Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Inflammation is a buzzword that gets thrown around often in the health space. But what does it actually mean?
Literally, inflammation means “on fire” which sure doesn’t sound good. However, it’s actually incredibly important because it’s your immune system’s way of protecting the body from injury and foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria.
Some inflammation is beneficial.
It means your body recognizes there is tissue damage that needs to heal. This short-term, immediate response to injury or infection is called acute inflammation; when inflammation becomes chronic, we run into problems. If the immune system is constantly receiving the signal that the body is under threat or injured, the white blood cells deployed to “put out the fire” wind up attacking healthy tissue as well as the damaged area. Over time, this can lead to a whole host of problems such as joint pain, headaches, digestive issues, hormone disruption, and chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
So what drives chronic inflammation?
Diet and lifestyle are major factors, and in particular, I want to focus on a few foods that can cause serious problems for a lot of people. They are: Sugar, refined seed oils, grains, soy, corn, and dairy.
Why is sugar harmful?
Ahh sugar. We all know that too much sugar is not optimal for health, but what’s actually behind that? Briefly, excess sugar consumption can lead to insulin resistance.
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that acts as a “key” that opens the “door” for sugar to enter your cells, which is very important to keep blood sugar levels from getting too high or low. When you consume too much sugar, it’s kind of like The Boy Who Cried Wolf; cells stop listening when insulin knocks and won’t open the door. This leaves excess sugar and insulin floating around in the bloodstream even if there’s no glucose in the cells, which is called insulin resistance. Long term, elevated blood sugar is toxic and can lead to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
What are refined seed oils?
Canola, soybean, cottonseed, grapeseed, and corn oil are all examples. These oils require an insane amount of processing to be extracted, including being treated with extremely high temperatures and bleach. As a result, they become oxidized and unstable at a molecular level. When heated, they oxidize even further and contribute to free radical damage in the body. They are high in omega-6 fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats, both of which are pro-inflammatory and unstable when heated.
A rule of thumb: if an oil is liquid at room temperature, don’t heat it to a high temperature! That includes olive oil. Cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil is a great choice for salad dressings or low heat cooking but ideally, it’s much safer to cook with saturated fats such as cold-pressed coconut oil, grass-fed tallow, butter or ghee.
Now let's talk about grains.
Going gluten free has become very trendy in the last few years, and can provoke a lot of eye rolls. Gluten is a type of lectin that is found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. People with Celiac’s disease experience an autoimmune reaction to gluten, which causes serious gut damage. However, very few people can digest gluten effectively even if they do not have Celiac’s.
Beyond gluten, grains are high in phytates, an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals (magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, calcium, and iron) and inhibits absorption. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, gut damage, and (because of their high carbohydrate content) insulin resistance, all of which promote chronic inflammation.
Soy sauce, edamame, tofu, miso, tempeh...chocolate?
Yep, many brands of chocolate and other types of processed foods contain soy lecithin, which comes from the same source as that favourite sushi condiment. Soybean oil is also widely used in restaurants, commercial mayonnaise and salad dressings. Like grains, soy has been heavily genetically modified to increase resilience to pests, and is quite high in lectins and phytates.
It’s worth noting that soaking, sprouting, and/or fermenting significantly reduces the lectin and phytate content of food.
Traditional forms of fermented soy include miso and tempeh. Soy has problematic implications for thyroid and hormone health. It contains compounds called goitrogens which interfere with the thyroid’s ability to use iodine and have been linked to hypothyroidism. On the hormone front, soy also contains isoflavones or plant estrogens. These can artificially raise estrogen levels in both men and women, which can decrease testosterone. Having imbalanced estrogen can lead to weight gain, fertility problems, and even certain types of breast cancer.
Corn? But that's just a vegetable!
In fact, the kernels of corn that are edible are technically grains. The concern with corn lies in the types of products made from corn such as high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, baking powder, and many brands of artificial sweeteners like Sweet’N Low. Corn syrup is a common ingredient in many processed foods, usually derived from genetically modified corn, and its high fructose content can harm the liver when consumed in excess.
As with all types of sugar, fructose can also contribute to insulin resistance and metabolic diseases. Like many crops, corn has changed significantly since it was originally cultivated by indigenous peoples. It is larger, sweeter, and starchier than when it was first grown, which gives it a very high glycemic load. Corn is also very prone to fungus and mold that can be toxic. Other names for corn that may appear on an ingredient list are: dextrose, dextin, maltodextrin, MSG, xanthan gum, maltitol, and mannitol.
Finally, let’s talk about dairy.
This is a bit of a grey area. Most people are familiar with lactose intolerance, which means a person does not produce lactase and therefore has difficulty digesting milk products. Lactose is the primary sugar in milk and is mainly found in fresh milk, cream, and cheeses like ricotta.
Fermenting can reduce lactose, so many lactose intolerant people find they have fewer problems digesting yogurt, kefir, or hard cheeses.
Casein is the protein in milk and is found in all cow’s milk products. In sensitive individuals, casein can cause swelling, skin irritation, nasal congestion, and digestive upset. Casein can also be addictive because it triggers a dopamine response in the brain, which creates feelings of pleasure and can drive cravings. However, quality is important to consider.
Many people find that consuming raw dairy from grass fed animals does not cause the same problems they experience with conventional pasteurized dairy products. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find raw milk in Canada and the U.S. All this to say, dairy can be a significant driver of inflammation for many people, and they may feel better without it. As with the choice to include or exclude any type of food, it’s important to experiment with what feels best in your own body.
My goal is not to demonize or create fear around any specific food, but to empower you with information to make decisions that will serve your health.
If reducing inflammation and the risk of chronic disease is a goal for you, you might consider eliminating some or all of these foods for a time to see how your body responds. As always, consult with a doctor or other licensed practitioner before making significant changes to your diet or lifestyle.