“You are what you eat” isn’t just a silly idiom: every morsel of food and drink we consume is broken down, processed, and absorbed by the body at a cellular level, for better or for worse. Nutrition is the cornerstone of internal health, therefore, food we eat is a direct reflection of our overall health. Some foods fuel health, some foods fuel disease, oftentimes through inflammation. Read on to understand the impact food has on health and how to create healthy habits that ward off disease through the power of nutrition.
Nutrition and health
Food is most commonly associated with satiating appetite and providing energy to the body through calories. Calories are important for energy; however, they can also be considered “information” to the body. In addition to macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), food is also comprised of micronutrients, or smaller vitamins and minerals crucial to cellular activity. Vitamins are necessary for immune function, energy production, and other cellular processes that keep the body running smoothly. Minerals are needed for bone health, growth and development, fluid balance, among other functions that support health. The food and drink we consume is the main source of both energy-producing compounds and life-supporting micronutrients. Ideally, all food consumed would be in “whole” form, minimally processed, and generally recognizable to the body. However, this is often not a realistic expectation given the availability of convenient, processed foods and the difficulties many find in preparing consistent, healthy meals for themselves and their families among the busy daily grind. This leads many to, understandably, reach for foods that may have been produced using preservatives, added sugars, oils, coloring, or other chemical additives. In an act of self-defense, exposure to foreign compounds in food may lead to to acute or widespread immune responses in the body, also known as inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation, quite simply, is the body’s response to an irritant. An acute inflammatory response could result from an injury, like a bump on the shin that begins to swell into a bruise, or a scratch on the arm that turns red. This is a healthy inflammatory reaction that aims to heal an affected area. A similar reaction can occur when a foreign invader enters the body, like a virus or bacteria. The throat swells, the nose runs, a fever arises: all for the purpose of dispelling an invader and healing the body. Inflammation that persists day-to-day, or chronic inflammation, can be the result of an overworking immune system response to chemical exposure, stress, and even certain types of foods or food-like substances. Chronic inflammation has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, arthritis, auto-immune diseases, and even depression.
The impact of inflammatory foods
Food can cause inflammation in a couple of distinct ways. The body can experience an acute, allergic response to a certain type of food, for example, peanuts causing the throat to swell or the skin to break out in hives. Different foods can also cause a low-grade immune response unique to the individual, most commonly referred to as a food sensitivity. This occurs when the antibody IgG, or immunoglobulin G, is released by the immune system in response to a certain food. Common culprits behind this type of response include eggs, lactose, shellfish, corn, and other seemingly innocent foods. A simple blood test can determine which types of food create this response in the body unique to the individual. Then there are general categories of food-like substances that are generally highly inflammatory for most people. These include manufactured or highly processed foods that the body simply cannot recognize or process effectively. High fructose corn syrup, gluten, inflammatory oils, refined carbohydrates, fried foods, casein and even some processed meats are significant sources of inflammation. Eating these foods consistently can result in chronic inflammation, that when goes unnoticed, can lead to deleterious downstream effects on health.
How to start an anti-inflammatory diet
Reducing inflammation starts with nutrition. Packing the diet with anti-inflammatory foods can “cool” the immune system from its constant need to protect and heal the body through an inflammatory response. The first steps in starting an anti-inflammatory diet are to assess your current diet, understand which foods may be causing slight immune responses in the body through an IgG blood test, then eliminate these foods, along with the typical sources of inflammatory foods listed above. You may be able to slowly reincorporate IgG-flagged foods in time once the body can readjust its immune response.
Just like there are inflammatory foods, certain types of foods can also be anti-inflammatory based on their micronutrient or vitamin profiles. For example, salmon, tuna, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to fight inflammation. Leafy green vegetables, olive oil, nuts, tomatoes, berries, and citrus fruits are packed with antioxidants that help protect against inflammation. Cooking with herbs and spices is also an easy way to add in nature’s “medicines” into the food you eat to ward off inflammation and improve health. Incorporating certain supplements like curcumin, ginger, or fish oil capsules may also aid in reducing inflammation. The Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet are among the most popular and effective nutritional interventions that can help reduce inflammation through food.
Reducing chronic inflammation can help improve health in many positive ways, including improving symptoms of arthritis, IBS, or other auto-immune conditions, reducing the risk for heart disease, obesity, cancer, and depression, clearing up skin issues, decreasing muscle and joint pain, and improving gastrointestinal symptoms. Reducing inflammatory blood markers is also a powerful tool to promote healthy aging. Like any long-term change, shifting your lifestyle to include an anti-inflammatory diet requires a commitment to healthy habits. Working with an expert can help personalize your lifestyle changes based on your current health and future health goals, as well as provide a source of accountability to stick to healthy habits that can lead to better health for life.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please speak to your functional medicine provider to assess what might be right for your health.