Most of us have a sense of which foods are good for us and which ones aren’t, but can you explain WHY that is??
I’ve found that it makes me much more motivated to eat healthy when I have a thorough understanding of what effect those foods are having in my body. The problem is, there are so many categories of foods and individual foods within them. Nutrition can seem so daunting, with more details than one person could ever remember.
But I’ve found that a few overarching principles explain the “why” or “why not” for most foods. One of these overarching principles is inflammation. Certain foods have a pro-inflammatory effect in the body, and others have an anti-inflammatory effect. Let’s take a look at where different categories of foods fall on the scale—but first, let’s take a look at why inflammation matters.
A NATURAL PROCESS, GONE AWRY
Inflammation is a process that is part of the body's natural defense against infection. It serves an important purpose—but it can harm us when it's activated unnecessarily, especially when it stays active on an ongoing basis in the body.
Chronic low-level inflammation is a major contributing factor for heart disease: our lifestyle causes inflammation (mitigated by genetic factors), and once inflammation sets in, it leads to heart disease. Inflammation also creates an environment that enables the growth of tumors, thus playing a role in the development or severity of cancer. And it plays a role in diabetes as well: excess body fat produces inflammatory substances called cytokines, and recent research shows that this contributes to insulin resistance, eventually leading to full-fledged type 2 diabetes. This is why nutrition and exercise are so powerful for fighting these three types of disease and more: they can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Now to take a look at a few categories of foods and where they fall on the inflammation scale. In general, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and many herbs and spices have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. The rest of this article will look at a few categories of foods that people commonly avoid. One reason is because these foods promote inflammation in the body, but that’s not a reason to cut out these foods entirely, in my opinion, because they provide a lot of other nutritional benefits, and I strongly believe in the importance of a widely varied diet that isn’t just limited to a small number of foods, so that our bodies can get the whole range of nutrients we need to thrive.
While broadly speaking, it’s true that animal products have a pro-inflammatory effect in the body, there are several mitigating factors to keep in mind. Please don’t stop reading yet… This is far from the whole story and I am NOT trying to say that we shouldn’t eat meat!
Let’s look at the design of one of the most widely cited studies that found eating animal products promotes inflammation. This study compared two groups—one that ate ONLY animal products (their diet consisted entirely of meat and cheese for the course of the study), and another that ate ONLY plant products. We know that animal products promote inflammation to some extent, but we also know that plant-based foods fight inflammation. It’s my conclusion that a balanced diet that combines both (with an emphasis on ample amounts of fruits and vegetables) allows for the plant-based foods to counteract inflammation, while still getting the benefits of the protein, vitamins, and minerals contained in meat.
When it comes to meat and inflammation, it’s also important to understand that not all meat is created the same. I know it can be a giant bummer to realize we can’t trust our food system to keep us healthy and we have to take responsibility for reading every single label and researching the source of everything we put in our bodies. I’m sorry it’s not as simple as saying “eat chicken, but don’t eat beef.” But once you make this shift of being more aware of what you’re putting in your body, I promise you you’ll never look back! It feels good to be empowered with this knowledge.
One factor to consider when choosing your meats is the lipid profile. In general, omega 6 fatty acids (the type that are prevalent in vegetable oil and canola oil) are pro-inflammatory, while omega 3 fatty acids (prevalent in olive oil and salmon) are anti-inflammatory. Most oils, nuts, fish, and meats contain a combination of these and other types of fatty acids; what differs is the balance. Very simply, the higher our diet is in omega 3, and the lower in omega 6, the less inflammatory our diet will be. It’s not that we should aim to eliminate omega 6—that would probably be impossible. Our goal, rather, is to minimize it, while maximizing omega 3.
So for example, grass-fed meat has a very different lipid profile from grain-fed meat. You guessed it—grass-fed meat is higher in omega 3’s. Same goes for eggs—you know those eggs that are specifically labeled as being high in omega 3’s? Those are worth buying. From what I’ve read, this applies even more to white meat than red—the lipid profile is more easily affected, so buy pasture-raised chicken if you can afford it.
To sum up, it’s not so much that I tell anyone that they should eat meat or shouldn’t eat meat—but if you do eat meat, I think it’s important to purchase high-quality meats to the extent possible. We know that antibiotics damage our gut bacteria, thus contributing to inflammation—so I buy meat certified as antibiotic-free. Recent studies are showing that pesticides cause—you guessed it—inflammation, so I believe it’s best to buy organic meat because although the animals’ bodies detoxify naturally as ours do, some of the pesticide residues they ingest with their feed are still stored in their tissues.
Does dairy inherently have an inflammatory effect in our bodies? Many sources of health news would say yes. But as with meat, here too, I feel the story is a bit more complicated...
