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.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fatty steakBring out the fatted calf! Headlines are proclaiming that saturated fats don’t increase your risk of heart disease – and that they may actually be good for you.

The study (Annals of Internal Medicine, 160: 398-406, 2014) that attracted all the attention in the press was what we scientists call a meta-analysis. Basically, that is a study that combines the data from many clinical trials to improve the statistical power of the effect being studied.

And it was a very large study. It included 81 clinical trials that looked at the effects of various types of fat on heart disease risk.

Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

The answer to this question is a simple No. The headlines suggesting that saturated fats might be good for you were clearly misleading. The study concluded that saturated fats might not increase the risk of heart disease, but it never said that saturated fats were good for you.

In short, the study concluded that:

  • Saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and long-chain omega-6 polyunsaturated fats did not affect heart disease risk.
  • Long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats decreased heart disease risk [Note: The original version of the paper said that the decrease was non-significant, which is what the headlines have reported. However, after several experts pointed out an error in their analysis of the omega-3 data, the authors corrected their analysis, and the corrected data show that the decrease in risk is significant.]
  • Trans fats increased heart disease risk

If those conclusions are correct, they would represent a major paradigm shift. We have been told for years that we should limit saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats. Has that advice been wrong?

Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Fats Wrong?

Before we bring out the fatted calf and start heaping butter on our12 ounce steaks, perhaps we should look at some of the limitations of this study.

We Eat Foods, Not Fats

When the authors broke the data down into the effects of individual saturated and unsaturated fatty acids on heart disease risk some interesting insights emerge.

For example, with respect to saturated fats:

  • Both palmitic acid and stearic acid – which are abundant in palm oil and animal fats – increased the risk of heart disease.
  • On the other hand, margic acid – which is more abundant in dairy products – decreased the risk of heart disease.

Whipped CreamSo while the net effect of saturated fats on heart disease risk may be zero, these data suggest:

  • It is still a good idea to avoid fatty meats, especially red meats, if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease. When you focus on foods, rather than fats this fundamental advice has not changed in over 40 years! In next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I will share some of the latest research on the dangers of red meat.
  • With fatty dairy foods the situation is a little more uncertain. I’m not ready to tell you to break out the butter and whipped cream just yet, but recent research does suggest that dairy foods have some beneficial effects that may outweigh their saturated fat content.

With respect to omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid – which is found in vegetable oils and nuts and is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in our diets – had no effect on heart disease risk.
  • On the other hand, EPA and DHA – which are found primarily in oily fish and omega-3 supplements – decreased heart disease risk by 20-25%.

Once again, while the net effect of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease risk was very small, that’s primarily because most Americans consume mostly alpha-linolenic acid and very little EPA and DHA. This study shows that fish oil significantly reduces heart disease risk, which is fully consistent with the heart healthy advice of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health over the past decade or more.

What We Replace the Fats With Is Important

A major weakness of the current study is that it did not ask what the individual clinical trials were replacing the fatty acids with. Many of them were simply replacing the saturated fats with carbohydrates. To understand why that is important, you have to go back to the research of Dr. Ancel Keys.

The whole concept of saturated fats increasing the risk of heart disease is based on the groundbreaking research of Dr. Ancel Keys in the 50’s and 60’s. But, it is important to understand what his research showed and didn’t show.

His research showed that when you replaced saturated fats with monounsaturated fats and/or polyunsaturated fats the risk of heart disease was significantly reduced. He was the very first advocate of what we now call the Mediterranean diet. (He lived to 101 and his wife lived to 97, so he must have been on to something.)

Unfortunately, his diet advice got corrupted. The mantra became low fat diets, where the saturated fat was replaced with carbohydrates – mostly simple sugars and refined flours. Since diets containing a lot of simple sugars and refined flours also increase the risk of heart disease you completely offset the benefits of getting rid of the saturated fats.

Just in case you think that is outdated dietary advice, Dr. Key’s recommendations were confirmed by a major meta-analysis published in 2009 (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89: 1425-1432, 2009). That study showed once again that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates had no effect on heart disease risk, while replacing them with polyunsaturated fats significantly reduced risk.

The Bottom Line:

You can put the fatted calf back out to pasture. The headlines telling you that saturated fats don’t increase the risk of heart disease were overstated and misleading. This study does not represent a paradigm shift. In fact, when you analyze the study in depth it simply reaffirms much of the current dietary advice about fats.

1)     When you simply replace saturated fats with carbohydrates, as did many of the studies in the meta-analysis that generated all of the headlines, there is little or no effect on heart disease risk. However, other studies have shown that when you replace the saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats you significantly reduce heart disease risk.

In short, if you are interested in reducing your risk of heart disease, low fat diets may be of relatively little value while Mediterranean diets may be beneficial. No paradigm shift there. That sounds pretty familiar.

2)     Fatty meats, especially red meats, appear to increase the risk of heart disease. No surprises there.

3)     Alpha-linolenic acid, the short chain omega-3 fatty acid found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, does not decrease heart disease risk. However, EPA and DHA, the long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements significantly decrease heart disease risk. That’s probably because the efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA & DHA in our bodies is only around 10%. No surprises there.

4)     The study did suggest that dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk. While there are a few other studies supporting that idea, I’m not ready to break out the butter and whipped cream yet. More research is needed.

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