Inflammation and food - what's the deal?
Inflammation lets us heal and recover from training stress, but too much inflammation increases bad stuff like cancer and heart disease risks. Inflammation levels and food choices are inextricably linked so make sure you're inflammation levels - and performance - are optimal with our guide to all things inflammation and food
Inflammation and food are inextricably linked
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response. It’s triggered to protect us from diseases and in response to damaged tissue and immune system misfunction.
How does it affect us?
Inflammation's a good thing when you bang your head, contract a disease or when you're recovering from a tough workout. It’s part of the healing process. Without it, we’d never heal or recover.
But it has a dark side. Chronic inflammation is linked to increased risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
The goal is to maximise inflammation's benefits, while reducing it as quickly and naturally as possible giving you all the upsides of health, performance and recovery without ever tipping into inflammation excess.
What are the symptoms of inflammation?
Symptoms of acute inflammation are short-term and present externally. You’ll have experienced most of these:
- Heat / redness
Chronic inflammation symptoms persist longer and concern internal organs and internal function. They can be harder to pin and include:
- Shortness of breath
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
Inflammation and sports performance
Inflammation and physical training go hand in hand - if you’re not inducing inflammation you probably aren’t working hard enough! It helps you heal and recover and restore homeostasis (a healthy balance within the body basically).
But too many hard workouts combined with inadequate rest, sleep, excess life stress and a poor diet compromises athlete’s immune systems and totally wrecks sports performance.
Repeated hard training can induce inflammation
Hard training induces inflammation, but there’s a balance to be had.
As one study put it:
“negative physiological changes occur in long-lasting heavy training with transient dysfunction of the immune system, increased inflammation, and oxidative stress”.
The study went on to show:
“Nutrition can influence exercise-induced immune suppression. Elite athletes competing at the highest levels can benefit from nutritional and supplementation support to improve immunity and reduce acute and chronic inflammations”.
Balancing inflammation with training is key to athletes striving for optimal performance.
How to treat inflammation?
Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin are sold over the counter like sweets. They do indeed reduce inflammation pain, but long-term use of these medicines has been shown to increase the prevalence of stomach ulcers and kidney damage.
But since the prevalence of chronic inflammation is increasingly linked to diet choices, treating inflammation is actually relatively simple and can be handled without the need for any drugs and by simply making quality food choices at the right times.
Do this and you can ace the inflammation balance, and avoid the unwanted compound side effects that come with ibuprofen, etc.
It’s not rocket science, it’s just a matter of knowing which foods to eat and which to avoid.
Pills are not the answer to reducing chronic inflammation, smart food choices do a way better job
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
Ali Weber, PhD, RD associate director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation summed up an anti-inflammatory diet as:
“foods high in nutrients – especially antioxidants – that have been tied with lowering the markers of inflammation in our bodies”.
Weber goes on to say:
“…key players are foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, healthy fats…”
Many studies have evaluated the impact of specific foods on inflammation and while some are ‘neutral’, most can be split into two camps: those which decrease inflammation and those that increase it.
Foods that decrease inflammation
Dana Hunnes, a senior dietician at UCLA Medical Centre adds that anti-inflammatory foods are:
“anything that’s nutrient-dense [which we know all about] with a lot of vitamins, minerals and colour, from a natural source”.
An anti-inflammatory diet looks very much like a Mediterranean diet and includes:
- Good fats - avocado, coconut oil, Omega-3 rich fish like salmon and mackerel
- Fruits – blueberries, strawberries, goji berries, raspberries, cherries, pineapple
- Nuts and seeds – pecans, hemp seeds, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseed
- Whole grains – brown pasta and rice, whole oats, whole grain bread
- Vegetables – artichokes, leafy greens like spinach and kale, cabbage, broccoli, beetroot
- Beans – chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peas, kidney beans, black beans
- Herbs and spices – turmeric, garlic and cinnamon
- Dark chocolate – it’s high in antioxidants!
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Foods that increase inflammation
Of course, it’s not just about what you eat, but also what you don’t eat.
You can pound the above foods until the cows come home, but they won’t counter the impact of a diet that's also high in these inflammation-inducing foods:
- Processed sugar Generally, anything that ends on 'ose': Fructose, glucose, sucralose. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states processed sugar triggers the release of inflammatory boosting cytokines
- Saturated fats Predominantly animal sources found in cheese, red meat, pizza and butter
- Processed meat Hot dogs, burgers, processed ham
- Trans fats The Harvard School of Public Health highlighted trans fats' link to systematic inflammation. Trans fats are found in fast food, donuts, cookies and partially hydrogenated oils
- Refined carbohydrates. Scientific American suggested that refined carbs may be even more sinister than fats. This group of foods is basically white carbs – white bread, fries, crackers, white rice and so on
- Sugar-free alternatives. Maltodextrin, acesulfame K, sucralose, and other 'sugar-free' favourites are all on the naughty step here. Aspartame, for example, is nutrient-negative and is a chemical - your body doesn’t know how to process it and spikes inflammation
- Alcohol. Used in moderation, no problem. But excessive consumption disrupts liver function
These chaps, as appealing as they might seem, promote chronic inflammation
Treating inflammation requires a multi-pronged approach, but it’s clear that nutrition plays a significant role, so getting your diet on track is key.
Inflammation and food – conclusion
Inflammation is a huge topic, but we hope to have shared some useful information on its causes, symptoms and management strategies.
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Clearly, we’re big believers in natural food - our mission is delivering awesome nutrition and know-how to power up performance AND health because you simply can't have one without the other!
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