Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fast Food ExamplesIf you are like most Americans, your dietary preferences as an adult are based on the foods your family ate while you were growing up.

  • Your favorite foods…
  • Your comfort foods…
  • The foods you always avoid…

…are based on your family heritage, not on your genes. And if you are like most Americans, your diet isn’t healthy.

  • It’s high in fat and cholesterol…
  • It’s high in sugar and refined carbohydrates…
  • It’s high in processed foods…
  • It’s low in whole, unprocessed foods…
  • It’s high in calories, so your waistline keeps growing.

You know your diet isn’t healthy, but you keep coasting along through your 30’s and 40’s until…the unthinkable happens. You are diagnosed with a deadly disease, like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, and your doctor says that unless you change your diet, you are doomed to a short unhealthy life. You have reached a fork in Food Choicesthe road.

Changing the diet you grew up with, the diet you love, is a daunting task. It’s tempting to think, “Why bother…

  • It’s probably too late to change my diet…
  • The damage has already been done…
  • I can’t reverse it now.”

If this scenario describes you or someone you love, you aren’t alone. There are millions of Americans just like you. You want to know whether changing your diet is worth the trouble. You want to know whether it is too late, or whether you can still change your health for the better.

Most clinical studies don’t answer this question. Most clinical studies do a diet assessment at the beginning of the study and look at health outcomes 20 or 30 years later. If they do more than one diet assessment during the study, the purpose of these assessments is to show that most people stick to the same diet throughout the study.

These studies measure the effect of habitual diets on health outcomes. They tell you that good diets lead to good health outcomes, and bad diets lead to bad health outcomes. But they don’t tell you whether changing your diet from bad to good in your 30’s or 40’s can have a significant effect on your health.

Fortunately, a recent study has answered this question. This study (Y Choi et al, Journal of The American Heart Association, 10e020718, 2021) started with people in their mid-20s. It looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults). The study enrolled 4946 young adults (average age = 25, 55% female and 45% male, 50% black and 50% white) and followed them for 32 years (average age of participants at the end of the study = 57).

Diet was assessed by a trained interviewer at year 0, year 7 (average age of participants = 32), and year 20 (average age of participants = 45).

Adherence of the participants to a healthy, plant-centered diet was assessed using an analytical tool called APDQS that divided the foods eaten by the participants into 3 groups based on their known influence on heart disease:

1) Beneficial.

    • These foods included fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
    • This is what the investigators considered a plant-centered diet. It encompasses diets ranging from vegan to Mediterranean and DASH.

2) Adverse.

    • These foods included fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
    • This could be considered a typical American diet.

3) Neutral.

    • These foods included potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.
    • These foods are not the healthiest, but the evidence that they have a negative effect on health disease risk is inconclusive.

The participants were divided into 5 quintiles based on adherence to a plant-centered diet, with quintile 1 having the lowest adherence and quintile 5 having the highest adherence to a plant-centered diet.

The effect of diet on heart disease was measured in two ways:

1) The dietary data from years 0, 7 and 20 were averaged and the effect of average adherence to a plant-centered diet on the risk of developing heart disease by the time the participants were 57 was measured. This is similar to the design of most other studies looking at the effect of diet and heart disease.

2) The effect of an improvement in adherence to a plant-centered diet between ages of 32 and 45 on the risk of developing heart disease by age 57 was also measured. This is what makes this study unique. Basically, the investigators were asking if you could eat a bad diet for 30 years or more and still reduce your risk of heart disease by switching to a good diet by the age of 45. That is the question that millions of American are asking themselves right now.

Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

Heart Healthy DietAs I described above this study asked two distinct questions:

1) What effect does your habitual diet have on your risk of developing heart disease?

For this portion of the study, the investigators averaged the dietary data collected in years 0, 7, and 20 of the study and ranked the participants diet from 1 to 5 based on their adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best adherence (group 5) with the group with worst adherence (group 1):

    • Adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced their risk of developing heart disease by 48%.
    • This is consistent with previous studies looking at the beneficial effects of plant-centered diets on heart disease.

