Just a few of the headlines that have caught my attention and furrowed my brow in the past week:
- The One Anti-Inflammatory Breakfast You Should Eat to Lose Fat, According to a Trainer
- 4 Anti-Inflammatory Supplements Docs Swear by for Weight Loss
- 4 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Docs Say You Should Eat to Speed Up Your Metabolism
- The One Anti-Inflammatory Food Doctors Swear by for Weight Loss Over 30
- The One Anti-Inflammatory Breakfast You Should Eat This Week for Weight Loss, According to a Dietitian
- 5 Anti-Inflammatory Slow-Cooker Meals You Should Make This Week for Weight Loss
- The One Anti-Inflammatory Ingredient You Should Add to Your Meals for Weight Loss, According to A Nutritionist.
These are the sorts of things that make me think that maybe I should take up candle making or snail breeding… perhaps this dietetics thing is over. Nope! Never mind -snails are gross, and candles make me sneeze. Oh, and I love nutrition. There’s that, too.
First, let’s talk about what inflammation is (and, more importantly, what it isn’t). Inflammation is how your body removes damaged cells, irritants, and pathogens. Inflammation does not mean that there is an infection, but an infection can cause inflammation. Although our natural instinct is to stop inflammation, it is useful and beneficial for us in many instances. Not all inflammation is a bad thing; after all, it is the first step towards healing following an injury. We will experience increased inflammation when we are sick with something like bronchitis or sinusitis, have a skin or nail problem such as a cut or an ingrown toenail, or even when we do intense exercise. These are examples of acute (short-term) inflammation. Classic symptoms of this acute inflammation include pain, redness, immobility, swelling, or heat. Think of a sprained ankle or a sore throat to put this into perspective. Not all inflammation causes these symptoms, though; it depends where in the body the injury has occurred. You will always have inflammation in your body, which is a good thing since it’s a critical part of your immunity.
Many diseases have legitimately been tied to chronic (long-lasting) inflammation, including (among many, many others):
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Celiac disease
- Some Cancers
- Chronic peptic ulcer
- Chronic periodontitis (gum disease)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Chronic active hepatitis
- Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which leads to heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Congestive heart failure
- Uncontrolled hypertension
About this idea that eating anti-inflammatory foods will help you to lose weight – obesity has indeed been characterized as a state of low-grade systemic (body-wide) inflammation. It is also true that weight loss improves inflammation; in fact, losing just 5-10% of your body weight will significantly reduce inflammatory markers. This does not mean that eating anti-inflammatory foods will indefinitely cause weight loss; this is a gross misinterpretation of the research. There is some preliminary research suggesting that inflammation of the gut may increase your risk of gaining weight. What came first: the inflammation or the weight? Well, we know the weight came first, but does the reverse also hold true? Only time will tell.
If you cut processed foods out of your diet, there is a good chance that you’ll drop at least a few pounds. The sugar, refined flour, saturated and trans-fats, and additives (such as the emulsifiers) in processed foods are known to be inflammatory. Red meat is also known to cause inflammation, as is the overindulgence of alcohol. You can see why the so-called anti-inflammatory diet is also a weight loss diet for many people (not exactly magic), which does not mean that the inflammation is what caused the excess weight, per se.
What do we know about diet and inflammation? We know that certain aspects of an overall healthful diet appear to quell the flames of inflammation. It’s not “one” food that you should eat during the day to prevent or treat inflammation; it is a meal pattern that is consumed long-term (not for a few days or until you feel better or lose weight). It is unlikely that any single food in isolation can cause or reduce inflammation, excepting individuals with true food allergies.
Some experts contend that even the notion of an “anti-inflammatory” diet is gibberish. I tend to agree with them; so many of these “diets” are just the same principles worded differently with minor tweaks to make them more marketable, and it is infuriating to me that so many people still fall prey to these gimmicks and sales tactics. You don’t need a particular book or an expensive shake or a supplement. You need to go to the grocery store, buy some real food, and cook dinner tonight. Do it again tomorrow. Here’s your grocery list:
- Spices – try ginger, turmeric, black pepper, coriander, cumin, clove, anise, and cinnamon
- Herbs – try bay leaves, fennel, caraway, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme
- Seafood- try salmon, tuna, shrimp, Atlantic cod
- Fruit – try blackberries, blueberries, purple grapes, apples, and cherries
- Vegetables – try green leafy vegetables, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, bell peppers, avocado, tomatoes, pumpkin, and onions
- Legumes – try black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, edamame, lima beans, peas
- Nuts – try walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios
- Seeds – try chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds
- Whole grains – try quinoa, oats, barley, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta
- Pure maple syrup
- Black tea and green tea
- Dark chocolate
- Olive oil
If you want to reduce the inflammation in your body, changing your diet alone isn’t going to cut it. You’ll also need to exercise, get enough sleep, limit your exposure to pollutants such as diesel exhaust and heavy metals such as mercury, reduce your level of stress, and exercise. Whatever name you choose to assign to a diet – Mediterranean, Nordic, low-glycemic index, clean-eating, or anti-inflammatory, it’s gotta’ be a whole lot better than what many of us are eating right now.