Inflammation. It's a dirty word in today's health and wellness world and with good reason; it's been linked to nearly all degenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, cancer, autoimmune disease, and more.
Obviously, inflammation can also be our friend. The swelling, heat, and redness that accompanies a scratch or cut is our body using inflammation to quickly neutralize microbes that may have entered from the outside. This acute version of inflammation sweeps up dead or damaged tissue and quickly cleans up the cellular crime scene.
Chronic inflammation is a different story. The name itself can be misleading because it's rarely accompanied by the usual physical signs. Instead, the body's chemical messengers that rile up the immune system remain elevated without specific cause. These messengers are like little fire alarms, constantly going off and causing tiny disruptions. Over time, this results in damage to our tissues and organs.
Many things in today's world can incite chronic inflammation in the body, including diet. While specific triggers can vary by individual, I've pulled together my 8 biggest DON'TS for an inflammation-free meal.
- Sugar. Fat, hold my beer. It's added to everything these days from crackers to salad dressing to juice. Excess sugar in the diet means higher spikes of blood sugar. Among other destructive activities, high blood sugar results in the production of more free radicals -unstable cells that cause a chain reaction of cellular damage- in the body. High levels of free radicals raise the level of circulating inflammation messengers leading to -you guessed it- chronic inflammation.
- Omega 6. To be clear, it's not omega 6 that's the bad guy, it's the amount of omega 6 that we're eating these days. While this type of fatty acids is necessary in our diet, it's also responsible for inflammatory reactions. When we're consuming it in high amounts, we're pushing our body towards a pro-inflammatory state. Where is this influx coming from? Vegetable and seed oils, the standard for almost all salad dressings, marinades, crackers, snacks, and prepared foods, are primarily composed of omega 6 fatty acids. Luckily there's a simple fix: less snack foods, more olive oil. Also helpful is increasing the intake of omega 3, best found in seafood and supplemented with chia or flax.
- Trans Fats. These little monsters piggyback on #2. They're created by saturating an oil -almost always a high omega 6 oil- with hydrogen, turning it from a liquid to a solid. It's a form of fat that our body struggles to recognize and process, and the result is an offended immune system. Not only that, but trans fats are especially adept at contributing towards the clogged arteries and high cholesterol that is rampant in our modern world, further stimulating inflammatory action.
- AGEs. Advanced glycation end-products are unfortunate molecules that are created when a sugar fuses with a fat or a protein. The resulting molecule is highly damaging and is strongly linked with neuro-degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's. AGEs can be created in the body with a high sugar diet, or can be created in the foods we eat by processing techniques like dry heat cooking. That char on your steak or the caramelization on your carrots are -unfortunately- a red flag for AGE production. Which is not to say that you can never eat these delicious foods; a healthy body with high antioxidant intake can safely process a moderate amount of AGEs, but moderation is key. Other AGE no-nos: smoking and high fructose corn syrup.
- MSG. Monosodium glutamate. The OG of dietary no-nos. I couldn't begin to do it justice with this tiny blog bullet point, so if you're not yet familiar with all the ways this additive can ruin your world, please start here.
- Stranger Danger. This is where I lump all the artificials: preservatives, stabilizers, colorings, sweeteners, etc. Most of the unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients on packaged foods fall under this category. While studies done specifically on any of these substances are rare, their use goes hand-in-hand with processed foods that we already know to be inflammatory. It's a safe bet to assume that lab-made chemicals aren't helping the cause. Anecdotal reports of incredible health recoveries in individuals who finally broke up with their diet coke habits or removed food dyes from their child's diet abound. As do the terrifying reports of where these "foods" come from, like the accidental discovery of saccharin in 1879 by a scientist who forgot to wash his hands before eating lunch. To his surprise, the chemical he was working with was super freaky sweet! No joke...
- Gluten. I consider this one a conditionally inflammatory food. Both the health of our gut and the modern processing techniques have turned a previously innocuous grain into a potentially very-damaging food. Most gluten in today's diet comes from concentrated, refined, and poorly processed sources which damage the gut lining and trigger inflammation. For anyone with an autoimmune disease, it's especially triggering. Opting for traditional sourdough breads, choosing ancient forms of wheat such as spelt or khorasian, and soaking gluten-containing grains before cooking them will all help with digestion.
- Dairy. This one's another conditional inflammatory food that is a victim of modern food systems. Two damaging processes, pasteurization and homogenization, turn milk from a veritable superfood into an inflammatory rockstar. Acne and stomachaches ensue. True, we're less likely to get sick from pathogenic bacteria with these processing techniques, but we also missing out on enzymes, good bacteria, and natural fats that are normally present in milk. What to do? If you're a dairy fan, look for a high quality producer of raw milk. If you don't tolerate cow dairy well, try goat milk. Digestion is as much as four times faster, eliminating most of the issues with lactose that cause gas, bloating, and GI distress.