2) What effect does changing your diet from bad to good when you are in your 30s or 40s have on your risk of developing heart disease? 

For this portion of the study, the investigators compared the dietary data collected at years 7 and 20 (corresponding to average ages 32 and 45 for the participants) and ranked the participants from 1 to 5 based on improved adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best improvement in adherence (group 5) with the group with worst improvement in adherence (group 1):

    • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced the risk of developing heart disease by 39%.
    • This answers the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. In short, it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

The authors concluded, “In summary, our study shows that long-term consumption of a nutritionally rich plant-centered diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Furthermore, increased [adherence to a] plant-centered diet in young adulthood is associated with a lower subsequent risk of heart disease throughout middle age, independent of the earlier diet quality” [In short, they are saying that changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s reduces your risk of heart disease.]

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

I titled this section, “You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age” for a reason. I wanted to make the point that it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

Yes, I realize that the study I described above only shows:

  • The effect of changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s.
  • The benefit of changing to a more plant-centered diet on heart disease outcomes.

However, we have ample evidence that changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce the risk of many diseases. For example:

  • There are multiple reports in the literature of people in their 60s and 70s who had a health scare, changed to a more plant-centered diet, and dramatically improved their health.

While neither type of study can be considered definitive by itself, together they suggest it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

But what changes should you make? As I said above, anything from Vegan to Mediterranean or DASH fits the definition of a plant-centered diet (something I have previously referred to as a primarily plant-based diet).

You could choose the plant-centered diet that best fits your preferences and lifestyle and read books or go online to find details and recipes that will help you transition to that diet…or you could simply:

  • Eat more fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
  • Eat less fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
  • Eat these foods in moderation: potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.

The Bottom Line

If you are like most Americans, you know your diet is unhealthy. But it is the diet you grew up with. It’s the diet you love. So, you keep eating it anyway.

Then you have a wake-up call. You find yourself in your doctor’s office, and your doctor is advising you to change your diet. But giving up the diet you love is difficult, and you wonder if it is worth it. Can you really improve your health significantly by changing your diet now, or is it too late? Has the damage already been done?

Fortunately, a recent study has answered these questions. This study started with people in their mid-20s. And it looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their health in their 50s and 60s. This is what the study found.

  • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet in their 30s and 40s reduced their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s by 39%.

While this study was very specific in terms of age and disease, I have discussed in the article above why changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce your risk of multiple diseases. In short, it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

For more details about this study and how to change your diet for the better, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

How Diet And Gut Bacteria Affect Our Health

Why Is Your Microbiome Important? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Vegan FoodsWe have known for years that primarily plant-based diets are healthy. As I have shared in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, people who consume primarily plant-based diets have lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers and live longer than people who consume the typical American diet.

But why is that?

  • Is it the nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber plant foods provide?
  • Is it because plant foods are lower in saturated fats and are good sources of healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats?
  • Or is it because plant foods have a low caloric density, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight?

The answer, of course, is that all the above are important. But is there something else? Is there a “missing link” we don’t talk about much? Many experts think our microbiome (our gut bacteria) is that missing link.

You have heard the saying, “We are what we eat”. You might be scratching your head and saying, “I could eat cabbages all day long, but I am never going to become a cabbage.” It seems like a crazy saying.

But for our microbiome that saying is true. What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. Consequently, microbiomevegetarians and meat eaters have very different populations of gut bacteria in their microbiome. The question, of course, is whether these differences influence our health. This central question has spurred multiple research studies on our microbiome in recent years.

Two central themes have emerged from these studies:

  • There are certain populations of gut bacteria that are associated with healthy outcomes (lower risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers). We can think of these as “good bacteria”.
    • There are certain populations of gut bacteria that are associated with unhealthy outcomes (increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers). We can think of these as “bad bacteria”.
  • People consuming primarily plant-based diets tend to have more of the “good bacteria” and less of the “bad bacteria” in their gut microbiome.

However, most of these studies have been small and have looked at individual foods rather than the effect of the overall diet.

The study (KK Koponen et al, American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 2021; doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab077 I will describe today was designed to overcome those limitations.

