrates are found in all plants and they should be the basis of our diets! These wonderfully healthy foods include:
Non-starchy and starchy vegetables
Whole grains (e.g. Barley, oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, bulgur, triticale, corn, wild rice, millet, farro, wheat berries, amaranth)
Legumes (beans, lentils peas)
If you can eat a food the way it grew in the garden (besides cooking or peeling), then it’s a healthy, whole food. The problem comes in when the food industry processes those whole carbs into other refined products. Through processing, the plant’s natural fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and/or water may be removed. The carbohydrate molecules are partially broken down by processing techniques, which makes those molecules more easily digested and absorbed, thus raising our blood sugar faster and higher — which can promote inflammation. Processed plants do not retain the health benefits of whole plants.
Corn is processed into corn flour, corn oil, corn syrup, and hundreds of other products that are not as healthy or wholesome as an ear of corn. I know it’s tough to read all the different byproducts in this image, but I think you get the picture. Corn is used to make an astounding variety of food and non-food stuff.
The biggest offender in the refined carbohydrate category is refined grain products, like white bread, pasta, crackers, muffins, cakes, cookies... etc.
In the case of whole wheat grains, the whole form (top left in the diagram) is called a wheat berry. You can cook and eat wheat berries just like you would cook rice. This is the healthiest form of wheat because it’s the least processed. If you grind up the wheat berries, you get whole wheat flour, which is used for whole wheat products. Whole wheat bread is somewhat less healthy than the original wheat berries as a result of the grinding process, but is still good for you.
In order to make sweeter, more shelf stable products, factories mill, refine, and grind wheat berries to make refined wheat flour (aka, white flour). In this process, the outer layers of the wheat berry are removed, and it’s those outer layers — called the bran and the germ — that contain the majority of the beneficial fiber, B vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and antioxidants. White flour lacks these beneficial nutrients, raises blood sugar and insulin more dramatically, and can be incredibly addictive.
What does the research show about the effect of whole grains vs. refined grains on inflammation?
Researchers and doctors measure chronic inflammation using biomarkers from blood tests, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1). Studies demonstrate that whole grain intake is inversely related to PAI-1 and CRP while refined grain intake is positively independently related to CRP. ² Moreover, dietary sugar intake is directly related to CRP. ³
In plain English: whole grain intake is associated with a reduction in inflammation. Refined grain and sugar intake is associated with an increase in inflammation.
For the science nerds out there, here are a few proposed mechanisms of action to explain why refined carbs might increase inflammation.
Insulin is a strong activator of the enzymes involved in generating arachidonic acid from dietary omega-6 fatty acids. Arachidonic acid is a precursor to the eicosanoids that drive inflammation. ¹
Excessive postprandial blood glucose may increase the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that induce oxidative stress and inflammation. ²
Decreased fiber intake reduces prebiotics available for gut microbiota, which reduces production of anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids, like butyrate. ⁴
Carbohydrate recommendations to reduce inflammation:
Eat plenty of whole non-starchy vegetables and starchy vegetables, fruit, and legumes.
Eat some whole grains (e.g. barley, oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, rye, bulgur, corn, wild rice, farro, wheat berries, amaranth) and whole grain products. See
Limit refined grains, concentrated sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Set a goal, right now, to make one simple change this week. Maybe that goal is to choose whole grain bread instead of white bread for your sandwiches. Or, maybe it is to limit yourself to just one glass of juice this week instead of every morning. Or, perhaps your goal is to roast some delicious butternut squash for dinner tomorrow. Whatever your goal is, make sure it is specific and realistic, and then do it!
2. We eat too many omega-6 fatty acids
3. We don’t eat enough omega-3 fatty acids.
I’m going to talk about these two points together since they go hand-in-hand. You’ve probably heard of omega-3s and omega-6s before but may have no clue what they actually are. They’re each types of fat found in food, but I’ll get into the science-y specifics in just a moment. First, I want to make another thing clear: just as not all carbs are bad, not all fats are bad.
I think you might be able to guess how we differentiate between the healthy and less healthy fats by now. Yes! The less processed and refined the better! Great guess ;)
Let’s review our major whole food sources of fat:
Plant sources: avocado, coconut, olives, nuts, seeds
Animal sources: meat, fish, dairy, eggs
What the heck are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids? (warning: science ahead)
There are three major types of fat molecules: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.
Saturated fats have no double bonds in their chemical structure. They are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Sources include: animal meat, dairy products, and certain plant oils like coconut oil or palm oil.
