(Aug, 2013) I have spoken often about inflammation on my blog. What I’d like to do in this post is to discuss the many sources of inflammation from the foods we eat, and point to some remedies to help reduce inflammation in the process of eating, digesting and metabolizing food. Reducing inflammation is the key to combatting most diseases, especially the chronic debilitating ones, and it starts with what we eat.
Of course, some inflammation is healthy and necessary to combat injury, serious infection, and other major trauma. However, modern diseases (e.g., heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, even depression) are fueled by a qualitatively different type of inflammation. This low-lying inflammation, called silent or chronic inflammation, may fester for decades before serious disease ensues. It is distinguished from full-blown inflammation that accompanies cuts, burns, trauma, joint pain, appendicitis, and the like. There are many good books written on the topic of silent, chronic inflammation, starting with Barry Sear’s “The Anti-inflammation Zone” and Jack Challem’s “The Inflammation Syndrome”. Time Magazine published an article entitled “The Secret Killer” in 2012, which brought much attention to this problem.
Unfortunately, there are many sources of silent inflammation, so it is not so simple to avoid. Any form of oxidative stress can trigger inflammation. The most common forms of low-level inflammation stem from the way we live. It’s in the food we eat, how we prepare and overeat those foods, and the corners we cut while hurrying through our days. It is also from low-level, chronic infection and gut dysbiosis. Obesity itself is a form of inflammation. Rather than try to cover all these problems, I will focus mainly on the major sources of inflammation related to diet, and ways to compensate or buffer against the damage they cause. Those inflammatory foods are as follows:
1) Sugar and refined carbs
2) Trans or rancid fats
3) Overcooked, factory-farm, or incompletely metabolized protein
Interestingly, all three sources of energy – carbohydrates, lipids and proteins – can breed inflammation, especially if you are making poor choices. All three are also acid-forming, and require alkaline-forming foods for balance. The first thing is to choose good quality food. Freshness is key, and not overcooking is important. The second thing is to eat these foods with adequate amounts of non-starchy fruits, vegetables, vitamins and antioxidant supplements to buffer against any damage they may cause. One can also focus on anti-inflammatory foods, such as celery, citrus, chamomile, green pepper, thyme, and extracts like olive leaf, turmeric, ginger, boswellia, etc., to retard inflammation. However, avoid eating fruit with a meal, since it may interfere with digestion. Best to eat fruit 30 minutes before, or at least 2 hours after a meal.
Sugar and high-glycemic foods are the number one cause of inflammation and obesity. For one, they trigger hormone-related (leptin, insulin) issues that disrupt metabolism, promote fat accumulation, and cause weight gain. The constant yo-yo effect of high and low blood sugar from a hi-carb diet is at the root of obesity and other metabolic problems, and could increase autistic behavior and seizures. Sugar also tends to stick to proteins and other structures in our body, causing tissue destruction, cardiovascular disease and premature aging. High sugar and lack of prebiotic fiber can promote leakiness in the gut, and fuel allergies and autoimmune disorders. A steady diet of carbs causes oxidative stress that burns up our vitamin, mineral and antioxidant stores, leaving us prone to inflammation. Excess carb consumption not only promotes obesity, but also leads to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and the like. Carbs are also acid-forming, which eats away at our bones. Complex carbs (whole grains, oatmeal, bran, sweet potatoes, lentils, black beans) containing fiber are better choices than refined carbs. The best fiber comes in the form of soluble fiber, found in whole fruit, beans and vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, onions), as well as flaxmeal. There are also fiber extracts available, such as psyllium, pectin, inulin, glucomannan, and resistant maltodextran, which not only help reduce blood sugar, but also feed friendly bacteria in our guts. Limiting carbs of all kinds (except for fiber) goes a long way toward restoring health and vitality, and reducing body fat. It’s hard to break bad habits, and leave our comfort foods behind, but a little discipline goes a long way.
