By Maureen Callahan, RD
Grabbing a fiery-hot pot handle or stubbing a toe may hurt like the dickens, but before you can even scream, “Ouch!” the body sets off a cascading chain of inflammatory responses to help heal the injury. The injured area swells, the skin turns red, and the body releases dozens of inflammatory chemicals to limit the damage. And in response to such an injury, inflammation is a good thing.
Unfortunately, new research suggests that the typical Western diet of highly processed, sugary foods triggers the body to release these same inflammatory chemicals. And that isn’t good. Constant low levels of inflammation over many years may set the stage for a host of chronic illnesses, ranging from diabetes to heart disease to cancer.
Although doctors have long linked inflammation to arthritis and gum disease, the idea that inflammation underlies a variety of other chronic diseases has spawned a relatively new area of medical research. The work is preliminary, but researchers are slowly building a case for the detrimental effects of long-term, low-level inflammation. One way they’re doing this is by measuring changing levels of inflammatory substances in the blood in response to diet and disease. For example, studies show that high levels of the inflammatory C-reactive protein (CRP) raise the risk for atherosclerosis. Conversely, lowering the CRP levels lessens the risk for heart attack from atherosclerosis.
In his new book, The Inflammation Cure (McGraw-Hill, 2005), William Joel Meggs, MD, PhD, says he suspects the same inflammatory forces that cause heart attacks also could cause a medley of seemingly unrelated disorders such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and stroke.
Although it may take years to completely unravel this complicated inflammation-disease connection, studies already suggest that how you eat and live can either fan the fires of inflammation or quench them.
Foods that provoke
The biggest inflammatory culprit may be the Western diet itself. In a new report from the Harvard Medical School, researchers identified a specific diet pattern that revs up inflammation and increases the risk of type-2 diabetes in women.
That pattern includes drinking lots of sugary or diet sodas; eating refined grains and processed meats; eating very few cruciferous or yellow vegetables; and drinking little wine or coffee. More work is needed to tease out the health risks and benefits of each of these foods individually, but the researchers say that the overall eating style is clearly important.
Another no-no: high-fat diets. In a study conducted at the University of Buffalo, researchers discovered that eating a high-fat, fast-food breakfast of an Egg McMuffin and hash browns sends a rush of inflammatory substances into the bloodstream, a rush that lasts three to four hours. In contrast, a breakfast of fruit and fiber-rich foods such as whole-grain cereal, even when it adds up to the same 900 calories as the fast-food meal, doesn’t spike inflammation.
The types of fat that trigger inflammation include vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. Ditto for heart-damaging trans fats (also called partially hydrogenated oils), which are ubiquitous in commercial baked goods, solid shortenings, and stick margarines.
You may also want to identify (and avoid) any foods that spark an allergic reaction or food intolerance in you. These signal the immune system to flood the bloodstream with inflammatory chemicals. Common allergens include wheat, shellfish, eggs, soy, and peanuts. Consult with an allergist to pinpoint true food allergies and intolerances. Typically, allergists use skin tests and elimination diets to track down offending foods.
The jury is still out on whether tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and other vegetables in the nightshade family provoke an inflammatory response. Avoiding these foods won’t hurt you, but it may not help either, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
A pantry full of medicine
In addition to ridding your cupboards of foods that aggravate inflammation, try stocking up on foods that soothe it. Studies show that vegetarian and Mediterranean-style diets, which focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, constitute good overall eating strategies. But if you want to cobble together your own style of diet, experts say to focus on these tips:
- Dish up plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as leafy greens, avocados, beans, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and nuts and seeds (especially almonds, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds). In fact, a recent study found that women who consume large amounts of magnesium actually have fewer inflammatory substances in their blood.
- Stock up on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods are rich in antioxidants, compounds that squelch the free radicals that cause disease and may aggravate inflammation.
- Munch on apples, sip red wine, embrace broccoli, and cook with red onions. These foods contain bioflavonoids such as quercetin that help tame inflammation.
- Spice it up. Numerous studies show that the spice turmeric, which contains an active anti-inflammatory substance called curcumin, fights inflammation and certain kinds of cancer.
- Opt for olive oil, long known for its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as flax, hemp, and walnut oils, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
The big picture
As you revamp your diet to discourage inflammation, try fine-tuning other areas of your life as well. Shedding excess weight is especially helpful, since fat cells harbor large amounts of inflammatory substances called cytokines. In other words, obesity equates to a body with constant low levels of inflammation. Surprisingly, flossing every day is also important because gums become inflamed by particles of food left in the mouth. And finally, kick butts—cigarette butts, that is. Smoking, as well as breathing secondhand smoke, causes inflammation.
All of these lifestyle changes, along with a healthy diet of minimally processed, whole foods, help soothe low-level inflammation before it ignites into larger problems down the road.