Most Americans hear regularly about nutrition and its importance, with some mention in nearly every newspaper, magazine, and news show. Because there has been conflicting data over the last half century about what is actually bad to eat, many citizens have decided that we simply don’t know, so they can eat whatever they want.
But science marches on, we learn more, and knowledge increases, even on the complex topic of nutrition. When the research is unbiased and impartial, our understanding increases. And we know more about this essential subject than ever before. What foodstuffs are necessary for health and wellbeing? How do we encourage healthy hearts and brains? Also very important, how do we maintain proper levels of systemic inflammation?
Even school children have a basic idea of what inflammation is. A cut gets infected, so it gets red, hot, swollen, and painful. Indeed, these are the cardinal signs of the inflammatory process. But this represents an acute process; very different is chronic inflammation in which certain biologic chemicals are circulating in our bodies for longer than appropriate. The length of time to be classified as a chronic condition varies, with many sources quoting 3 months.
Chronic inflammation occurs when there is an ongoing immune system reaction to some stimuli. Why this occurs and to whom is a subject of intense study. It can be from some serious illness or significant trauma, but the cause is often unclear. Regardless, chronic inflammatory diseases are associated with 50% of all deaths worldwide. The list includes cancer, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), stroke, even diabetes, all may induce this state of excessive blood-borne inflammation.
Although many are unaware of the presence of this condition, numerous symptoms have been attributed to higher levels of inflammatory substances produced by the immune system. Generalized pain, joint pain, muscle aches, chronic fatigue, anxiety, even mood changes, have all been associated with this state. Gastrointestinal problems are also implicated with constipation or diarrhea noted, along with weight gain (or loss).
The American diet, now termed the Western diet, has been spreading rapidly across the globe. Soft drink consumption, a popular component of this regimen, things like soda pop, energy drinks, and fruit juice, has skyrocketed in many countries, with Mexico and Argentina now high on the list of consumers of pop. But the United States remains number one in this category. Another component of this nutritional style is the use of higher levels of saturated and trans fats.
Other foods have been incriminated in the tidal wave of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and the other non-communicable, lifestyle-associated diseases associated with chronic inflammation. Numerous studies have indicated a clear relationship of processed and red meat with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc. Refined grain products like chips, cookies, and many cereals, have all been shown to increase these levels. It now appears likely all of these dire effects can be traced back to abnormal amounts of the products of inflammation in our bodies.
The take-home message is that all of these substances, sugar in all its variations, the unhealthy fats, the processed meats, are consumed in greater amounts in the Western diet and they have been proven to increase systemic levels of inflammation. Yet, the consequences of this chronic state of inflammation are only now coming to light. Much is still to be learned about how this condition affects health and well-being.
The latest research on the topic may stir some interest. These studies have shown that nerve tissue is not immune to the effects of increased inflammatory levels. Immune responses in the brain can be seen in numerous ways, including memory lapses, confusion, as well as depression.
The cells which compose the human body have an actual lifespan, a self-limiting process, born to die. Skin, for example, replaces itself over the course of a month. This takes actual physical matter, preferably in the form of protein, vitamins, minerals, obtained from the foods we consume. Heavily processed foods, what amounts to manufactured foodstuffs, are harmful over time by promoting systemic inflammation. In addition, it means the individual is being deprived of the substances needed for health. A diet dominated by ultra-processed foods can impair health in multiple ways, another being it alters gut health, a critically important part of immune system function (and malfunction).
The most powerful natural anti-inflammatories are the omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, etc.). These healthy and essential fatty acids can be found also in supplement form, and help to fight several types of inflammation, including vascular, making it beneficial in any attempt to reduce your risk factors for arterial disease.
The non-communicable diseases, the aforementioned heart disease, diabetes and stroke, are now the predominant cause of death in all the developed countries. As should be expected, this has been accompanied by an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed and sugar-laden foods, principal players in the Western diet. It is true that activity levels have fallen but the evidence for the contribution of this nutritional “plan” is undeniable.
At last, we know with certainty of the connection between diet and systemic inflammation. As a culture, we should be doing a better job of educating the public about the consequences of this dietary regimen. Anyone seeking care for a chronic inflammatory disease should also be informed of the benefits of a plant-based, whole foods diet, like a therapy, an actual treatment. Making better dietary choices is usually difficult and establishing a new routine extraordinarily hard, but the benefits can last you a (longer) lifetime.
EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.