Inflammation is a necessary component of the immune system’s fight
against infections and the repair of damaged tissues—but problems can arise if the fire won’t subside.
Asthma, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression have been linked to a constant activation of the inflammatory response. It’s not an easy condition to treat, either, because its causes include obesity, stress, and pollution, among others. As a result, Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., the Webb Endowed Chair of Nutrition Sciences, and many other UAB researchers are investigating ways to control inflammation on an individual basis.
They’re not the only ones searching for a solution. Several high-profile celebrities have been touting “anti-inflammatory” diets as a cure. These diets call for eating lots of fruits and vegetables, decreasing consumption of processed carbohydrates, replacing fats and proteins containing omega-6 with their omega-3 counterparts such as fish, and using olive oil instead of other oils.
Logic and Loss
It’s logical: If inflammation causes certain diseases, then eating foods that combat inflammation should prevent those diseases. But according to Demark-Wahnefried, these popular “anti-inflammatory” diets are missing one critical factor: weight control. “We know adipose tissue (body fat) has a great deal to do with inflammation,” she says. “It produces all kinds of cytokines and adipokines, which are signaling molecules that can drive inflammation.”
“It’s all spin,” says Demark-Wahnefried. “What they seem to be preaching is pretty much mainstream. They’ve just repackaged it.”
The bright side is that changes in eating habits can lead to weight loss, producing health benefits. Even a 7 percent reduction in body weight substantially diminishes the risk of diseases like diabetes and cancer, Demark-Wahnefried says. This doesn’t necessarily depend on the diet used, though. She points out that even the Atkins diet—the antithesis of an “anti-inflammatory” diet—can lead to some clinical health benefits if it results in weight loss.
As for antioxidant supplements, studies suggest that there is no shortcut. Just adding an antioxidant supplement or two will not overcome all the inflammatory effects of the traditional Southern biscuits-and-gravy diet, for example. In fact, when it comes to research on isolated supplements, “we’ve really bombed out at being able to predict what the benefit will be,” says Demark-Wahnefried. “The more you separate the antioxidants from the whole food, the more danger you have of not having the right isoform or the appropriate mix. You lose a lot of the benefit of the whole food when you have that reductionist mentality.”
So, to reduce chronic inflammation, Demark-Wahnefried recommends losing the extra pounds to reduce adipose stores, then following up with an overall healthier diet. She suggests consuming more fruits and vegetables and replacing unhealthy proteins with those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish. Sounds a lot like an “anti-inflammatory” diet, right? “It’s all spin,” she says. “What they seem to be preaching is pretty much mainstream. They’ve just repackaged it.”
A Primer on Produce
Fresh fruits and vegetables are best for nutritional value—“as long as they’re fresh,” Demark-Wahnefried notes. She explains that many fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores are picked before their nutrients are at peak capacity, and more nutrients are lost during the long transit. In other words, buy local if possible.
Canned fruits and vegetables can provide some nutrients, too, but the heat of the canning process can destroy some, which are known as heat-labile nutrients. “A lot of B vitamins go up in smoke, and vitamin C and anything that is water-soluble is diminished,” Demark-Wahnefried says. Heat-labile nutrients are also lost in dried fruits, but the soluble fiber (especially good for cholesterol levels) and many nutrients like magnesium and iron are maintained. One caveat: Dried fruit tastes good, so you’re likely to eat more. “It’s a substantial calorie load,” she warns.
As for cooking, “there’s a certain wisdom to eating things raw; you don’t destroy the nutrients that are heat-labile,” Demark-Wahnefried explains. “But by the same token, there are some substances in food that, when you cook them, actually have a better benefit for you.” She recommends cooking vegetables in the microwave, which introduces the least amount of vitamin-leeching water and often requires a shorter cooking time. No matter how vegetables are prepared, she doesn’t recommend overcooking them or adding lots of saturated fats.
Still, we may not have to eliminate the biscuits and gravy completely. Demark-Wahnefried considers moderation essential. “Let’s face it. Everyone eats some foods that are unhealthy,” she says. “Everything’s a balance.”