Unsaturated fats have one or more double bond(s) in their chemical structure. Sources include: vegetable oils, olives, avocados, fish, and nuts.
Unsaturated fats can be further categorized into monounsaturated (one double bond) and polyunsaturated (multiple double bonds).
Finally, we can then categorize polyunsaturated fats into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The term “fatty acid” is just a science-y term for fat molecule. These two fatty acids are considered essential, meaning our bodies cannot produce them and it is essential we get them from food.
Phew! Still with me? Great! Let’s keep going…
Without diving into the all the nuances, whole food sources of both unsaturated and saturated fats can be healthy to consume in moderation.
Trans fats, on the other hand, are almost always man-made and are absolutely, positively, 100% inflammatory. You’ll find trans fats in some processed foods, like microwave popcorn, margarine, and baked goods.
What do omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids do in the body?
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both versatile nutrients that perform a variety of necessary functions in the body, such as neurological development, cell membrane structure, and clotting.
Today, I’m going to focus on their roles in inflammation. Here’s what you need to know:
Omega-6 fatty acids are used to create inflammatory compounds in the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids are used to create anti-inflammatory compounds in the body.
Both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds are vital for our health, but problems arise when the scale tips too far in favor of inflammatory compounds derived from omega-6s. Remember: omega-3s and omega-6s concentrations in the body are completely dependent on the food we eat.
The ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the diet and body has a huge impact on levels of chronic inflammation. Epidemiological and clinical research has repeatedly demonstrated that a low ratio of around 1:3 (omega 3:6) is strongly associated with reduced inflammation, reduced rates of heart disease, and a decrease in total mortality. ⁵ ⁶ Unfortunately, however, most Americans have a ratio of about 1:15.
How can I improve my ratio of omega 3:omega 6?
The majority of people’s ratios are too high because they eat way more omega-6s than omega-3s.
The major food sources of omega-3 are algae, fatty fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring), flaxseed and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts. Not surprisingly, various whole food sources of fat.
The major food sources of omega-6 are refined vegetable oils, including soybean oil, corn oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, and many others. Don’t be fooled by the word “vegetable” in vegetable oil; these oils DO NOT maintain the benefits of real, whole vegetables.
You may not realize it, but these refined oils are found in the vast majority of processed foods and restaurant meals. Even natural-looking food packages and fancier restaurants use refined oils because they’re cheap and shelf-stable. I challenge you to take a look at the ingredient lists on the boxes and packages in your kitchen and find out just how many of them contain one or more of these oils.
If you’ve learned anything from me, I hope it’s that food processing decreases nutrients. Check out the graphic on the right about the many steps involved in oil processing; it doesn’t get much more processed than that. Ew.
Fat recommendations to reduce inflammation:
Eat plenty of whole, plant sources of fat: nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut (especially flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts)
Eat some fatty, cold-water fish: salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, cod
Limit animal sources of fat: dairy, poultry, red meat (*purchase high quality sources whenever possible)
Avoid highly processed sources of fat: processed meats, vegetable oils (soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil, peanut oil, vegetable shortening, palm kernel oil, mixed vegetable oils, regular safflower and sunflower oils), margarine, partially hydrogenated oils
It’s goal setting time. Take a moment to decide how you’re going to put this information into practice. Here’s a few ideas: Aim to eat fish twice this week. Add walnuts to your oatmeal or yogurt, or just grab a handful as a snack. Read the ingredient lists on three packages in your pantry and see if they contain refined vegetable oils.
Choose an action and get it done! You can do this!
Your health is in your control. Your choices have the power to help you feel better today and for the rest of your life. Don’t wait for your health to decline before making a change, start right now and I promise you’ll thank yourself every single day for it.
If you’re not sure where to start, or need some guidance and support, schedule a free 15-min phone consult and we’ll chat about how I can help!
Sears B, Ricordi C. Anti-inflammatory nutrition as a pharmacological approach to treat obesity. J Obes. 2010;2011:431985.
Masters RC, Liese AD, Haffner SM, Wagenknecht LE, Hanley AJ. Whole and refined grain intakes are related to inflammatory protein concentrations in human plasma. J Nutr. 2010;140(3):587-94. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821887/
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Joseph, Hibbeln, et al., “Healthy Intakes of n-3 and n-6 Fatty Acids: Estimations considering Worldwide Diversity,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006; 83 (suppl):1483S-93S.
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