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What you put into your body matters. Our world is evolving to understand more and more about gut health, why it matters, and what food can make our guts and overall immune systems happy, or very unsettled.
Lifesavvy spoke with Serena Poon, Certified Nutritionist and Celebrity Chef, and Megan Hardy, fitness trainer, nutritionist, Founder of Fitness Uncharted, and host of the Muscle Makeover podcast, to really dig into how food can cause inflammation, why inflammation from food can be detrimental for your health, and a few food groups to either add into your diet or take away.
How Can Food Cause Inflammation?
Simply put, inflammation is part of your body’s natural response to protecting you from toxins, injury, and any other unwanted, or potentially dangerous stimulus around you. An inflammatory response to food, in particular, can come about as a result of a variety of these “unwanted substances.
You can probably guess that one of the primary ways food causes inflammation in your body is due to an allergic reaction. According to our experts, when this happens, your immune system views the allergen in your body as a threat or a trigger, which can cause swelling in the face, redness, itching, and at times, digestive problems.
A less common inflammatory response in the body as a result of eating is food sensitivity. Food sensitivity is another way of saying you have an “intolerance” to certain foods. Common intolerances, according to Hardy, are gluten, dairy, nuts, and sometimes food additives.
Hardy explained that while a food allergy is characterized by an immune system reaction, a food sensitivity is characterized by a digestive system reaction. Both can cause inflammation!
Unfortunately, some of the best-tasting food, especially on the dessert menu, can cause the most inflammation in your body. Sugary foods or refined carbs, otherwise known as food with a high glycemic index, cause a huge increase in blood sugar levels. This, in turn, prompts the release of insulin, which triggers an inflammatory response in your body.
Trans fats with omega-6 fatty acids, like those found in processed foods and vegetable oils, can promote unwanted inflammation in your body as well.
“Omega-6 fatty acids themselves are not inherently inflammatory, but the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is important,” said Hardy.
While these fats can be difficult to avoid in Western society, Poon and Hardy shared that failing to strike a good balance between the two fatty acids, by overindulging in processed food, can lead to “chronic low-level inflammation.”
Poon and Hardy shared that fried foods, or foods that have been heavily grilled or roasted, can generate harmful compounds in the body called Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs). Studies have shown that AGEs can cause inflammation in the body.
Your Gut Health
The primary organ that suffers as a result of inflammatory foods is your gut. Diet is the cause of imbalance in your “gut microbiota,” which are responsible for helping you maintain a balanced immune system.
Why Foods That Cause Inflammation Are Bad
Inflammatory foods aren’t good for you for a variety of reasons, including their relation to developing chronic disease, their impact on your immune system, and your overall wellness. The list goes on. Poon and Hardy came together to explain the why behind these issues.
Increases Your Chance of Developing Chronic Disease
Unfortunately, inflammation that results from food is one of the leading causes behind the development of a variety of chronic diseases. Hardy and Poon came together to explain that diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and certain cancers comprise just a small list of chronic diseases to be aware of when your diet is on the more inflammatory side.
The onset of developing these diseases due to your diet is complex, and research is continuing to follow the trend of how diet affects inflammation. Poon revealed the most thorough research has actually been done on type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Diet-induced inflammation can be caused by the alteration of gut microbiota, which can trigger a pro-inflammatory immune response; obesity in itself can cause ‘chronic low-grade inflammation’ in the pancreas, liver, fat tissue, and more. The resulting chronic inflammation can lead to insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes,” said Poon.
Poon explained that eating some of the triggers explained above can weaken or irritate the fragile lining of your gut, which can also be the cause of toxins failing to enter and exit your bloodstream properly (a condition called leaky gut syndrome).
Another gut condition that causes chronic inflammation throughout the body is called “gut dysbiosis.” Hardy explained that commonly, this condition surfaces as a result of diets high in artificial additives and preservatives.
Your Immune System and Energy Levels Take a Hit
If inflammatory food has the ability to cause long-term disease and illness, it absolutely has a similar ability to cause issues in the normal functioning of your immune system, energy, and overall well-being.
“Eating a highly inflammatory diet can lead to an overactive immune response, where the immune system mistakenly targets healthy tissues and cells, resulting in autoimmune disorders. Inflammatory foods can trigger or exacerbate this immune disturbance,” said Poon.
On a daily basis, eating foods high in inflammation can make you tired, lethargic, moody, and not in your best head space. Rather than optimizing your daily tasks, it can really drag you down.
Hardy explained that this is because chronic inflammation is associated with such a wide range of diseases and health problems.
“Unlike acute inflammation, which is a normal response to injury or infection and helps the body heal, chronic inflammation is a persistent and low-grade inflammatory state that can be detrimental to various organ systems that are responsible for your daily health and energy,” said Hardy.
More Likely to Gain Weight
Since the food that is highly inflammatory is high in trans fat, sugar, refined carbs, and other “unhealthy” ingredients, it doesn’t come as a surprise for our experts to share that this type of diet is associated with one’s likelihood of gaining unwanted weight.
Hardy went on to explain that “chronic low-grade inflammation” plays a role in the development of obesity and weight gain. These foods can even play a part in your body’s ability to resist insulin and metabolize food at a normal rate.
What Are the Worst Foods for Inflammation?
Hopefully, by now, you are convinced that finding a balanced diet, rather than a highly inflammatory diet, is probably in your best interest, not only for your daily wellness but also for your long-term health. Our experts helped us pick out the following food groups to stay away from or cut back on during your next trip to the grocery store.
Refined sugar is found in your artificial sweeteners, sodas, and packaged cookies. If the ingredient label has dextrose, sucrose, or fructose, on the label, our experts recommend avoiding it.
“High fat, high sugar diets can cause an imbalance in the gut microbiome, which can lead to inflammation,” said Poon.
Poon and Hardy put the same caution forward towards processed oils. Vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids and should be avoided. This is because these oils don’t strike the balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies need. Instead, they produce an unhappy and unbalanced gut.
What Foods Reduce Inflammation?
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to satisfy your sweet tooth and get in a healthy serving of meat-based protein. Poon and Hardy shared a variety of products to seek out at your next grocery trip in an attempt to lower inflammation in your body, and optimize your nutrient intake!
Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are innately anti-inflammatory because they are packed with antioxidants. There is a reason why you stock up on the oranges in your fridge when you start to feel sick.
“The more variety you eat of these foods, the better,” shared Poon.
Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are Hardy’s top recommendations for fighting inflammation and improving immunity.
If you lean towards meat in your weekly diet, our experts encourage you to eat fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and trout. Hardy shared that this is because they are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) specifically.
Poon went on to describe that these fatty acids help balance out omega-6 fatty acids and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.
Nuts & Seeds
Yes- stock up on your walnuts, almonds, cashews, and other nuts and seeds! Both nutritionists shared that these foods are high in the micronutrients, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium- all of which contribute to a healthy gut.
Seek out farro, barley, and quinoa over pasta and white bread. Poon explained that swapping out these products at your next grocery store visit could help decrease inflammation and up your fiber and antioxidant intake.
Poon and Hardy emphasized the importance of understanding that inflammation from food varies from person to person. If you have concerns about inflammation that you think might point to your diet, give these suggestions a try, and seek out a certified nutritionist or gut health expert in your area to understand what might be off balance in your body.