Inflammation: why you’re fat, sick, tired, depressed and in pain… and what to do about it

By vegan naturopath Robyn Chuter.

You may never have stopped to think about it, but every time you become unwell in any way, inflammation plays a key role.

That role is obvious in diseases like arthritis – inflammation of the joints, but perhaps less obvious in, for example, the common cold – major symptoms of which are rhinitis, or inflammation of the nasal passages, and fatigue, which results when inflammatory signals from around the body enter the brain; heart disease – which involves inflammation of the inner lining of the blood vessels; and cancer – which relies on inflammatory processes to grow and spread.

Then there’s the role played by inflammation in obesity – fat cells, especially abdominal fat cells, produce inflammatory chemicals which bring on insulin resistance, making it harder for you to lose weight – and in depression, which is associated with elevated levels of inflammatory chemicals both in the brain itself, and throughout the body.

Furthermore, obesity itself may contribute to depression, and not just because people feel bad about buying their clothes in the plus-size department, but because the inflammation brought on by being overweight affects their brain function (1).

So what’s driving this inflammation, and what can we do about it?

Fuelling the fire of inflammation

Inflammation is a response by the body’s immune system to a perceived threat, such as invading bacteria or viruses. One of the strongest triggers of inflammation is endotoxin, otherwise known as lipolysacccharide, a compound produced by certain types of bacteria. While you might think that exposure to infectious disease would be the primary source of this threat, many animal foods such as pork, turkey, cheese, yoghurt and ice cream contain signficant quantities of endotoxin – and this endotoxin is not destroyed by stomach acid or digestive enzymes (2).

In the study cited above, researchers proved that these endotoxin-containing foods caused human white blood cells to secrete inflammatory chemicals, and

“speculate that the occasional ingestion of meals high in LPS [lipopolysaccharide] and/or BLP [bacterial lipopeptide – another immune-activating compound produced by some bacteria] could promote transient, mild, systemic inflammatory episodes that predispose subjects to the development of atherosclerosis and insulin resistance.”

It’s worth emphasising here that the offending bacterial substances were

“minimal or undetectable in fresh fruit and vegetables.”

This relatively new research adds to the insights gained from previous studies, which found that a single fast food meal containing egg and sausage induced inflammation in the arteries of healthy young people, that persisted for more than 6 hours afterwards (3); while a meal containing animal fat caused inflammation in the lungs of healthy people, leading the researchers to speculate that regular intake of such foods may contribute to chronic inflammatory lung and airway disease, including asthma (4).

Endotoxin isn’t the only dietary culprit in inflammation. A study examining levels of inflammatory markers after intake of different foods found that people who consumed cream experienced not just increased levels of endotoxin, but also of the inflammatory markers NF-kappaB and TNF-alpha. On the other hand, in those given a glucose (sugar) solution to drink, NF-kappaB and TNF-alpha levels rose but endotoxin did not. Neither orange juice nor water caused any rise in inflammatory chemicals (5).

The bottom line here is that the major determinant of inflammation levels in our bodies – which in turn determines our risk of disease – is something completely under our control: our daily food intake. And while consumption of whole, unrefined plant foods is linked to lower risk of inflammation-related disease (6), consumption of animal products and refined carbohydrates has the reverse effect – in spades.

Sins of omission and commission

I often describe the effects of dietary choices to my clients with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Catholic church’s concepts of sins of omission and sins of commission. Sins of commission are bad things which we know are bad but choose to do anyway, while sins of omission are good things we can and should do but fail to do.

Interestingly, Catholic theologians don’t consider either type to be more ‘sinful’ than the other; both kinds are equally pernicious.

In my analogy, the Western dietary pattern, with its heavy reliance on processed grains, sugar and animal products, and only token amounts of fresh, unprocessed plant foods, leads us to commit both sins of dietary omission and commission:

  • When we fail to consume ample amounts of fruits and vegetables, we omit from our diets the abundance of anti-inflammatory compounds – such as carotenoids and flavonoids – that they contain.
  • And conversely, when we eat eggs, yoghurt, beef, chicken, white bread and soft drinks, we load our bodies up with highly inflammatory substances, and the ‘punishment for our sins’ is the disease processes that eventually result: heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, depression, skin disorders and a host of other nasties.

That’s why I teach my clients that healthy eating is a package deal. It’s not just a matter of eating some token ‘good-for-you’ foods to expiate your dietary guilt (like having some iceberg lettuce on your white-bread cheese-and-ham sandwich); you have to minimise or avoid the ‘bad-for-you’ foods as well.

Fortunately, renouncing your dietary sins need not mean a life without culinary pleasure! Healthy food that fights inflammation is attractive to all the senses, delicious to eat, and imbues your body and mind with vitality and joy – just check out my recipe section! Even better, enrol in my 1-day nutrition intensive, Empowered Eating to learn how to make healthy eating simple and delicious, or join my 6-week nutrition and cooking course.