In a culture brimming with processed convenience foods, the old adage, “You are what you eat,” has perhaps never been more relevant. An increasing body of research is tying inflammation-causing foods to chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, endocrine disruption, and autoimmune disorders.
“Inflammation is a part of your body’s normal response to infection or injury,” explains the renowned Mayo Clinic on its website. “It’s when your damaged tissue releases chemicals that tell white blood cells to start repairing. But sometimes, inflammation is low-grade, spread throughout the body, and chronic.”
It’s when this continued inflammatory presence in your system is prolonged day in and day out that inflammation can be somewhat hazardous to your health.
“Our immune systems are overworked and underappreciated, leaving them out of balance and struggling to keep us healthy,” said Kaila Cruttenden, a Truckee practitioner who treats everything from chronic pain to digestive issues to depression through acupuncture, functional medicine, herbs, nutrition, and mindset. “We all have control over what we put in our bodies, and this can be the difference between living a long, healthy life or struggling through medications and procedures. Food is medicine and what you choose to put in your body matters.”
When it comes to causing or exacerbating inflammation, processed foods are the biggest culprits: sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans and saturated fats, processed meats, omega 6 fatty acids, MSG, gluten, and casein. Think pasta, fried foods, soda and other sugary drinks, deli meats, hot dogs and sausage, white bread, pastries — the list goes on. Red meat and dairy products are also on the list.
So, does this mean you have to swear off these sometimes-guilty pleasures entirely? Not necessarily, but keep in mind another common adage: everything in moderation.
“While most inflammatory foods should be used in moderation, some are not the devil they’ve been made out to be,” noted Cruttenden. “However, most of us are suffering from chronic high levels of inflammation and these foods only add fuel to the fire. I equate it to pouring lemon juice on an open wound: If the skin is intact and there is no cut, there’s no problem with the lemon juice, but if there is a cut it’s going to hurt like heck and add an increased level of inflammation to the already irritated area.”
In other words, if someone is dealing with chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, etc., it would behoove that individual to make some long-term dietary changes and look at eliminating inflammatory foods from his or her diet.
“In general, almost everyone will benefit from eating an anti-inflammatory diet,” Cruttenden said. “Again, we can go back to the ‘open wound’ scenario … If you completely leave the cut alone (take out all inflammatory foods) it will heal a lot quicker than brushing up against it even a little bit here and there (limiting the amount of inflammatory foods). It will just keep perpetuating the inflammation. If you are serious about reducing the inflammation in your body, then [inflammatory foods] should be eliminated completely for a duration of time (which depends on each individual’s health).”
On the contrary side, there are many foods that naturally fight inflammation, including fatty fish, leafy greens, avocado, coconut, cucumber, blueberries, nuts, tart cherries, orange fruits and vegetables, pineapple, olive oil, ginger, onions, and garlic.
“What we put in our bodies is important and can be the number one thing that keeps disease away,” Cruttenden noted. “When people start realizing that food not only affects their digestion, but their mood, emotions, sleep patterns, pain levels, headaches, cognition, and endurance, then they start to see just how important removing inflammatory foods can be.”
The time it takes for the effects of eliminating inflammatory foods from one’s diet is very specific to each individual’s health status, with most people starting to feel a big difference within a couple of weeks. Healing fully, however, takes longer to happen. Cruttenden generally recommends at least four weeks, but others may need to spend 12 to 18 months on an anti-inflammatory diet to ensure healing takes place.
“Many people don’t realize how much food affects them until they clean their diet up,” Cruttenden said. “For some reason we don’t equate how we feel to how we fuel our bodies. We are willing to take a ton of supplements, medications, or even have surgery before we’re willing to change what we eat. However, I have seen absolutely incredible things happen when people clean their diets up and start optimizing their nutrition.”