Inflammation is one of those highly-trafficked words that’s science-y enough to incite panic in some people. I want all of you to understand what inflammation is, why we have it (and all of us do), and how to mitigate it as much as possible. Let’s do this!
What is Inflammation?
In easy terms, inflammation is defined as this: when cells are damaged, your body enacts an immune response to fix the situation. That is inflammation.
We all know acute inflammation: that’s what happens when we cut or burn ourselves. Slice your finger with a knife, and the heat and redness that ensues is inflammation.
Inflammation is actually normal; if we didn’t have it at all, we wouldn’t heal after infection or injury, because inflammation is part of the body’s defence system. But when inflammation happens at a low level, over a long period of time, it can have detrimental effects on our health. That’s what we call ‘chronic inflammation’.
Most of the inflammation that’s referred to on wellness sites and in the media is chronic inflammation. Unlike when you whack your finger with a hammer, this sort of inflammation doesn’t clear up in a few days. It’s more of an immune-system ‘misfire’, where the body continues to react to something that it perceives as a threat. It’s as though the immune system didn’t get the memo that there’s nothing harmful; it just keeps on fighting, and that’s not a good thing. It also occurs in response to our diet and lifestyle among other things.
Chronic inflammation has been implicated in everything from the development of diseases and conditions such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, heart disease, depression, and a whole lot of others. It’s a safe bet that we want to decrease inflammation in our bodies as much as possible, for as long as possible.
What Causes Inflammation?
Viruses, autoimmune disease, and pathogens that the body can’t get rid of on its own can all cause inflammation. Inflammation can also be caused by aging (BOOOO)
The Standard American Diet has been implicated in inflammation.
There is solid research indicating that trans fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates all cause inflammation when eaten in large amounts (actually, no amount of trans fat is okay).
Your weight may also trigger inflammation. Research has discovered that fat cells can trigger release of cytokines, which substances secreted by cells that stimulate the immune system.
Lack of sleep – particularly with shiftwork and travel, which disrupt our circadian rhythm – can alter gut microbiota and in that way, may promote chronic inflammation.
There is also some research that suggests that sedentary lifestyle contributes to inflammation, but I’m not convinced that it’s the lifestyle alone (as sedentary people as a rule are probably more likely to eat a less healthy diet) that’s causing the inflammation.
Common Questions Regarding Inflammation
There are questions I get often about inflammation, so let’s get those out of the way:
Does red meat cause inflammation?
I know what you’re probably thinking: red meat is inflammatory. However, I’m not finding convincing evidence that that’s true. What I’m finding a lot of are epidemiological studies that find a correlation between people who eat a lot of red meat, and increased disease risk. The problem? These people also tend to eat less fruits and vegetables, they tend to smoke, and they tend to be less active.
Some studies suggest that Neu5Gc-glycan (a sugar in meat), can cause an immune response, but this reaction is very individual, with some people having a larger response than others.
Another study found that women with a higher BMI had a significant inflammatory reaction to red meat (both processed and not processed), but lower-BMI women didn’t.
As far as cancer goes – because there are a lot of studies that look at meat consumption and cancer risk – it’s commonly believed that chronic inflammation increases our risk of developing certain cancers.
That all being said, if you’re eating a ton of saturated fat, and as a result you raise your LDL, this may promote inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Everything is connected somehow.
The bottom line? It appears as though consumption of red meat may increase inflammation and resulting disease risk in some people, but we don’t know for sure that red meat itself has that effect, and if so, how much it takes to flip that switch.
How about processed meat?
Processed meat gets its bad rep from the nitrites it contains. When these nitrites are exposed to high heat (when you cook your bacon) and amino acids (like protein-rich hotdogs), they can form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are thought to be inflammatory and carcinogenic.
So yes, we suspect that processed meat is inflammatory (hint: even celery salt, the ‘natural’ nitrite, forms nitrosamines in our bodies). But we know that people who eat a ton of processed meat may also eat a ton of other ultra-processed foods. Is there a connection?
I wouldn’t recommend eating deli meat often, but it’s important to keep in mind that while there might be a correlation between deli meat and cancer, the risk appears to be very small. Sometimes you just want a turkey and avocado sandwich, right?
Do milk products cause inflammation?
My short answer is that for people who aren’t intolerant or allergic to dairy, milk products are not inflammatory. In fact, studies suggest that they might be anti-inflammatory, in particular fermented milk products. You can certainly have a healthy diet without dairy, but if you enjoy dairy and you tolerate it well, I don’t think there’s any reason to stop eating it.
Does gluten cause inflammation?
Not unless you have celiac disease or non-celiac sensitivity to gluten. Most people can eat gluten-containing foods without any problem, so don’t go all Gwyneth Paltrow on me and cut gluten out ‘just because’.
How about seed oils like canola/omega-6 oils?