There’s nothing easy about reducing carbs and finding the right balance. Certain proteins and fats can also be detrimental to health. It is possible to get too much protein, like when eating big steaks, considering the link between excess protein and cancer. Conversely, getting adequate protein from vegetables is challenging. Beans, peas and Brussel sprouts come to mind as good vegetable sources of protein. Hemp and spirulina are other excellent choices. If not vegan, try to get about 20% of calories from animal protein, like our early ancestors did. Add a scoop of whey protein powder to fortify almond milk (hemp protein powder and fermented soy protein powder will also work). Beware of unfermented soy products, however. Soy is highly acidic, full of omega-6 fat, and contains estrogen-like compounds that can fuel cancer. Fermented soy, such as tempeh, miso and natto, are preferred. Tempeh is an excellent protein source and alternative to pasta. So is quinoa. Sprout quinoa and beans to make them less carby, less toxic and more wholesome.
Animal protein is also highly acid-forming and should be eaten in moderation, with lots of greens. Organic meat, dairy and eggs are preferred over factory-farm products. They contain less toxins and significantly more fat-soluble nutrients, like omega-3s, CLA, carotenoids, and vitamin E. Wild fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, herring) contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Offset mercury and other toxins in fish by eating dark green vegetables, cilantro, chlorella and R-lipoid acid. A good multivitamin also contains a number of nutrients (i.e., selenium, zinc) that help protect against these toxins.
Also avoid charring meat while frying, roasting or grilling. Carmelized carbs and overheated oils are inflammatory. Try cooking with spices such as turmeric, rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme to reduce the noxious impact of charred foods. Cook on low heat with coconut oil. Taking antioxidants (e.g., vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, pomegranate, grape seed extract, green tea, red wine, etc.) can reduce the negative effects of these foods on the body.
Another problem with protein is that some commercial products (e.g., hydrolyzed protein, whey concentrate) are damaged and not as bioavailable. Some proteins are not metabolized completely in some individuals. Certain amino acids from protein form intermediate products (i.e., homocysteine) that can be highly inflammatory and detrimental to the cardiovascular system. This is due mostly to the lack of good nutrition. Nutrients like folate, vitamins B6, B12, choline and magnesium help neutralize toxic substances like homocysteine, and improve protein metabolism. Yet another good reason to take a high-quality multivitamin twice daily. Also, consider taking a chelated form of magnesium as a supplement, Or eat a bunch of greens, beans, nuts and seeds.
Some oils and fats are also better than others. Extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil are at the top of the good list of oils used to prepare foods. Better to cook with coconut oil and use EV olive oil in dressings. The omega-3 oils (fish, krill, flax, hemp, walnut) are also important for many bodily processes, and help tone down inflammation. A big problem in the modern diet is the overabundance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils, found in vegetable oils (e.g., corn, safflower, soy, and sunflower oil). They need to be balanced with healthy omega-3 oils from fish, seafood, flaxmeal, walnuts, chia, hemp and algae. One exception is the anti-inflammatory omega-6 fat GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), found in evening primrose oil and borage oil.
Saturated fats are not the demons that medical dogma make them out to be. However, they should be eaten in moderation to keep calories down. A good choice is dark chocolate and organic butter. Organic fat is good for you, whereas factory farm meat and dairy is linked to inflammation. Buy organic and local animal-based food from a healthy farm.
Don’t worry about the cholesterol in animal food, either. External sources of cholesterol are meaningless, compared to eating carbs, and not getting protective antioxidants and nutrients. The body overproduces cholesterol to keep inflamed fat cells from bursting, and spilling fat and toxins into the bloodstream. That fat comes largely from carb consumption. Oxidation and inflammation are at the root cause of cardiovascular disease, not cholesterol.
Another bad oil called trans fat, or partially hydrogenated fat, is found in shortening, margarine, and many processed foods. These not only cause heart disease and cancer, but also can make us irritable. Rancid or overcooked oils can be just as bad.
Real food is prone to spoilage. Carbs, lipids and protein get metabolized in ways that require many nutrients, which are lacking in the modern diet. So it is best to buy fresh, good quality food, not damaged by overcooking, and obtain adequate nutrients, antioxidants and inflammation fighters to protect against the ravages of digestion and metabolism. It also helps to maintain good balance of omega-3s to -6s. In a word, it’s about quality.