Lately, sugar, and how bad it is for you, has been in the news. Specifically, the connection between sugar and chronic inflammation has been a hot topic.
First, a word on what chronic inflammation is and why it’s not good for us.
Acute (short-term) inflammation is an important part of the way the body heals itself. Its purpose is to defend the body against bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. However, the body also responds to modern “irritants”, like smoking and processed foods, by releasing pro-inflammatory substances. The chronic low-grade inflammation that this causes can increase our risk for cardiovascular disease and other diseases, including vascular dementia, a common cause of memory loss.
Added sugars have increased in the American diet by more than 500% in the past 50 years, mostly because of the increase in sugared soft drinks. This includes not just soda, but non-carbonated drinks, like Snapple and “energy” drinks – all of which have contributed to our current obesity epidemic.
While sugars have been targeted in the media as pro-inflammatory “bad guys”, added sugars are only one of many components of processed foods that have been associated with an increase in chronic inflammation. Other parts of our diet that are pro-inflammatory are saturated fats, which are found mostly in meats and full-fat dairy (like cheese, ice cream, whole milk), trans fats (present in some commercial baked goods), omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (present, for instance, in the soy and cottonseed oils that are added to many baked goods, margarines, etc) and refined carbohydrates (the “white” flour that’s used in white bread rolls, and cakes) And, interestingly, the state of obesity itself contributes to inflammation. Fat cells release pro-inflammatory substances.
The good news is that many components of healthy foods are, in fact, anti-inflammatory – and while we want to REDUCE the pro-inflammatory foods mentioned above, increasing our consumption of anti-inflammatory foods is also important. Here are a few simple ideas for cooling the fires of chronic inflammation:
1) Eat berries with breakfast (or anytime!) Research has shown that eating berries with a meal that has saturated fat can actually blunt a pro-inflammatory response to that fat. That’s because berries are loaded with anti-inflammatory substances, as are many other fruits. And, yes, frozen, or pulverized in a smoothie is as good as fresh. In winter, frozen is probably better.
2) Throw some spices into your soup (even canned soup) or stir-fry. Garlic, basil, ginger, turmeric, and pepper are strong in the anti-inflammatory department.
3) Eat fish at least twice a week (tuna counts). You’re probably heard that it’s good for your heart. That’s because of the omega-3 fat in it. This is a type of polyunsaturated fat that has anti-inflammatory properties.
4) And two “don’ts” that you just have to “do”: Don’t drink sugar-sweetened beverages, and keep the “junk food” and refined carbs (like French fries, white bread, white rice) to a minimum. Just about all of these foods contain one or more of: refined grain (or processed potatoes), sugar, an unhealthy fat, and salt. They’re the perfect “inflammation explosion”.
Drinking water and eating fruit, veggies and whole grains instead of pro-inflammatory foods requires a big habit change, but if you imagine yourself reducing inner inflammation, that might be a motivator. Practice that habit! Expect setbacks; dust yourself off and keep practicing!
Maryann Ludlow, RD, is a clinical dietitian at the UVM Medical Center.