Plenty of people want you to believe that seed oils are the worst things for you, but seed oils, while highly refined, haven’t shown to promote inflammation.
Every oil has its own profile of fatty acids, and they all have a mixed bag. Olive oil has saturated fats. Canola oil has monounsaturates. I should do a post on oils (maybe for next month? Let me know if you’d like that).
I see people fighting about this literally every single day on social media. I’m going to ride the fence here and say that there’s no definitive proof that shows that saturated fats increase inflammation in people – except for what I wrote above about the LDL connection).
What I want to add is that pointing the finger at one single nutrient/ingredient – and this goes for all the ‘inflammatory’ foods – without considering the entirety of your diet AND your lifestyle, is silly.
If you have a diet that is varied and consists of mostly minimally-processed foods, and you’re healthy and active, you probably won’t have issues if you throw some bacon and Hostess cupcakes in there occasionally. If your diet isn’t very healthy and you’re very sedentary and you smoke, it’s probably going to be a different story. I think the effects of diet and lifestyle are cumulative, if you know what I mean.
What do our guts have to do with it?
Our gut microbiome has a huge role in chronic inflammation.
Desiree Neilson RD, an expert in gut health, agrees:
Digestive health is a hot topic for a very good reason: inflammation can be initiated – and exacerbated – by what goes on in the gut, because roughly 80% of our immune activity is centred there.
Microbes living in the gut can mediate the inflammatory process for better or for worse; when certain beneficial bacteria ferment fibre, they produce butyric acid that helps mediate the immune response, lower circulating inflammatory markers and improve the integrity of the gut barrier.
Beneficial microbes also help fight off more inflammatory, gut-damaging microbes directly through the production of organic acids and interspecies antimicrobial substances called bacteriocins, saving our immune system a bit of work. It’s safe to say then, that for this reason (and many others!), keeping our guts happy is super important.
Symptoms of Inflammation
Chronic inflammation isn’t really something you can see, so it’s measured by inflammatory markers in the blood, one of which is CRP, or C-reactive protein. Intestinal issues can also be indicators of inflammation – such as that from IBS or IBD. Cardiovascular disease? The result of long-term inflammation.
Unfortunately, we can also suffer from chronic inflammation for a really long time without even knowing about it.
Also unfortunately, plenty of companies use the nebulous concept of ‘inflammation’ to scare people into buying what they’re selling. This is a particularly popular scheme for supplement and ‘wellness’ companies like Goop, among others.
I don’t want you to be afraid, or to buy into that sort of tactic, so here are my recommendations for really keeping inflammation to a minimum:
How to Decrease Inflammation
While inflammation sounds scary and yes, it can result in health issues, there are a few things we can do to help keep it at bay (remember that some inflammation is normal):
First off, stay away from diet extremes.
The first extreme is the Standard American Diet, which has high refined carbs (like white flours, low-fiber grain products, ultra-processed cereals etc.), lots of saturated fats and sugars, processed meats, poor intake of fruits and vegetables, and inadequate healthy fats such as those from avocadoes, nuts, and olive oil.
The other extreme is fad diets that call for the majority of the diet to be meats. I read a carnivore dieter’s comment the other day that said that the body doesn’t need any fiber except for ‘meat fiber’ like collagen. I guess when someone wants to believe something that badly, they’ll make up a story to accommodate that belief, and that’s what that person did. In reality, a diet that disallows fruits and vegetables and even a small amount of whole grains will not give us the fiber we need to lower inflammation.
Says Neilson, “Because of the connection of the gut and its bacterial contents to inflammation, fibre is one of the best anti-inflammatories you can consume. Fibre helps shape the bacterial community into a healthier, more inflammation-protective one.”
So eat your vegetables, and don’t listen to random people on Twitter.
Consider your diet as a whole. Nitpicking every single nutrient you eat is exhausting and a shitty way to spend your time. And remember that inflammation is not just related to diet, but also to lifestyle.
An anti-inflammatory diet seems to be high in fruits and vegetables and high in fiber (NOT ‘MEAT FIBER’). Use extra-virgin olive oil (even for cooking) for its oxidative stability and antioxidants. Some people recommend fish oil for inflammation, but the jury is out on that conclusion. Throw some nuts and avocado in there, too.
Speaking of supplements, Examine .com has the most comprehensive assessment of every single one, and I can absolutely vouch for this site in terms of its credibility and quality of content. Their Human Effect Matrices will tell you if a supplement worth taking at all, and for what.
I think the message is clear:
Eat a varied, minimally-processed diet like I describe above, but also enjoy some treats occasionally. A healthy diet also includes you being relaxed about what you eat instead of nitpicking and punishing yourself for eating.
Remember that diet is one part of health, and lifestyle is another. You can eat as ‘anti-inflammatory’ as you want, but if your lifestyle isn’t up to par, this may affect the level of inflammation in your body. Get enough sleep and exercise.
Don’t listen to randoms on the internet.