Metabolism 101: What Are Short Chain Fatty Acids And Why Are They Important?

professor owlTo fully understand the findings of this study, you need to understand what short chain fatty acids are and why they are important. Simply put, short chain fatty acids are the end products of fiber digestion by some species of gut bacteria in our intestines. The major short chain fatty acids in our intestines are acetate (2 carbons), propionate (3 carbons), and butyrate (4 carbons).

There are the key facts about short chain fatty acids you should know:

  1. They are formed by anaerobic fermentation of dietary fiber by our gut bacteria. However:
    • Not all gut bacteria can produce short chain fatty acids.
    • The amount and type(s) of dietary fiber determine whether the gut bacteria that can produce short chain fatty acids are present.

2) Acetate is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and is utilized for fat production and other biosynthetic pathways.

3) Short chain fatty acids, especially butyrate, are the primary energy source for cells lining the colon. Because of this, they have several important health benefits.

    • They support the immune cells that line our intestine. This helps strengthen our immune system.
    • They help maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall. This helps protect against leaky gut syndrome.
    • They reduce inflammation. This reduces the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
    • They reduce the risk of colon cancer.

4) In addition, small amounts of propionate and butyrate can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Butyrate is of particular interest because it has the potential to regulate gene expression.

    • There is some evidence that short chain fatty acid production in the intestine is correlated with reduced risk of inflammatory diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, but these studies remain controversial.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study made use of data from the FINRISK Study. This study was conducted by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare every 5 years between 1972 and 2012 to assess risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, health behavior, and their changes in adult Finns.

This study included 4930 individuals from the 2002 FINRISK assessment. The characteristics of the group were:

  • 53% female, 47% male.
  • Average age = 48.
  • Average BMI = 26.9 (slightly overweight).

Upon entry into the study, the participants were asked to fill out a food frequency questionnaire.

  • The data from this questionnaire were used to calculate a Healthy Food Choices (HFC) score based on the Nordic Nutrition Dietary Guidelines for a healthy diet.
    • The HFC score ranged from 9-745 and was based on the consumption of fiber-rich breads; vegetables (including beans and lentils); fruits; berries; fresh, non- sweetened berry and fruit juices; fish; poultry; low-fat cheeses; salad dressings and oils; nuts; and seeds.
    • In the words of the authors, “A high HFC score effectively acts as an indicator of a healthy omnivorous Nordic diet rich in plants, fiber, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
  • The data were also used to calculate a total dietary fiber score.

The participants were also asked to provide a stool sample. DNA was extracted from the stool sample and sequenced to determine the number and types of bacteria in their gut microbiome. These data were analyzed for:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids.

How Diet And Gut Bacteria Affect Our Health

MicrobiomeMicrobiome research is complex. But here is a description of the results in simple terms.

Both the Healthy Food Choice (HFC) and fiber scores correlated positively with:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids that are associated with better health outcomes.

Simply put, a healthy, primarily plant-based Nordic diet produces the kind of gut microbiome that is associated with better health outcomes.

When the authors analyzed the contribution of individual components of the diet to a healthy microbiome:

  • Vegetables; berries; fruits; fiber-rich breads; salad dressings and oils; low-fat cheeses; poultry; fresh, unsweetened juices; and fish were all positively associated with a healthy microbiome.
    • Each of these foods supported the growth of different gut bacteria that contributed to the healthy microbiome.
    • Simply put, none of these foods was sufficient by itself. It was a healthy diet with all these foods that resulted in a healthy microbiome.
  • Nuts and seeds did not affect the microbiome. This may have been because there was too little of them in the diet to have a significant effect.
  • Red and processed meats were negatively associated with a healthy microbiome.

The authors concluded, “Our results from a large, population-based survey confirm and extend the findings of other, smaller-scale studies that plant- and fiber-rich dietary choices are associated with a more diverse and compositionally distinct microbiome with a greater potential to produce short chain fatty acids.”

The authors also said, “The associated between red and processed meat products and the gut microbiome cannot be ignored either…[Our data] indicate that increased usage of red and processed meat is associated with the microbiome composition in an opposite manner to that of a healthy diet.”

