You can hardly read a newspaper, magazine or online article without seeing yet another mention of the devastating health effects of chronic, low-grade inflammation. As we discussed in our previous article on this topic, inflammation has been implicated as a causative factor in nearly every degenerative disease that plagues modern societies. One of the contributing factors to the epidemic of low-grade inflammation may be right under your nose. Its the food choices you make every day. The average American gets 70% of their calories from refined and highly processed sugars, oils, cereals and dairy products, all of which are strong promoters of inflammation1. Following are the inflammatory how’s and why’s of these and other top inflammatory foods.
When it comes to inflammation, it doesn’t much matter which type of sugar you consume. In people with impaired glucose tolerance honey, table sugar and HFCS have all been found to produce similar inflammatory effects3. White sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) both cause increased levels of inflammatory molecules in the liver and HFCS also causes inflammation in an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory3. Sugary soft drinks raise your levels of uric acid, a strong promoter of inflammation4. Blood sugar spikes from consuming processed sugar also cause increased cellular oxidation which promotes inflammation 5.
White flour, white rice and other refined carbohydrates are stripped of their fiber, which normally slows absorption, preventing blood sugar spikes. Refining also removes B-complex vitamins, which help the body process carbohydrates. As a result, refined grains have a high glycemic index, which means they rapidly raise blood sugar, which, in turn cause an inflammatory response. Over the long term, a diet high in refined carbohydrates raises your risk for diabetes, which is now known to have a strong inflammatory component. Additionally, after a blood sugar surge, an equally rapid drop may occur, leading to dangerously low blood sugar levels. Known as hypoglycemia, this condition also promotes inflammation6.
Soybean oil and cottonseed oil comprise the main source of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in the average American’s diet. Although soy is a healthy food in many ways, it’s oil contains 50% omega-67, so its not the best oil to cook with. Similarly, cottonseed oil, which is widely used in commercial foods such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine, chips and baked goods, contains 51.5% omega-6 and a dismal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 257:18. Compare these values to heart-healthy olive oil, which contains an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 13:19.
Also known as partially hydrogenated oil, trans fats – margarine and vegetable shortening are examples – are artificially manufactured using a high-heat process. Trans fats are widely found in commercially prepared baked goods, crackers, microwave popcorn and fast foods. Unhealthy in every possible way, trans fats raise your levels of bad LDL cholesterol and lower your good HDL cholesterol10, which promotes arterial plaque formation and sets up inflammation in the arterial lining. They induce insulin resistance, which promote development of type 2 diabetes, and the inflammation that goes along with excessive swings of blood sugar. Trans fats have also been shown to promote inflammation in the intestinal lining, which may increase your risk for colitis11.
Casein, the protein in cow’s milk is the most common allergen among infants and children, causing a heightened immune response and, with it, inflammation. Many parents with a milk allergic child will readily attest to the common symptoms of milk allergy, including rashes, hives, diarrhea, constipation and difficulty breathing all of which are associated with inflammation.
Many people are also born with an inability to digest the milk sugar lactose. Known as lactose intolerance, this condition affects about 25% of US citizens12. Gastrointestinal distress occurs almost immediately and includes inflammatory symptoms such as bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.
A study of diet and colorectal cancer found that red meat had a 57 times greater probability of causing inflammation in the colon than fish and 80 times greater than fruits and vegetables13. Red meat also contains high levels of an antigenic molecule that is a potent inducer of inflammation. In humans, this molecule has been studied in relation to inflammation of the colon and as a trigger for colon cancer. It is also a concern for other inflammatory processes such as atherosclerosis and type 3 diabetes, that often occur in people who eat a lot of red meat14.
Cows raised in commercial feed lots are fed high-grain diets and are restricted from moving about freely in order to fatten them before slaughter. Grains are high in omega-6 fatty acids, and feeding grains to the cows causes them to have the same fatty acid profile as their food source. By contrast, grass-fed beef tend to be lower in fat than feedlot cows and contain much less cholesterol-elevating fatty acids and more cholesterol neutral fatty acids. Additionally, grass-fed cows have higher levels of inflammation fighting vitamins A and E and antioxidants glutathione and superoxide dismutase. All of this makes grassfed beef healthier and less inflammation-promoting15.
A host of unhealthy effects of longterm consumption of the popular artificial sweetener aspartame were noted in a preliminary animal study. Aspartame showed clear evidence of being a source of cellular stress. It raised levels of cortisol, caused oxidation of fats, increased levels of cell-damaging free radicals and altered immune function by raising levels of inflammatory and immune molecules. The strong immune response may be due to the fact that aspartame breaks down into methanol and formaldehyde, both potent toxins16.