INFLAMMATION: The Three Major Diet Dangers

It may seem odd, but it's true: A biological function that helps you heal can also harm you. Many experts now blame the body's complex response to injury or irritation—the inflammation process—for a host of problems, including cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, heart attack and low-level depression, as well as everyday muscle aches and joint pain. Inflammation is potentially healthy, in that it allows the body to fight injury and infection. However, if the inflammation is not turned off and persists after the original injury, it can harm every organ in the body, leading to chronic diseases, particularly of the heart, brain and immune system.

What you eat—or don’t eat—can have a profound effect on this process. The typical Western menu, full of packaged foods, sugary snacks and corn-fed meat, promotes harmful inflammation, while other, more healthful foods help curb it.

When chronic-pain patients such as those with arthritis and fibromyalgia are put on an anti-inflammatory diet, the results are near miraculous. The rest of us can benefit from this kind of diet as well.  By tinkering with your meals, you can halt the process of inflammation and begin to think, look and feel better every day.

Inflammation 101
Suppose you cut yourself while slicing a tomato. The injury triggers a cascade of events. Compounds (called eicosanoids) that instruct other cells how to behave send signals that bring more blood cells to the hurt area and help it heal. The increased blood cells and fluid make the tissue become red, warm, swollen and painful—what we normally think of as inflamed.

But experts are now concentrating on another type of inflammation that is within cells. It’s generated in the most primitive part of the immune system, called the innate (or nonspecific) immune system, which provides generalized defenses against intruders (as compared with, say, antibodies that are adapted to specific bacteria). Once this inflammation response is activated, a wide number of inflammatory proteins are produced in the cell. These proteins and other inflammatory mediators can create a disruption in hormonal signaling, which causes the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids to continue at a low level. The result: chronic inflammation. These compounds begin to attack your joints, blood vessels and other tissues.

For many, this chronic inflammation produces aches, pains, fatigue and don’t-feel-like-getting-out-of-bed blahs. And if the inflammation continues for too long, it can have more devastating consequences.  We now believe that most age-related disorders, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even some forms of cancer, can be at least partially attributed to chronic levels of inflammation in the body.  The process that normally heals the body can become the driving force behind chronic disease.

Good nutrition is a crucial part of the signaling-eicosanoids puzzle, because the body synthesizes eicosanoids from the foods we eat. Depending on which foods predominate in the diet, eicosanoids can either increase chronic inflammation or reduce it. Choosing the correct balance of foods is one of the most effective tools we have to keep chronic inflammation in check. Here are three major diet dangers and what to eat instead.

Diet Danger: Excess Omega-6s
One of the building blocks of the pro-inflammatory (harmful) eicosanoids is called arachidonic acid, a type of long-chain omega-6 fatty acid. Omega-6s are a form of essential fatty acid found in safflower, soybean and corn oils and contained in many processed snack foods, such as cookies. They’re also in the fat of corn-fed animals such as chickens, and some fish such as tilapia (‘junk fish’). On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in olive oil, walnuts and wild cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna, can actually help the eicosanoids work in an anti-inflammatory way. While we require both omega-6s and omega-3s, we need them in about a 4-to-1 ratio. With the proliferation of processed foods and the increased use of corn and similar vegetable oils, the ratio in the American diet has increased to about 20 to 1. That means we’re eating about five times the amount of omega-6 fatty acids that we need each day.
Rx: Aim for two servings of omega-3-rich foods a day, while cutting down substantially on safflower, soybean and corn oils, processed foods, corn-fed meat and farmed salmon (because it may have been raised on corn).

Diet Danger: Trans Fats
Trans fats—the artificially hardened fats used in margarine, vegetable shortening and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, as well as in many convenience foods—damage the cells lining the blood vessels. A study done in 2004 on more than 8000 women found that the higher their intake of trans fat, the higher their markers for inflammation.
Rx: Avoid most margarines (especially hardened margarines) and processed snack foods.  Look at the ingredients on labels and avoid partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans-fats.

Diet Danger: Too Many Concentrated Sweets
All carbohydrates are broken down by the body into the simple sugar glucose. Carbs with a high glycemic load—for example, refined grains (such as white bread) and simple sugars (such as candy)—take little time to digest, and quickly inundate your cells with glucose. In response, insulin rushes in to mop up the glucose glut, and these high insulin levels stimulate an enzyme that causes more arachidonic acid to be released from cells. So, the higher the glycemic load in your diet, the more inflammation it will cause. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at more than 2000 women and found that the bigger their dietary glycemic load, the greater their levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation in the body.

Rx: Lighten your glycemic load. Choose more colorful foods. Opt for brown bread over white, and sweet potatoes over white. Up your intake of legumes and vegetables. And go for apples and berries. USDA researchers found that blueberries were as effective as the anti-inflammatory drug piroxicam in reducing inflammation in rats.

More Ways to Tame the Flames
Rx:
Eat more soluble fiber, the gummy kind contained in oatmeal. In a recent study at the University of Illinois, Urbana, when mice were fed a low-fat, high-soluble-fiber diet, their bodies produced more interleukin-6, an anti-inflammatory protein. Good sources of soluble fiber include oat bran, lentils, seeds and strawberries.
Rx: Seek out magnesium. Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston discovered that people who got less than 50 percent of the RDA for magnesium were almost three times as likely to have high C-reactive protein levels as those who consumed enough. The best sources are almonds, cashews and spinach.

Rx: Opt for grass-fed chicken or turkey; these animals are fed natural grass rich in omega-3s.

A DAY ON THE DIET
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can take a lot of discipline—you need to eliminate fast foods and processed foods—but the payoffs are substantial in terms of short-term well-being and long-term health. Try this sample menu.

Breakfast
Greek yogurt (six-ounce container) with one tablespoon (thumb-tip size) of berries

Snack
One ounce (a cupped handful) of walnuts

Lunch
Spinach salad made with multicolored peppers, red onions, tomatoes, a half cup of rinsed black beans, one third of a sliced avocado, and extra-virgin olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing

Snack
One ounce of dried cherries with one ounce of pumpkin seeds and a cup of green tea

Dinner
Grilled wild salmon (four to six ounces, a little bigger than your palm) sprinkled with ginger 
Steamed broccoli
Roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
A small sweet potato

Dessert
One to two squares (each the size of your thumb) of dark chocolate

Source: Leslie Pepper