Is that gourmet cupcake habit making you miserable?
Lots of foods are now being categorized as “inflammatory”, including sugar in general and gluten as a whole. But why is this? What truth is there to it?
Inflammation is normally a completely healthy response to injury and infection; it sends immune cells and key nutrients to the areas that most need them through increased blood flow, which creates the redness, swelling and pain you probably think of when you think “inflammation.” Suppose you cut your finger and it turned a little red around that area. That’s inflammation rushing the necessary repairs onsite.
But a minor cut healing in a few days is very different from being in a state of chronic inflammation. When the inflammation as an immune response is continuous, the constant production of immune cells can do permanent damage, leading to cancer, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and other health concerns.
Being overweight, having excessive stress, and breathing polluted air or secondhand smoke are just a few things that can trigger constant inflammation response. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking, lack of sleep, high alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise can also contribute to our bodies feeling constantly “under attack”.
Your diet also has a direct effect on inflammation levels. Plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and omega-3 fatty acids — yes, like the Mediterranean diet — seems to have an anti-inflammatory influence.
*All* Sugar, Though?!
So, there is sugar in a lot of foods, including fruit, and — while some diets advocate removal of ALL sugars in any form including carbs and fruit — unless you are working towards a specific health outcome that would require low or no carbs, moderation or minimization of sugar in your diet can reduce the inflammation you are feeling without having to vigilantly avoid it altogether.
Sugars themselves and inflammation both serve important functions in our bodies when they occur occasionally, but problems follow when we eat too much sugar, which can result in too much inflammation. Processed foods, for example, often contain added sugar and refined carbohydrates. This includes soda, juice, and other sugar-sweetened beverages, white bread, white flour, white rice, processed snack foods like cookies, crackers, chips, and desserts like doughnuts, cake, and ice cream.
Long-term internal inflammation doesn’t serve any useful function in our body and can be the result of unbalanced sugar consumption. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a number of serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Science Stuff
Added sugars and refined carbohydrates have this effect because they can result in excess amount of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are formed as a normal part of metabolism; however with a glucose surplus, excessive AGE formation occurs. Too many AGEs contributes to oxidative stress and inflammation by binding with our cells and integral proteins, changing their structure and interfering with their normal function. This can eventually lead to a buildup of plaque in our arteries (atherosclerosis) and decreased kidney function, among other negative effects.
You probably already know that a diet rich in added sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and obesity. Excess body fat, especially abdominal fat, causes continuous, chronic levels of inflammation that can interfere with the way your body processes insulin. Insulin is a regulatory hormone that plays an important role in transporting glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it can be used as energy. Chronically high levels of blood glucose can alter the production and regulation of insulin, and this can make it harder for your body to absorb and process insulin. The extra blood glucose can then result in an accumulation of AGEs.
Are Glutens like Sugar?
Unfortunately for those of us who love our carbs, the body breaks down white bread, pasta, rice and potatoes into glucose even faster than table sugar. This increases insulin levels. And this happens regardless of gluten content. White rice and potatoes are going to do the exact same thing as white bread. Unless of course, you happen to be Celiac or gluten-sensitive — but, when addressing inflammation caused strictly by excess glucose and insulin response, choose whole grains instead, which may in fact lower your body’s inflammatory response.
Moderation is always key. One cheeseburger a month is negligible, but a cheeseburger every day is a serious health concern. And your overall diet is what’s most important: if you eat a ton of omega-6 fatty acids (in greasy foods and vegetable oils) but you don’t normally consume a lot of simple sugars or white carbs, you won’t make very much insulin, and therefore you won’t experience inflammation from the “bad” fatty acids. The combination of dietary components, filtered through your genetic predisposition to regulate hormones, actually determines how much inflammation you will produce in response to what you eat.
No matter your DNA however, your diet can be more or less under your control. If you suspect that high blood glucose and insulin resistance is contributing to chronic inflammation in your body, there is a simple fix that does not require charts, calorie-counting, or extensive study. Just divide your plate at each meal into three equal sections, fill two-thirds with colorful fruits and vegetables (so, not just french fries) and a third of the plate with lean protein or a protein rich with omega-3s (“good” fats). You will be able to tell you did it correctly if you don’t feel hungry for the next 4-5 hours and aren’t exhausted. If your diet has been over-saturated with sugar, you may go through some withdrawals like headaches and cravings, but keep your goal of a healthier life in mind and know that cravings will pass whether you give in to them or not.