Chronic inflammation is highly associated with chronic diseases so we want to minimize excessive inflammation as much as possible. Inflammation is when the immune system reacts to foreign substances or microorganisms in order to protect the body. When the immune system fights of infectious organisms or harmful substances, it can be quite reactive and causes damage to our cells during the process. This is ok as long as it is a short duration, acute response. However, sometimes our immune system can be chronically stimulated for long periods of time, which will cause significant damage to our body.
Interestingly, diet has a substantial impact on inflammation in our body.
Foods that are pro-inflammatory
- Trans fats – Trans fats formed through process like hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation to produce semi-solid oils is probably the most detrimental substance we can consume. It is a type of fat that is not useable by our cells for energy like healthy fats, so it stays in the circulatory system where the immune system deals with it. Consuming trans fats is not only a key player in heart disease but it increases overall inflammation in your body and will exacerbate other inflammatory conditions like arthritis and autoimmune diseases. Avoid packaged food and margarine.
- Sugar – Excessive sugar intake not only contributes to insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and weight gain but it over-stimulates inflammatory reactions in the body and causes antioxidant imbalances. An ideal maximum amount of sugar per day is around 25-30g. A teaspoon of sugar is 4g, an apple has about 8g and a can of coke has 38g. Sugar can add up quickly if you consume a lot of pop, candy, desserts, or flavoured coffee but also things that seem healthy such as cereal, juices, sports drinks, granola, dried fruit, protein bars, or store-bought smoothies. Sugar seems to be particularly bad for targeting inflammation in the blood vessel endothelial cells and therefore is a major contributor to atherosclerosis that leads to cardiovascular disease.
- Omega 6 fatty acids – vegetable oils, sunflower, safflower, soybean, grapeseed, and basically any refined oils are higher in omega 6 (linoleic acid) fatty acids and they increase inflammation. We should be consuming a balance of omega 6 and omega 3. Omega 3 (alpha-linolenic acid) fatty acids reduce inflammation. Omega 6 fatty acids are used by the body to convert arachidonic acid into pro-inflammatory cytokines that increase inflammation that might going on anywhere in the body.
- Excessive alcohol – Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as 1 drink per day for females and 2 drinks per day for males….and no, you can’t save them all up and drink your week’s worth of alcohol all on Friday night 😉 Alcohol is a substance that is seen as a toxin by the body because it triggers the liver’s detoxification system to break it down and eliminate it. It is also not used for any cellular functions in our body so it is not a nutrient. The liver produces enzymes to break down alcohol, medications, and other substances that have to be broken down before they can be eliminated. You can get a blood test and look at your liver enzyme levels to see if you are making your liver work over time. There is a direct correlation between the amount of alcohol consumed and the level of inflammatory markers, such as C-Reactive Protein, in the body.
- Processed foods – Processed foods and processed meats are pro-inflammatory because they usually contain trans fats, excess sugar, and preservatives. Preservatives, like alcohol, are seen by the body as toxic substances that need to be broken down and removed. Anything that is a toxic substance can stimulate the immune system because the body is trying to remove anything that should not be there. Processed meats have been correlated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes….all inflammation-based diseases.
Foods that are anti-inflammatory
- Plants – Eating a lot of fresh vegetables is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. Leafy greens, colourful plants like red peppers and yellow zucchini, squash, carrots, tomatoes, fruits and berries, sulfur-containing onions, garlic, leeks, and cruciferous plants like broccoli, cauliflower, and yes kale 😉 All contain hundreds of plant phytochemicals that are extremely beneficial for cellular functions and for helping to regulate the immune response. Many plant foods are considered anti-cancer because of the many phytochemicals that regulate immune cells and reduce inflammation.
- Herbs and spices – Adding a variety of fresh or dried spices to your cooking doesn’t just make food taste good! Many herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory properties and help reduce the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases. Some examples of herbs and spices that reduce inflammation include turmeric (curcumin is the active ingredient and you can buy this as a supplement), gingerroot, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green tea, black tea, capsaicin (hot peppers), resveratrol (in red grapes and red wine), rosemary, basil etc etc.
Fun Fact: The anti-inflammatory compound in garlic is called allicin. It is only produced when the garlic is crushed or chopped. So to get the best benefits from garlic, you want to use fresh garlic and crush or chop it 10 min before you want to eat it, raw will preserve the allicin. Freshly crushed raw garlic is best added to soups or eggs or anything after you have cooked the food.
- Omega 3 – Omega 3 (alpha-linolenic acid) found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna are high in omega 3. You can also take omega 3 as a supplement, fish oil or krill oil are good sources. For vegetarians, the highest sources of omega 3 are flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
- Nuts and seeds – Many studies show that consumption of nuts and seeds are associated with reduced inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, and tumor necrosis factor. Add some walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds etc to your diet. They are high in healthy fats and protein, they also contain fiber and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A and E. Nuts and seeds are also high in minerals like magnesium and zinc that are beneficial for immune function.
Fun Fact: If you use flaxseeds on oatmeal or smoothies or sprinkled on anything, then make sure to buy whole seeds and grind 1-2 tablespoons in a coffee grinder right before you eat them to retain the beneficial oils. If you buy flaxseeds already ground then the oils will be oxidized and not beneficial.