You’re probably more familiar with inflammation than you may think. The lingering pain you felt from a bee sting, the redness around a scratch, and the warmth and swelling you felt from a reaction to poison oak are all signs of inflammation at work - this is inflammation at work. In fact, inflammation plays a role most of the time we get injured or sick as a way to heal our bodies.
But inflammation might also hurt our bodies. Scientists are finding that certain foods as well as chronic conditions like obesity and high blood pressure, may be contributing to a type of inflammation that causes us harm.
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation is part of your body’s response to help fight off infection, injury, or irritants that you’re exposed to.
So inflammation isn’t always bad. In fact, it’s a core part of our survival response to threats from our environment. It’s intended to be there for your protection.
Classic signs you’re having an inflammatory response are redness or warmth on your skin, swelling, and pain. While you can easily see and feel these effects from say, a bee sting, many more parts of the inflammatory process are going on beneath your skin surface that may be affecting your overall health and well being.
What Causes Inflammation?
Inflammation is created by your immune system, which is in charge of protecting your body from harm. It’s part of a cascade of different responses that happen when there is an injury or threat to our body. Infections, foreign bodies, toxins, and injuries are all perceived as such threats.
Attacking foreign particles, sweeping away damaged materials, and helping to heal is the overall goal of the immune system. As you may imagine, this is a really complicated process that involves many different signals and specialized cells such as macrophages and white blood cells to be effective.
Acute inflammation happens quickly, sometimes within minutes. But it also usually goes away quickly - often within hours to days.
Chronic inflammation occurs if the immune system thinks a threat still exists. In such cases, an inflammatory response can persist for weeks to months or even years.
Other lifestyle factors like smoking, an unhealthy diet, obesity and low levels of physical activity may also contribute to an inflammatory response.
Is the Inflammation Process Bad?
We need a Goldilocks amount of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory forces - just the right balance. When not controlled, the same signals and cells that help to protect us can become destructive.
An overactive inflammatory response can begin to have a negative impact on, or even start attacking healthy parts of our body. Classic examples of this are autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus (SLE). These diseases are all caused by an immune system that has gone awry.
But a ramped-up immune response seems to be involved in many more diseases than previously thought. This likely includes many cancers, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and asthma to name just a few.
While we may not see inflammation at work as clearly as we do when our skin is injured and appears red and swollen, these diseases may involve a chronic inflammatory process that’s happening inside our bodies at the level of our blood vessels, tissues, and/or organs. We can try to measure these responses by looking at blood markers such as reactive protein crp, however these are often hard to interpret as they’re not as specific and immune interactions can be so complicated.
What Foods Cause Inflammation?
Many people believe that certain food types cause inflammation. Some scientists think that this may be in part caused by how natural bacteria living in our gut (our microbiome) respond differently to different types of food. Some studies suggest that certain foods cause these good gut bacteria to release inflammatory markers that may be bad for our health (1).
The truth is that there isn’t yet enough research to say one particular food is going to make or break your inflammatory balance. In fact, it’s probably much more complex than that altogether.
But by minimizing these foods that may stimulate some extra inflammation, you are also minimizing your intake of foods high in calories with low nutritional value. These overall healthier diet habits lower your risk of being overweight, which in of itself is thought to contribute to a state of increased inflammation. It also lowers your risk of many of the other nutrition-related chronic diseases inflicting almost half of all Americans such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Extensively processed foods are thought by many to be a culprit in stimulating an inflammatory response. As you might imagine, ultra-processed foods are categorized as those that involve the highest level of processing.
NOVA is a classification system based on how extensively food is processed. It categorizes ‘ultra-processed foods’ as products that often contain at least 5 added ingredients, of which they describe “include substances not commonly used in culinary preparations”. NOVA further describes the intent of these ingredients to ‘disguise undesirable sensory qualities of the final product’ or ‘imitate sensory qualities’ of natural foods (2).
14 Ultra-Processed Foods:
- Prepackaged Candies
- Ice Cream and Related Dairy Products
- Mass Produced Packaged Breads
- Mass Produced Packaged Snacks
- Packaged Cereals
- Reconstituted Meat Products (ie: hot dogs, sausages, ‘nuggets’)
- Most Other Carbonated Drinks
- Most ‘Ready to Heat’ or ‘Ready to Eat’ Packaged Products
- Most Packaged ‘instant’ Products (ie: Instant noodles)
- Packaged Chips
Some Substances Only Found in Ultra-Processed
- Hydrogenated Oils
- Interesterified Oils
- Hydrolysed Proteins
- Soy Protein Isolate
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Colour Stabilisers
- Colour Dies
Growing research supports that people that fill their diet with these ultra-processed foods are more likely to be obese and suffer from nutrition-related chronic health conditions including high blood pressure and some types of cancer (3).
But not all processed foods are bad. These ultra-processed foods are different from some lightly processed foods that may actually be good for us but are still considered to be ‘processed’ because their organic nature is slightly altered. An example of this is frozen vegetables such as sweet potatoes; or fresh-squeezed orange juice, which is processed to be juice - but still healthy and fresh.
Another culprit suspected to cause unwanted inflammation is added sugar (4). But it can sometimes be hard to tell that it's sugar when disguised under different names.
13 Sources of Added Sugar:
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Corn sugar
- Maple syrup
Luckily, the FDA has required nutrition labels to clearly list how many added sugars are included vs. natural sugars, that are found in fruit and some vegetables.
Finally, certain fats are also implicated in a pro inflammatory response - particularly saturated and trans fats (5).
8 Foods High In Saturated Fats
- Fatty Meats including Fatty Beef
- Poultry with Skin
But not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats like omega 3 fatty acids found in salmon are rich in nutrients and probably have an anti-inflammatory impact.
In contrary foods that may reduce inflammation include those with a good source of essential micronutrients such as fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens. Anti-inflammatory diets are controversial as there aren’t enough well-done studies to show exactly if or how these diets truly reduce harmful inflammation in the body.
However, minimizing what many people believe are inflammatory foods including ultra-processed foods, unhealthy fats, and added sugar is part of a well accepted healthy approach. As is choosing to include higher quantities of nutrient-dense whole foods in a calorie-controlled diet.
Bottom line: Food may be a powerful factor contributing to our inflammatory response both in the type of foods we regularly consume as well as the strong influence both the quality and quantity of food has on developing an unhealthy weight and obesity.