(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 in light of 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. Obesity itself is a form of inflammation, and a constant threat to our livelihoods. Rather than try to cover all the bases, I will talk mainly about 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 also are acid-forming, and must be balanced with alkaline-forming foods and supplements. 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 copious amounts of fruits, vegetables, vitamins and antioxidant supplements to buffer against the damage they may cause. There are also anti-inflammatory foods, such as celery, citrus, chamomile, green pepper, and extracts like olive leaf, turmeric, ginger, boswellia, etc., that specifically retard inflammation. One caveat is to avoid eating fruit with a meal, since they interfere with each other’s digestion. Rather, eat fruit 30 minutes before, or at least 2 hours after a meal.
In my view, sugar and high-glycemic foods are the number one cause for inflammation and obesity. For one, they trigger hormone-related (leptin, insulin) issues that disrupt metabolism and cause weight gain. The constant yo-yo effect of high and low blood sugar involved in relying on carbs is at the heart of obesity and other metabolic problems. Sugar also tends to stick to proteins and other structures in our body, which causes tissue destruction, cardiovascular disease and premature aging. A steady diet of refined carbs causes oxidative stress that uses up all our vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and leaves us prone to inflammation. Excess carb consumption not only promotes obesity, but also leads us on the path to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, depression and the like, depending upon our genetic predisposition, or Achille’s heel. Carbs also promote an acidic environment that 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 from foods containing soluble fiber, such as whole fruit, beans and many vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, onions), as well as flaxmeal. There are also fiber extracts available, such as psyllium, pectin, inulin and resistant maltodextran, which not only help reduce blood sugar, but also feed good bacteria in our guts. Limiting carbs of all kinds (except for soluble fiber) goes a long way to restore health and vitality. But we all know how hard it is to break bad habits, and leave our comfort foods behind. A little discipline goes a long way, especially if it helps reduce body fat, which reducing carbs will do.
Yet, it is not as simple as replacing carbs with protein and fat. Everyone needs to find the right balance of these macromolecules and energy sources that works. Regarding protein, some choices are far better than others. Getting adequate protein from vegetables is not easy, but is preferable to overindulging on animal protein. Beans, peas and Brussel sprouts come to mind as good vegetable sources of protein. Hemp and spirulina are other excellent choices. However, I’m not about to give up on animal food any time soon. I still try to get about 20% of my calories from animal sources, as our early ancestors did. I do so in part by adding a scoop or two of whey protein powder to my almond milk. There’s also hemp protein powder and fermented soy protein powder to consider. But be careful with unfermented soy products, which have their drawbacks. Soy is highly acidic, full of omega-6 fats, and contains estrogen-like compounds that can possibly fuel cancer. Fermented soy, such as tempeh, miso and natto, are the way to go. Tempeh is an excellent alternative to pasta. So is quinoa. Sprout it to make it even more wholesome and less carby.
Some “meat” has a better health profile than others, such as turkey, chicken, and lean meats. Organic meat, dairy and eggs are much better choices than factory-farm products. They have far less of the farm toxins and significantly more fat-soluble vitamins. However, since they are highly acid-forming, animal protein should be eaten in moderation and together with ample amounts of greens. The same goes with fish, the best of which are the ones containing higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, herring). It is also important to offset the mercury and other toxins in fish by eating them with dark green vegetables, cilantro, chlorella and the like. A good multivitamin also contains a number of nutrients (i.e., selenium, zinc) that protect against these toxins.
Perhaps the worst thing about meat is that it is often charred on the outside while frying, roasting or grilling to enhance flavor. Carmelized carbs and overheated oils can also be toxic. Try cooking with spices such as turmeric, rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme to reduce the impact of these burnt foods, and 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.) with your meal may make all the difference in how these foods negatively affect the body.
Another problem with protein is that it may not be 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, lecithin and magnesium help neutralize toxic substances like homocysteine, and improve protein metabolism. This is another good reason to take a high-quality multivitamin twice daily. Also, consider taking a chelated form of magnesium as a supplement, Magnesium is plentiful in greens, beans, nuts and seeds.
Regarding lipids and oils, some are far better than others. Extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil are at the top of the good list of oils used to prepare foods. The omega-3 oils (fish, krill, flax, hemp, walnut) are also important for many bodily processes, and to tone down inflammation. The most problemmatic oils in the modern diet are the omega-6 oils, which are found in vegetable oils, especially 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. Canola oil has a better balance, but is not well regarded by many nutritionists. Grape seed oil and peanut oil are not as bad, but still are not the best oils for cooking.
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. There’s nothing wrong with a nice piece of dark chocolate every day. Organic butter is another good fat. There’s even an omega-6 fat called GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) found in Evening Primrose oil and Borage oil that is highly anti-inflammatory. Also, don’t worry so much about the amount of cholesterol that’s in food, such as eggs and meat. External sources of cholesterol play a minor role in heart disease, compared to not getting the antioxidants and nutrients needed to help protect the body and process foods properly. The body overproduces cholesterol to try to keep inflamed fat cells from bursting, and spilling fat and toxins into the bloodstream. Oxidation and inflammation are at the root cause of cardiovascular disease, not cholesterol.
Regarding meat fats, organic fat is good for you in moderation. It’s the factory farm toxins in non-organic meat and dairy that cause inflammation. When it comes to animal food, always buy organic and/or local from a healthy farm. Another bad oil is called trans fat or partially hydrogenated fat, found in shortening, margarine, and many processed foods. These not only cause heart disease and cancer, but also make us irritable. Lipids that are not rancid or overcooked are preferable to stuff that’s been sitting around, or reused in frying. Use coconut oil instead for frying, and on low heat.
Carbs, lipids and protein are broken down and metabolized in complex pathways that require energy and special nutrients. Healthy food is also prone to spoilage and rancidity, so it is best to buy fresh and not destroy the goodness in these foods during preparation. It’s also smart to cook and eat these foods in the presence of antioxidants that protect the body from inflammation. Adequate nutrition and supplementation go a long way toward protecting against the ravages of digestion and metabolism of food. It is also a good idea to balance omega-6s with fresh omega-3s. In a word, it’s about quality.