Mysteries abound. Billions of galaxies, each with answers to questions unasked. Countless puzzles at the atomic or subatomic level await to be solved. Complexities of science make it difficult for most of us to figure out how each discovery piece fits into the big picture of humanity and the natural world. This year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a way of editing genes that will one day cure inherited diseases. Doudna said, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology, and to benefit humankind.”
Few of us will be making cuts in DNA strings to remove errors that lead to diseases. But the discovery on inflammation and how it impacts our health is easier to comprehend. Its significance to the existing body of health evidence is compared to the Germ Theory, how germs can lead to diseases in the body. The study of inflammation is slowly changing our approach to prevention and treatment of diseases. Understanding how this applies to us, puts the power (and responsibility) into our hands. When facing various chronic conditions, we no longer need to feel helpless. Just the opposite, the discovery of inflammation empowers us and keeps us from spending hours at doctors’ offices.
If you have been stung by an insect, you have first-hand experience with inflammation. The body responds to the assault with a sensation of pain. I explain this to my grandkids as the good soldiers inside us tossing out the invading microbes so they can’t bother us.
There are two forms of inflammation, acute and chronic.
Acute is the system’s response to bug bites. The good soldiers spring into action, neutralizing the bacteria and virus, and the affected area returns to normal. Chronic inflammation begins the same way, but this time the good soldiers can’t bring the body back into a balance, even though the threat is eliminated. Our system remains on a low-level inflammation alert that gets more costly over time.
Dr. Greger in How Not to Diet: “Chronic inflammation, also called metabolic inflammation, is persistent, systemic and nonspecific, and it appears to perpetuate disease. It has a low-grade, smoldering quality.” How can we know something is brewing inside without symptoms? One way to gauge inflammation is with a simple blood test, C-reactive protein. (You can order it on Quest Lab for $60) Ideally, protein levels in the blood should be under 1 mg/L. When an infection enters, the levels go up. So what good is it to know we have elevated levels that can lead to and keep chronic disease simmering within? It’s good because we can do something about it without relying on drugs and endless doctors’ visits.
Hundreds of studies give us abundance of evidence making it an indisputable fact that our lifestyle choices and what we eat are the single most significant chronic inflammation factors. The time has arrived to stop saying, “it runs in my family,” and pay attention to how we treat and feed our bodies.
Eating a diet with a high inflammation score is associated with “75 percent increased odds of having cancer and 67 percent risk of dying from cancer.” Dr. Greger continues, “Not surprisingly, those eating more anti-inflammatory diets appear to live longer [and healthier] lives.” The choice to keep eating pro-inflammatory food also means higher health costs and negative climate impact. The Standard American Diet is pro-inflammatory, and we have the disease rates to show for it.
Researchers created a Dietary Inflammatory Index by scouring thousands of experiments, C-reactive blood tests taken before and after participants eat. The more pro-inflammatory, the higher their protein blood levels. The more anti-inflammatory food, the lower the levels. Before biting into his food, seven-year-old grandson asks, “does this have good soldiers to keep me healthy?” And his nine-year-old sister preparing to bite into a doughnut, “do doughnuts have maybe a little bit of good soldiers?”
Obesity is a cause, and inflammation is its consequence. Taking off a few pounds can make a big difference.
After a recent oral surgery, the post-op instructions included not to talk for 24 hours. Tim suggested, for an abundance of caution, I should make it 48 or 72. Cold drinks only and take a week to work back to normal schedule. Even this minimal lifestyle change is onerous. A liquid diet for a week puts me in a bad mood.
In her book, What I Know for Sure, Oprah Winfrey writes of her love of food. At 240 lbs, she was disgusted and embarrassed about her weight. She hired a health coach that convinced her that the only answer was to eat whole food, an anti-inflammatory diet. She writes of this moments as a turning point. She created a big vegetable garden at her Hawaii estate. Following Oprah’s journey, I watched her lose weight only to find it again. Self-discipline can’t be bought. All the world’s money won’t take us across the bridge from bubbling inflammation to physical health. Praying from sunrise to sunset won’t either. Hard things are hard because there are no easy recipes to follow.
The most pro-inflammatory foods are saturated fat and transfat. Thankfully, trans fat is gone from most foods. Top saturated fat sources are meat and dairy.
The most anti-inflammatory components in foods are fiber and flavones. Fiber is found in whole plant food, with the greatest concentration in legumes, beans, chickpeas, lentils, and split peas. Flavones are plant compounds found in the greatest quantity in herbs, vegetables, and fruits.
Vegetarian diets are shown to be effective in treating diabetes. Taking it a step further, eliminating all animal food, and adopting a whole food plant-based diet means no more counting points and eating ad libitum—as much as we want. How can that be? When you eat nutrition-rich food, you feel sated, and the urges for more food diminish. Do you know a single person who gained weight eating whole food? Or have you ever said, I need to cut back on fruit and vegetables? No more telling yourself, “I’ve used up my points.” Heck, no. But learning to embrace an apple with hummus, carrots with peanut butter, or whole-wheat toast, etc. as your snacks will require discipline and single-mindedness. I’d read somewhere that quitting sugar in your coffee takes 28 days to adjust to. Not even close. After eight months, I gave up and quit coffee. These changes are very difficult.
Donna ordered a steak, a common cause of inflammation, medium well, then looked at me and said, “I couldn’t eat like you do.” She’s about twenty pounds north of ideal weight, but her total cholesterol is under 150. She is one of those people who have naturally low cholesterol so eating meat and dairy may not affect her heart health even though it’s the number one killer. (My father died of his first heart attack in his mid sixties after enjoying eggs and bacon type of diet his whole life.) I eat no meat or dairy and my cholesterol is higher than Donna’s. This complicates the message for the public. Donna has painful arthritis, a gene she no doubt would prefer not to have inherited. But no matter what bad genetic cards we’ve been dealt, we can reshuffle the deck for a better hand with diets.
Like Covid-19, information about inflammation causing fats (not all fats are inflammatory) is all over the map. Too often we read articles that rely on poorly conducted studies and assume it must be true. We are following the science, we tell ourselves. Like the source for our news determines if we are getting facts (the best science available at given time) or fiction (telling us what we want to hear).
A 2017 free-living study informed people of plant-based eating benefits, encouraging people to adopt it in their lives, homes, and communities. How did these participants fare against the commercial diets (short-term fixes) we are familiar with where the weight creeps back 95% of the time?
The results showed greater weight loss at six and twelve months, but more importantly, the various health benefits to everyone helped families buy into this way of eating. Diabetic patients saw improvement in their blood sugar, spouses suffering from high blood pressure or constipation saw improvements, and overweight children lost weight and gained energy. When making healthy eating a family affair, the success rate increases.
What if we just reduce our intake of meat and dairy? Is that like wearing my seatbelt most of the time? Different sources. Different answers. How do we feel, what’s our energy and C-reactive protein levels, and are we without pain? Aside from those who were dealt a bad hand (stroke, accidents, etc.), we own our health.