Why Is Your Microbiome Important?

happy gut bacteriaThe most important message from this and previous studies is that your gut microbiome is the “missing link” between a healthy diet and a healthy body.

Simply put,    healthy diet →→→healthy microbiome→→→healthy body

However, I also need to acknowledge microbiome research is in its infancy. That is because our microbiome is very complex:

  • We have around 38 trillion microorganisms (give or take a few trillion) in our intestine. That means we have slightly more microorganisms than we do cells in our body.
  • Each of us have more than 1,000 different species of bacteria in our intestine.
  • Collectively, these bacteria have around 750,000 genes. That is 30 times more than the number of genes in our DNA.
  • Finally, we all have different species of bacteria in our intestines. We are all unique.

The only simplifying principle is that these bacteria exist in communities that generally group together. Unraveling the complexities and identifying the communities of bacteria in our intestines requires high throughput DNA sequencing and supercomputers to analyze the data.

Studies like this one can identify the associations between diet and distinct communities of bacteria. They can even identify which foods in the diet support the growth of these bacterial communities. Other studies can identify the association between distinct communities of bacteria and healthy outcomes.

The strength of this study is that it identifies the kind of diet and the kinds of food that support the communities of bacteria associated with healthy outcomes. However, these are just associations. They don’t tell us why these associations occur. Specifically:

  • We don’t know why certain diets are associated with different communities of gut bacteria. However, we do know several things.
    • High fiber diets are a major driving force in creating a healthy gut microbiome. This is because what we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food.High Fiber Foods
    • The diet should contain a variety of high fiber foods. This is because different kinds of fiber support the growth of different kinds of gut bacteria, and the diversity of our gut microbiome is associated with healthy outcomes. As I have said before, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.
    • However, the type of fat and the type of protein in the diet also influence the type of bacteria that thrive in our intestines. We know less about why that is.
  • We also don’t know why certain communities of gut bacteria are associated with healthy outcomes.
    • The exception is communities of bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids. We do have a good idea why short chain fatty acids are associated with gut health.

However, the fact we don’t know why these associations occur, doesn’t detract from the strength of these associations.

  • The associations between a healthy, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy microbiome are not based on this study alone. The same associations have been seen in multiple studies.
  • The associations between a healthy microbiome and better health outcomes have also been seen in multiple studies.

The evidence for these associations is too strong to ignore.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanThis study shows that a healthy Nordic diet is associated with a healthy microbiome. “But what is a healthy Nordic diet?”, you might ask. Simply put, it is a whole food, omnivorous, primarily plant-based diet with Scandinavian food preferences.

And, if pickled herring, potato pancakes, and meatballs aren’t your favorite foods, never fear. You have lots of other options:

  • The Mediterranean diet is essentially the same diet with Mediterranean food preferences.
  • The DASH diet is essentially the same diet with American food preferences.
  • You can start with a semi-vegetarian diet and tailor it to your food preferences. Of course, some common sense is required here. You will need to primarily include whole, unprocessed food preferences in your diet.

Let me close with some simple advice I have shared before:

  • We are what we eat. Our microbiome (gut bacteria) reflects what we eat.
  • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. A primarily plant-based diet is best because our friendly gut bacteria thrive on the fiber it provides.
  • We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each plant food group provides different kinds of fiber and feeds different families of friendly gut bacteria. We eliminate plant food groups at our peril.
  • We should think of red meat as a condiment, not a main course. Plants contain antidotes to many of the harmful ingredients in red meat. Two to three ounces of steak as part of a green salad or stir fry is much healthier than an 8-ounce steak and fries.

The Bottom Line

Most previous studies on the effect of diet on our microbiome have been small and have looked at individual foods rather than the effect of the overall diet. In this week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I report on a large, well-designed study that examined the effect of a healthy Nordic diet on our microbiome.

In case you were wondering, the investigators defined a healthy Nordic diet as a whole food diet that:

  • Includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and is, therefore, high in fiber.
  • Uses fish, poultry, and low-fat cheeses as its primary protein source.
  • Minimizes red and processed meats.
  • Has more polyunsaturated oils than saturated fats.
  • Reflects Scandinavian food preferences.