First of all, many adults have trouble digesting lactose. If you feel better when you cut out dairy, this may be why. Your body may have stopped making lactase (the digestive enzyme that helps digest lactose), or it may be making too little of it. This is where I'm thankful my ancestry is Northern European... 90% of us are still able to digest lactose as adults!
So, those of us who are lactose intolerant, or tend in that direction, will have a reaction triggered in our bodies when we consume dairy. For the rest of us, my belief is that dairy is fine to consume... but as with meat, how it's produced matters.
I always, always buy milk from cows that are hormone-free and antibiotic-free. As with meat, grass-fed cows' milk has a much different lipid profile than grain-fed cows' milk. Grass-fed milk is hard to find, but over the past few months I have reluctantly switched to buying organic milk, as expensive as it is, after reading studies that showed organic milk contains more of those all-important anti-inflammatory fats than grain-fed milk does.
To touch on the other types of dairy products: YOGURT is often tolerable even for those with lactose intolerance. The bacteria it contains are also great for our gut health, helping our bodies reduce inflammation overall. Just make sure to choose a kind with no added sugar or artificial sweetener. CHEESE may also be fine for those who are lactose intolerant, depending on the cheese. It's generally eaten in small enough amounts that the inflammatory effect on the body may be minimal. As with other dairy, it's not a bad idea to choose cheese made from organic milk, and watch the ingredient list for other additives that may promote inflammation.
As with dairy, if you have an allergy or intolerance, that will trigger an inflammatory reaction in your body when you eat gluten. Although there’s a lot of skepticism out there of the gluten-free trend, there is evidence that a significant part of the population has a degree of gluten intolerance that doesn’t rise to the level of an allergy or celiac disease, but these people nevertheless feel better if they don’t eat wheat products. Bottom line: if you try eliminating gluten and you feel better, DO IT and just ignore the criticism!
My personal choice has been to NOT go gluten-free, simply because I really don’t notice a difference when I consume products that contain gluten vs. when I don’t. Like meat, grains have an inherently inflammatory effect on the body. This is part of the reason the prevalence of carbs in the standard American diet is such a problem! Here too, I subscribe to the philosophy that quantity matters, and what we eat WITH pro-inflammatory foods matters a great deal. So for example, try not to eat JUST bread/crackers/chips by themselves (or with meat and cheese). Instead, have some fruits, vegetables, and/or healthy fats along with them. That way, you get some anti-inflammatory action to balance things out!
Another choice I personally have made is to eat whole grains as often as possible—for example, whole wheat instead of white bread, and brown rice instead of white rice. Labels can be tricky (you can’t assume that something labeled “wheat bread” actually contains whole wheat, even if it is brown in color), but they are worth figuring out. Products that “appear” to be whole-grain are sometimes more expensive without any actual added nutritional value!
Whole grain products are nutritionally superior for a few reasons. First, they contain more fiber (to help you feel full and slow down digestion so the carbs you’re eating don’t make your blood sugar spike). Second, they contain vitamins and minerals that would be stripped away during the refining process (and sometimes added back in through fortification, but by then you’ve lost the food’s natural nutritional completeness). Third, the makers of whole grain products know that you’re reading the label, so they’re less likely to try to sneak in other “offenders” like hidden sugars and trans fats!
One last factor to consider is whether your wheat products are organic and non-GMO. (These two often go hand-in-hand, since a big reason crops are genetically modified in the first place is so they can be doused in weed killer without the crop itself dying.) So, the problem with GMOs is not necessarily the genetically modified crop itself, but the pesticide residues we ingest along with it—which, you’ll remember from the meat and dairy posts, triggers inflammation. (There is also mounting evidence that celiac disease is becoming more common because modern-day wheat contains much higher levels of gluten than the wheat our ancestors have eaten for ages.)
Other categories of foods that people commonly are sensitive to include LEGUMES, NIGHTSHADES (a category of plants that includes tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, hot peppers, bell peppers and paprika); and FODMAPs (foods that contain substances called fermented oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols—hence the acronym).
This last group covers foods including garlic, onions, shallots, chives, wheat, rye, barley, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, fennel, beets, okra, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radicchio, mushrooms, legumes, avocados, stone fruits, apples, blackberries, and watermelon. These foods all contain carbohydrates whose chemical structure makes them poorly absorbed in the small intestine, leading to symptoms including bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, or alternating bouts of both.
If you suspect you have a food sensitivity, it is recommended to follow an elimination diet for one to three months, followed by reintroducing one food at a time and observing whether symptoms arise.
Did you find this article helpful? Interested in learning more or working with me? I support people every month in making changes—subtle or major—to their diet. Check out my upcoming programs for group and one-on-one coaching availability—or send me an email at the address below and let me know what your goals are or what questions you have. I’d love to hear from you!