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Q&A: Can a healthy diet help prevent chronic inflammation?

Focus on foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols or antioxidants, all of which help combat inflammation.

The International Potato Center predicts a 32-percent drop in harvests of potatoes and sweet potatoes by 2060 due to climate change. — © AFP
The International Potato Center predicts a 32-percent drop in harvests of potatoes and sweet potatoes by 2060 due to climate change. — © AFP

According to a new study led by Mainous, about 35 percent of U.S. adults have chronic inflammation – lasting months or even years. When inflammation is left unchecked, it could play a role in developing many diseases, from autoimmune diseases to cancer.

Many people live with constant discomfort from inflammation, not knowing what the causes are. Some only find out they have chronic inflammation when they are diagnosed with serious health issues or diseases.

The medical community knows chronic inflammation is a problem, but very little is done to prevent it at the government level, nor in the doctor’s office, typically. Currently, there are no clinical guidelines for chronic inflammation screening, yet there is a growing trend of “anti-inflammation diets.”

While experts at Harvard Medical School acknowledge that nutrition is one of the ways people can combat inflammation, what are the actual foods you should eat to deal with this issue?

Digital Journal sat with Morgan McAuliffe, Nutritionist with Z.E.N. Foods, a healthy meal delivery company, and talked about how to reduce or even prevent inflammation through a healthy diet.

Digital Journal: What causes inflammation?

Morgan McAuliffe: Chronic inflammation can have many causes, but are often linked to lifestyle, physiological and environmental factors. Poor diet, stress, lack of physical activity, smoking, aging, obesity, autoimmune disorders and exposure to toxins in the environment are all possible triggers of inflammation.

DJ: Is it true that more people today have chronic inflammation than ever before?

McAuliffe: We live in a fast-paced, high-stress time with an abundance of unhealthy snacks and processed foods. When we’re in stressful situations for long periods of time, our adrenal glands release cortisol to help us stay on high alert. Stress also triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from the liver to provide energy quickly to fuel the natural “fight or flight” response. However, if you have consistently high levels of cortisol, your body can get used to having too much of it in your blood, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system.

To make things worse, cortisol will increase appetite and push people to seek out high-fat, sugary “comfort foods,” which as we said before, can be found just about anywhere today – in the gas station, liquor store, grocery store, fast food restaurants. A majority of comfort foods are inflammatory. No wonder more and more people’s bodies are in an inflamed state on a continual basis.

DJ: What are some of these inflammatory “comfort foods”?

McAuliffe: Unfortunately, the following foods that tend to dominate Americans’ diets and can have an inflammatory effect.

  • Refined Carbs: white bread, white rice, crackers, biscuits
  • Processed Foods: chips, cookies, fast foods, cakes
  • Deep Fried Foods: fries, fried chicken, cheese sticks, donuts
  • Processed Meats: bacon, ham, hot-dogs, lunchmeat
  • Sugar-sweetened Drinks: soda, sports drinks, artificial fruit juices
  • Commercial baked goods: snack cakes, pies, cookies, brownies
  • Trans fats: found in fried foods, margarine, microwave popcorn, refrigerated biscuits and dough, non-dairy coffee creamers

DJ: How do those foods cause inflammation?

McAuliffe: Sugar is a leading cause of inflammation. Too much sugar causes our gut to be more permeable and allows bacteria and other particles to enter our bloodstream, triggering an immune response leading to inflammation. Consuming excess amounts of sugar also causes weight gain, which could lead to excess body fat and cause insulin resistance. The result? Inflammation!

Trans fats are artificial fatty acids. Studies have shown that high consumption of trans fatty acids can cause heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It can also change the composition and biodiversity of the gut microbiota and cause chronic inflammation.

Both sugar and trans fats are common ingredients in all the inflammatory foods mentioned above.

DJ: What should we eat to reduce or prevent inflammation?

McAuliffe: First and foremost, decrease or stop consuming the inflammatory foods!

Instead, focus on foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols or antioxidants, all of which help combat inflammation. Next time when you’re at the grocery store, look for these items:

  • Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, arugula
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts
  • Fatty fish, including tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, striped bass and anchovies
  • Seeds and nuts, like flax, chia, and almonds
  • Fruits, including citrus foods, cherries, apples, berries, pomegranates, and grapes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Turmeric
  • Avocados
  • Mushrooms
  • Tea, such as green tea, black tea
  • Dark chocolate

DJ: Why can these foods help reduce or prevent inflammation?

McAuliffe: Fatty fish contains omega-3 acids that are critical for our health. Studies have found that they help reduce pain and inflammation, as well as offer benefits for heart health, brain function and blood sugar (diabetes). Since our bodies don’t make omega-3s, we will need to get them from food, fish oil or algal oil supplements.

Fruits and vegetables listed above contain vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help address cellular wear and tear that can set off inflammation.

Colorful, plant-based foods, whole grains and olive oil contain polyphenols. These are naturally occurring compounds that protect the body from inflammation. Polyphenol-rich foods are incorporated in the Mediterranean diet, and that is why the Mediterranean diet is said to be the best diet for health and helping reduce inflammation. Dark chocolate and tea also contain this compound.

DJ: Are you seeing an increase in requests for inflammation-reducing meals?

McAuliffe: We get a lot of special requests from people looking to achieve very specific dietary goals. Reducing inflammation has definitely been one of the requests we’re seeing more of. While losing weight is still the number one goal, we noticed the motivation for weight loss is no longer just for vanity reasons. More and more people want to eat a healthy diet to improve their health, reduce inflammation and boost their immunity while losing those unwanted pounds. Therefore, we have been adding more and more Mediterranean style meals to our menu to accommodate the growing demand.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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