Diet, Chronic Disease and Inflammation
By Sally J. Feltner, MS, PhD
A lot of recent attention has been paid to the role of lifestyle in many chronic diseases (lately referred to as underlying causes of mortality in the Covid-19 viral pandemic). Deaths due to this virus have been strongly associated with age, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes to name a few. Many people with the viral infection have reported to have had at least one or two of these chronic conditions. Obesity alone has been known to be associated with low-grade inflammation.
Diet is one of those lifestyle factors in which somehow, we have gone astray. As we often hear, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is becoming more and more to be a causative factor of our ill health. As a result, body weight is on the rise and we are becoming more sedentary. Obesity is linked to the metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes and has come to be called the diabesity pandemic.
Recently, we have changed our ideas about diet and heart disease. Many doctors still think the high fat, high cholesterol diet of the last decade was to blame. However, this is a simplified view that dismisses the research that now supports the possibility that heart disease is mediated by other biological events other than cholesterol, including oxidative stress (free radicals), insulin sensitivity, endothelial dysfunction and blood clotting mechanisms and most importantly low-grade inflammation. Also, heart disease is now thought to have other risk factors such as high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol that may be or not be related to dietary factors.
(FYI – endothelium is the tissue which forms a single layer of cells lining various organs and cavities of the body, especially the blood vessels, heart, and lymphatic vessels.)
We should be aware that inflammation is a double-edged sword. Inflammation in the body is necessary to protect us from infections and cancer and when appropriate from diseases. In its acute state as when you cut your finger, its reactions are self-limiting and resolve rapidly; the process is meant to heal and repair tissue damage. However, when inflammation is inappropriate, it can get out of hand and contribute to disease, especially chronic diseases. That is when inflammation can become your enemy. In this type, the inflammatory response needs be controlled or managed or at least short lived. Should it continue on, persisting cytokines of the immune system can produce excessive damage, leading to a number of diseases, including fibromyalgia, lupus, MS, and more. Cytokines can persist and overwhelm the immune response by releasing signals in the nervous system and and may contribute to a “cytokine storm” killing healthy cells as well as the offending agents (bacteria or virus).
(FYI – cytokines are small proteins produced by immune defensive cells that affect other cells and the immune response to an infectious agent. They act as cell messengers.
Can Diet as a Lifestyle Make a Difference in our Susceptibility to Disease and Affect Our Overall Health??
Recently, much has been written about specific foods and dietary approaches you can do to that either promote or reduce low grade inflammation. Keep in mind that this is only speculation, and some is just pure marketing by the food industry to promote a certain brand. At this point, we are beginning to research this more conclusively and in order to do that, studies have to measure whether a certain substance in the diet either raises or depresses what is known as inflammatory biomarkers in the body. The most used is one called high sensitivity C-Reactive protein (hsCRP). Others include inflammatory markers interleukin-1 or interleukin-6 as well as others. To do this involves a simple blood sample. I have had one to measure my inflammatory status a few years ago. If you see a study that claims to have noninflammatory properties, look for the way the study was performed – i.e., did it measure the effects on these inflammatory markers.
The goal of this blog post is to guide us to the right anti-inflammatory foods to reduce your risk of illness. Consistently, pick the wrong ones, and you could accelerate the inflammatory disease process.
Foods that allegedly promote inflammation – try to limit these foods as much as possible:
- Refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pastries; choose whole grains instead. They need not be gluten-free unless you have some issues with wheat and need to limit its intake.
- French fries and other fried foods
- Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat (hog dogs, sausage)
- Margarine, shortening, lard (high levels of trans fatty acids)
Foods that allegedly reduce inflammation – include in the diet as much as possible
- Tomatoes rich in lycopene and carotenoids – healthy phytochemicals usually with antioxidant propertiesHigher
- Olive oil – rich in monounsaturated fat and phytochemicals
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard and other greens – a randomized German study showed that 8 servings of fruits and vegetables for 4 weeks in men had lower levels of hsCRP.
- Nuts like almonds and walnuts – high in monounsaturated fats
- Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines – Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids reduced inflammation.
- Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges
- Higher fiber consumption was associated with less inflammation in seven studies, using hsCRP as a marker.
If you’re looking for an eating plan that closely follows the tenets of anti-inflammatory eating, consider the Mediterranean Diet which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils (primarily olive oil).
In addition to lowering inflammation, a more, natural, less processed food diet can have noticeable effects on your physical and emotional health.
The Mediterranean Diet In A Nutshell
A Mediterranean diet is a good example of a diet that reduces low-grade inflammation and at the same time appears to reduce the risk of heart disease. It is a diet pattern that has been studied extensively and without a doubt scores high in the healthy column. It comes highly recommended and contains most of the foods labeled Anti-inflammatory.
|High in fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes, unrefined grains
|Moderate in low-fat dairy
|Low in meat
|Moderate to high in fish
|Moderate alcohol intake