This study found that a healthy Nordic diet correlated positively with:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids that are associated with better gut health outcomes.

Simply put, a healthy, primarily plant-based Nordic diet produces the kind of gut microbiome that is associated with better health outcomes. To put this into perspective, a healthy Nordic diet is similar to a healthy Mediterranean diet or a healthy DASH diet except that the Mediterranean diet reflects Mediterranean food preferences, and the Dash diet reflects American food preferences.

The most important message from this and previous studies is that your gut microbiome is the “missing link” between a healthy diet and a healthy body.

Simply put,    healthy diet →→→healthy microbiome→→→healthy body

I summed up the article with some simple advice I have shared before:

  • We are what we eat. Our microbiome (gut bacteria) reflects what we eat.
  • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. A primarily plant-based diet is best because our friendly gut bacteria thrive on the fiber it provides.
  • We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each plant food group provides different kinds of fiber and feeds different families of friendly gut bacteria. We eliminate plant food groups at our peril.
  • We should think of red meat as a condiment, not a main course. Plants contain antidotes to many of the harmful ingredients in red meat. Two to three ounces of steak as part of a green salad or stir fry is much healthier than an 8-ounce steak and fries.

For more details about this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

InflammationIf you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It is something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. How good is the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation, and what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

The Science Behind Anti-Inflammatory Diets

ScientistLet me start by saying that the science behind anti-inflammatory diets is nowhere near as strong as it is for the effect of primarily plant-based diets on heart disease and diabetes. The studies on anti-inflammatory diets are mostly small, short duration studies. However, the biggest problem is that there is no standard way of measuring inflammation.

There are multiple markers of inflammation, and they do not change together. That means that in every study some markers of inflammation are altered, while others are not. There is no consistent pattern from one study to another.

In spite of these methodological difficulties, the studies generally point in the same direction. Let’s start with the strongest evidence and work our way down to the weakest evidence. 

Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory (I. Reinders et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66: 736-741, 2011). The evidence is strongest for the long chain omega-3s found in fish and fish oil, but the shorter chain omega-3s found in foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil also appear to be anti-inflammatory. 

Inflammation is directly correlated with glycemic index (L. Qi and F.B. Lu, Current Opinion in Lipidology, 18: 3-8, 2007). This has a couple of important implications.

The most straightforward is that refined carbohydrates and sugars (sodas, pastries, and desserts), which have a high glycemic index, increase inflammation. In contrast, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, most fruits and vegetables) decrease inflammation. No surprise there. The second implication is that it is the glycemic index, not the sugar, that is driving the inflammatory response.

That means we need to look more closely at foods than at sugars. Sodas, pastries and desserts are likely to cause inflammation, but sugar-containing foods with a low glycemic index are unlikely to be inflammatory. 

Fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory. This has been shown in multiple studies. At this point most of the research is centered on identifying the nutrients and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables that are responsible for the reduction in inflammation. I suspect the investigators are hoping to design an anti-inflammatory supplement and make lots of money. I will stick with the fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Saturated fats are inflammatory. At face value, the data on saturated fats appear to be contradictory. Some Fatty Foodsstudies say that saturated fats increase inflammation, while others say they do not. However, similar to my earlier discussion on saturated fats and heart disease), the outcome of the study depends on what the saturated fats are replaced with.

When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, sugar and highly processed foods (the standard American low-fat diet), inflammation doesn’t change. This doesn’t mean that a diet high in saturated fat is healthy. It just means that both diets are bad for you. Both are inflammatory.

However, when saturated fat is replaced with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (J.A. Paniagua et al, Atherosclerosis, 218: 443-450, 2011) or monounsaturated fats (B. Vessby et al, Diabetologia, 44: 312-319, 2001), markers of inflammation decrease. Clearly, saturated fats are not the best fat choice if you wish to keep inflammation in check.

