Chronic low-grade inflammation, the kind that simmers inside your body without any obvious warning signs, is slowly damaging your tissues and may be contributing to the development of several chronic diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. Inflammation is also the underlying cause of autoimmune diseases.
Soon after you bruise or cut yourself, your immune system runs to the rescue by increasing blood flow, and delivering fluids, proteins and white blood cells to the injured area, resulting in swelling and redness. This acute inflammatory response is an essential part of the healing process that helps protect the site from infection and further injury. Chronic low-grade inflammation, on the other hand, is like a fire that is constantly burning inside your body, overloading your immune system, putting it in constant fight mode. Because this type of inflammation is harmful rather than helpful, taming it by losing excess body fat, eating an anti-inflammatory diet and doing the right type of physical activity will improve your health and could decrease your risk of developing several diseases.
Excess Body Fat and the War Within
If you look in the mirror and worry about excess body fat because you can’t fit into your skinny jeans or don’t feel comfortable wearing that form-fitting dress, that should be the least of your concerns. Fat is an active tissue, constantly pumping out substances that influence your appetite, metabolic rate, immune system and blood glucose levels. Several of these substances also increase inflammation.
People with excess fat, particularly visceral fat, the kind that hugs your organs like bubble wrap and is considered very harmful for heart health, have even more pro-inflammatory compounds being pumped out of their fat tissue, creating a vicious domino effect where the excess fat leads to elevated levels of inflammatory substances that create additional damage. Losing excess fat, particularly belly fat, will lower inflammation and improve health and decrease risk for disease, particularly heart disease, the number one cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.
Diet 911 for Fighting Inflammation
In general, diets high in sugar, saturated fat, fried foods and foods cooked on high, dry heat contribute to inflammation. When you grill, broil, roast or fry meat, poultry, pork or fish, a number of nasty compounds are formed. As a result, your plate is full of pro-inflammatory heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that may be damaging the cells inside your body. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), HCAs and PAHs must be metabolized by specific enzymes (a process called bioactivation) before they can damage DNA. Yet the activity of these enzymes varies between people and therefore, one’s risk of developing cancer due to HCA and PAH exposure depends on how they metabolize these compounds. AGEs accumulate in the human body, affect cell functioning and may contribute to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and, as the name implies, aging. Think of them as compounds that literally age your body.
To decrease your exposure to these compounds, turn down the heat, opt for moist heat cooking methods including poaching, steaming, stewing or boiling, cook your food for a shorter period of time, avoid smoked meats and marinade your meat, poultry, pork and fish in acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar. Also, add herbs and spices to your foods whenever possible to help decrease the formation of HCAs and malondialdehyde (MDA)— a compound produced in greater quantities in meat cooked on low versus high heat and one that is also produced in your body when you digest fat. MDA increases inflammation and oxidative damage to tissues including cartilage and LDL cholesterol. Oxidized LDL contributes to atherosclerosis, the formation of plaque in arteries (gunk that clogs them) impairing blood flow to organs. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries throughout the body, including the heart, brain, arms, legs, pelvis and kidneys, and therefore cause chronic kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease, carotid artery disease and coronary heart disease.
Spice Things Up
Herbs and spices preserve and lend flavor to food without the addition of fat, sugar or salt. Composed of a complex mix of antioxidants, healthy plant-based compounds called phytochemicals (plant chemicals), vitamins and minerals, herbs and spices also protect your body from harm and may help kill germs.
Herbs and spices seem to fight inflammation throughout the body. For instance, when consumed in doses ranging from 30-500 milligrams over a three- to six-week period, ginger reduced osteoarthritis pain in adults. Osteoarthritis is an inflammatory condition often characterized by pain and stiffness in joints due to the breakdown of cartilage that cushions joints. Also, research shows that 2 grams of either raw or heat treated ginger taken before a tough bout of exercise decreased pain and inflammation 24 hours after the exercise in college-aged students. Plus, a study in men found that a mixture of spices including cloves, cinnamon, oregano, ginger, black pepper, paprika and garlic, decreased formation of MDA (as measured by blood and urinary MDA in the study subjects).
Though widely recommended for its anti-inflammatory activity, curcumin, a group of compounds found in the spice turmeric, is poorly absorbed. And therefore, a sprinkle of turmeric won’t do much. When taken in much larger doses (3.6 grams), curcumin is detectable in the body. Luckily it is considered safe when taken in supplemental doses of up to 8 grams per day.
Vitamin D, found in fatty fish, fortified milk, some brands of yogurt and other fortified foods, may help decrease inflammation. Yet the connection between vitamin D and inflammation seems to be a cyclical pattern. Low levels of vitamin D may increase inflammation while inflammation may also lead to lower levels of vitamin D.
In an attempt to figure out how vitamin D may affect the inflammatory cascade, infection-fighting white blood cells were exposed to a molecule found in the walls of bacterial cells that promotes an intense inflammatory response. Cells incubated in a solution with no vitamin D produced higher levels of inflammatory compounds than those exposed to vitamin D, suggesting vitamin D plays an important role in the immune and inflammatory response.
Newer research also suggests that low levels of vitamin D may not be the cause of but instead a consequence of inflammation. Given the complex relationship between vitamin D and inflammation, it makes sense to consume vitamin D rich foods, get tested by your physician if you think you may be low (or if you have an inflammatory condition) and follow up with regular treatment.
Dietary Patterns Matter
While scientists are busy trying to tease out single nutrients or compounds in foods that are linked to lower or higher levels of inflammation, dietary patterns that promote good health may explain the synergistic effect of a combination of healthy foods.
The Mediterranean diet is a perfect example of a dietary pattern that is rich in vitamins, minerals and healthy plant-based compounds due to its emphasis on plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts, spices and herbs for flavor. Compounds consumed in high quantities when following this diet reduce circulating levels of inflammatory compounds. In addition, the Mediterranean diet is associated with increased telomere length— longer telomeres are associated with decreased aging. Plus, populations that follow the Mediterranean diet have a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer and a lower incidence of some neurodegenerative diseases. Yet this pattern of eating isn’t the only one associated with improvements in inflammation and disease risk.
The Nordic Diet is largely composed of whole grains, berries, fruits, vegetables, rapeseed oil, three servings of fish per week and low-fat dairy products. In one randomized trial, overweight and obese middle-aged adults with at least two risk factors for heart disease or diabetes followed the Nordic Diet or their regular diet for 18 to 24 weeks. After the study period, researchers found neither group lost weight yet the Nordic Diet significantly altered the expression of inflammatory genes in subcutaneous fat— the kind that lies right underneath the skin, which suggest the benefits of this diet aren’t the result of losing fat (which has its own direct effect on decreasing inflammation).
Get Moving and Ramp Up the Intensity
Exercise, regardless of whether it helps a person lose weight or not, will lower chronic inflammation. In fact, those who make exercise a lifestyle habit will reduce inflammation. And though muscle-building resistance training does not appear to influence chronic inflammation, aerobic exercise, particularly higher intensity aerobic exercise (75-80% of maximal heart rate), improves inflammatory status.
If you are looking at foods based solely on their fat, carbohydrate and protein content, it’s time to dig deeper and consider not only your food choices, but how you marinade or season and cook them and what you pair them with. A good rule of thumb for lowering inflammation, belly fat and disease risk: flavor your meals with herbs and spices, ramp up your intake of vitamin D rich foods, consume colorful plant-based compounds at every meal and get moving and stay moving.
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