The Truth About Inflammation: How Your Diet Can Increase Inflammation In The Body

June 14, 2021

Inflammation is often blamed as the cause behind a multitude of health concerns.

From allergies and exhaustion, to longer-term health problems including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But what exactly is inflammation? And, more importantly, what can you do to reduce it?

Keep reading or watch our podcast to learn more about what inflammation is, how what you eat influences inflammation, and what can you do to reduce inflammation after eating.

Article highlights

  • Acute (short-lived) inflammation is a normal biological process triggered by the immune system in response to harm, such as an injury, illness, or stress. 
  • Chronic (long-term) inflammation can increase your risk of many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, among other long-term health issues.
  • Through our research, we have discovered that both unhealthy blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and blood fat responses after eating can trigger inflammation and that this varies widely between people.
  • For the first time, we’ve discovered that changes in blood fat levels after eating have an even greater impact on inflammation than blood sugar. 
  • This shows that only concentrating on a single measure like blood sugar or blood fat is not the right strategy for overall dietary advice.
  • A healthy diet, based on understanding your unique biology, and lifestyle can help you reduce inflammation and better support your health.

Want to learn more about how this science can help you take back control of your health and weight? Take our free evaluation and get started on your journey to better health today.

What is inflammation? Acute Inflammation vs. Chronic Inflammation

Inflammation is a normal biological process driven by the immune system that happens in response to challenges, like illness or injury. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. 

Acute (short-lived) inflammation comes on quickly in response to infection or injury and usually goes away in a few hours or days. 

For example, it’s something you may have experienced around a small cut or insect sting and is an important part of the healing process. Your body sends out white blood cells that release chemicals, like histamine, which increase blood flow to the site of an injury to bring more immune cells to fight an invader. 

This immune response can cause one or more of the five tell-tale signs of acute inflammation, which include redness, pain, swelling, warmth, and loss of function. 

While acute inflammation is an important part of the body’s response to infection and disease, when inflammation continues for a long time, it can do more harm than good. 

Chronic inflammation is a much longer-lasting immune response that persists over months or even years. This type of inflammation is harmful to your health and has been associated with several health conditions, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart problems, and stroke

Research also suggests that people with markers of chronic inflammation in their blood were more likely to die sooner, even after taking other diseases and lifestyle factors into account. 

Unfortunately, it’s much harder to detect chronic inflammation inside the body than the redness and swelling of acute inflammation. Chronic inflammation often happens silently, with symptoms that are easy to dismiss, including body pain, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, digestive problems, weight gain, and frequent infections. 

How do we measure inflammation?

Physicians can measure specific biomarkers in your bloodstream to detect chronic inflammation. For example, we used biomarkers called GlycA (Glycoprotein acetylation) and IL-6 (interleukin 6)  to measure the levels of inflammation in our PREDICT study participants. 

While IL-6 has conventionally been used as a measure of inflammation, GlycA has recently emerged as a more robust marker of inflammation. Research also suggests that higher levels of GlycA are also associated with several health conditions, including fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Another commonly used clinical marker of inflammation includes high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). In general, higher levels of CRP indicate inflammation, but this measure is known to vary wildly from day to day within the same person and is more useful as an indicator of severe inflammation within a larger population.

Are there foods that cause inflammation?‍

Our latest research, published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, focused specifically on measuring food-induced inflammation (levels of inflammation after eating) in more than a thousand people to understand how it relates to the fat and carbohydrates in the foods we eat and how the levels vary between individuals. 

We found that the levels of inflammation after eating varied widely between people, even though everyone ate the same meals at the same intervals. Some people had very little inflammation after eating, while others had much more. 

But how exactly does food trigger inflammation? When you eat, sugar and fat make their way into your bloodstream. In response, your body takes action to bring your blood sugar and fat levels back to normal in a controlled way. 

However, if you experience repeated, excessive, and uncontrolled blood sugar and fat responses by eating the wrong foods for your body, you can overwhelm your body’s natural response mechanisms. This can trigger a chain of unfavorable metabolic effects (termed ‘dietary inflammation’) that can lead to a variety of negative short- and long-term health outcomes over time, including chronic inflammation, weight gain, chronic diseases like heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

We use the term ‘dietary inflammation’ to capture all of the unhealthy metabolic effects that can be triggered after eating the ‘wrong’ foods for your biology. Many different mechanisms are involved, from increased calorie consumption as a result of regular blood sugar crashes and oxidative stress, to altered blood fat metabolism.

Dietary inflammation is the ‘black box’ that helps us better understand the relationship between diet and how it impacts health outcomes in the long term.

Who is most likely to experience inflammation after eating?

Almost all of us experience some kind of inflammation directly after eating, due to the impact of digesting and metabolizing the fat and carbohydrates in our food. 

However, our research not only shows that we all have different sugar and fat responses after eating (even identical twins, who share all their genes), but also that our inflammatory responses to food are personal. A food that causes an unhealthy blood sugar or fat response and the inflammation that can follow, in one individual might not in another.  

We found that people with more body fat and greater body mass index (BMI) were more likely to have higher levels of inflammation after eating. Levels of food-induced inflammation also tended to be higher in: 

  • Males than females;
  • Older people than younger ones; and 
  • Postmenopausal women than premenopausal women. 

Inflammation and the gut microbiome are interlinked

Our latest findings build on research previously published in Nature Medicine, which highlights novel discoveries on the complex interactions between diet, the gut microbiome, and markers of health (including inflammation).

In total, we found 15 ‘good’ microbes that were strongly associated with having better markers of heart and metabolic health, like healthier responses to sugar and fat after eating, lower levels of inflammation, and less belly fat.

We also found the opposite: 15 ‘bad’ bugs, which were consistently associated with worse health indicators, like higher levels of inflammation and unhealthier blood sugar and blood fat responses after eating.

The reality is that our gut microbiome, dietary choices, and metabolism are all intricately interlinked. The beauty of what we’re doing with ZOE is that we’re pulling all of this together in a comprehensive way, based on the latest science, that allows anyone to get the full picture of their gut and metabolic health.

What can you do to reduce inflammation?

The good news is that you can reduce chronic inflammation with a healthy diet and lifestyle changes. Based on our research, food-induced inflammation is caused by foods that trigger unhealthy blood fat and sugar responses after eating, which depends on your unique biology and the foods you choose. 

Lead author, Dr. Sarah Berry, recommends several strategies to help reduce the impact of inflammation after eating:

  • Control unhealthy blood fat responses by choosing whole foods that are higher in fiber and lean protein, increasing your intake of healthy omega-3 fats from sources like fish, nuts, and seeds, and reducing your overall body fat
  • Control unhealthy blood sugar responses by choosing foods containing complex carbohydrates and fiber, such as whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, and limiting sugary processed foods and sodas
  • Choose ‘anti-inflammatory foods’ that are high in bioactive molecules such as polyphenols, found in colorful fruits and vegetables, and other plant-based foods
  • Understand your biology and choose foods that are less likely to cause unhealthy blood fat or sugar responses after eating

The only way to reliably tell if you’re likely to experience food-induced inflammation is to better understand your responses to food. 

To help bring this cutting-edge science to everyone, we’ve developed an at-home test that measures blood fat and blood sugar levels after eating, along with in-depth microbiome analysis, and provides personalized advice on the best foods to eat to support overall health.

Want to learn more about what ZOE can do for you? Take our free evaluation and get started on your journey to better health today.

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