I would be remiss if I did not address the claims by the low-carb diet proponents that saturated fats do not increase inflammation in the context of a low-carb diet. I want to remind you of two things we have discussed previously:

  • The comparisons in those studies are generally with people consuming a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugars.
  • These studies have mostly been done in the short-term when the participants are losing weight on the low-carb diets. Weight loss decreases inflammation, so the reduction in inflammation on the low-carb diet could be coming from the weight loss.

The one study (M. Miller et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109: 713-717, 2009) I have found that compares a low-carb diet (the Atkins diet) with a good diet (the Ornish diet, which is a low-fat, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet) during weight maintenance found that the meat based, low-carb Atkins diet caused greater inflammation than the healthy low-fat Ornish diet.

Red meat is probably pro-inflammatory. Most, but not all, studies suggest that red meat consumption is associated with increased inflammation. If it is pro-inflammatory, the inflammation is most likely associated with its saturated fat, its heme iron content, or the advanced glycation end products formed during cooking.

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Colorful fruits and vegetablesAnti-inflammatory diets have become so mainstream that they now appear on many reputable health organization websites such as Harvard Health, WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic. Each have slightly different features, but there is a tremendous amount of agreement. 

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet includes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices. Specifically, your diet should emphasize:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables. Not only do they help fight inflammation, but they are a great source of antioxidants and other nutrients important for your health.
  • Whole grains. They have a low glycemic index. They are also a good source of fiber, and fiber helps flush inflammatory toxins out of the body.
  • Beans and other legumes. They should be your primary source of protein. They are high in fiber and contain antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
  • Nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats, which fight inflammation.
  • Fatty fish. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are all great sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fish and fish oilincorporated into our cell membranes. Those long chain omega-3s in cell membranes are, in turn, used to create compounds that are powerful inflammation fighters.

Walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of short chain omega-3s. The efficiency of their conversion to long chain omega-3s that can be incorporated into cell membranes is only around 2-5%. If they fight inflammation, it is probably because they replace some of the saturated fats and omega-6 fats you might otherwise be eating.

  • Herbs and spices. They add antioxidants and other phytonutrients that fight inflammation.

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet excludes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet should exclude highly processed, overly greasy, or super sweet foods, especially sodas and other sweet drinks. Specifically, your diet should exclude:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas and sugary foods. They have a high glycemic index, which is associated with inflammation. They can also lead to weight gain and high blood sugar, both of which cause inflammation.
  • Foods high in saturated fats. This includes fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats. This includes margarine, coffee creamers, and any processed food containing partly hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are very pro-inflammatory.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods. They used to be fried in saturated fat and/or trans fat. Nowadays, they are generally fried in omega-6 vegetable oils. A little omega-6 in the diet is OK, but Americans get too much omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Most studies show that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is pro-inflammatory.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive to. Eating any food that you are sensitive to can cause inflammation. This comes up most often with respect to gluten and dairy because so many people are sensitive to one or both. However, if you are not sensitive to them, there is no reason to exclude whole grain gluten-containing foods or low-fat dairy foods from your diet.

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

FlamesIn case you didn’t notice, the recommendations for an anti-inflammatory diet closely match the other healthy diets I have discussed previously. It should come as no surprise then that both the Mediterranean (L. Gallard, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25: 634-640, 2010; L. Schwingshackl and G. Hoffmann, Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 24: 929-939, 2014) and DASH (D.E. King et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 502-506, 2007) diets are anti-inflammatory.

Vegan and vegetarian diets also appear to be anti-inflammatory as well. The anti-inflammatory nature of these diets undoubtedly contributes to their association with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

As for the low-carb diets, the jury is out. There are no long-term studies to support the claims of low-carb proponents that their diets reduce inflammation. The few long-term studies that are available suggest that low-carb diets are only likely to be anti-inflammatory if vegetable proteins and oils replace the animal proteins and fats that are currently recommended.

What does this mean for you if you have severe arthritis or other inflammatory diseases? An anti-inflammatory diet is unlikely to “cure” your symptoms by itself. However, it should definitely be a companion to everything else you are doing to reduce inflammation.

The Bottom Line 

If you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It’s something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. In this article I review the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation and describe what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor