Inflammation is a normal and beneficial process that occurs when your body’s white blood cells and chemicals protect you from foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. You need some level of inflammation in your body to stay healthy; however it’s also possible, and increasingly common with our modern diets, for the inflammatory response to get out of hand.
These days there are a multitude of diets to choose from, or exercise programs that can run the body ragged. The simple truth is that our bodies weren’t meant to eat deep dish pizza or Lean Cuisine meals every night, or to be engaged in hours and hours of intense exercise. If a person examines the evolution of our body from the caveman days, she would see that it thrives off of whole foods, clean meats, raw dairy, and exercise involving lots of walking and sprinting, with some heavy lifting.
Fast forward a few thousand years and, as a society, we are stuffing our bodies full of inflammatory “food-like” products that make us sick, depressed, overweight and undernourished. We are also less active as a population than ever before. However, the key to optimal health and joy is so simple, it’s often overlooked.
The solution to our health woes? Eat whole foods that are plucked from the earth. Consume foods that do not come in a package, can, bag or jar, and automatically the inflammation will dissipate in your body, freeing up space for your liver to begin processing fat (ironically where most toxins in the body are stored). And the best part is that you can practically eat all you want, as long as it’s clean whole food, because your body will naturally tell you when it has had enough like it was biologically programmed to do; and you will finally be able to listen.
No longer is a mentality of deprivation dieting or extreme exercising required. By pivoting our thinking, we can create a healthy relationship with food, and in turn, with our body and mind. One that creates a foundation of values based on fueling the body, and giving it health through whole foods, rather than limiting the amount of calories a person eats in order to reach some magic number on a scale.
The following list features 6 of the top inflammatory foods in order to help you with this clean eating journey, along with substitutes that allow you to eat many of the foods you enjoy but with ingredients that give you health, rather than take it away.
1. Processed Sugar
We’ve all heard sugar referred to as the “White Plague” and seen the ever-growing list of reasons it ruins our health. Among the myriad of health crimes, sugar’s most damaging role can be narrowed down to its inflammatory effects in the body. Each time you ingest a sugary snack or drink, your pancreas has to get to work cranking out insulin to stimulate the uptake of glucose by your cells so that blood sugar levels stay within a suitable range. More often than not, this pre-made amount of insulin is far less than the amount actually needed by the body (due to the fact that our ancestors never had such sugar-laden treats as Twinkies or donuts), so the pancreas must put in overtime to manufacture more insulin on the spot; a very energy-consuming process that usually ends up producing more insulin than required in an effort to conserve overall energy expenditure. However, this self-preservation measure ends up hurting us in the short run as blood sugar levels plummet, triggering an almost involuntary response to reach for something sugary or caffeinated to bring blood sugar (and thus energy) levels back up to normal. But sugar or caffeine are the worst things you could reach for since they send the body right back into this blood sugar – insulin roller coaster ride. A few days or weeks of this pancreatic torture and your body is begging for mercy in the form of some serious inflammation and exhaustion. Subject the body to this treatment year after year as most Americans do, and this inflammation becomes chronic, creating a damaging snowball effect on all systems of the body. Another way in which sugar feeds inflammation is by directly feeding cancer cells. These rapid growing cells need a lot of energy to do their damage, just as a growing boy needs a lot of food, and what better source for quick energy than concentrated sugar? As cancer cells grow and spread, they send out signals to the body’s immune system, triggering the assembly and deployment of a dramatically increased number of immune cells. While these immune cells are fighting for the health of the body, they can also do a lot of damage along the way with their “take no prisoners” treatment. In the body, whether damage is caused by friend or foe, the outcome always equals inflammation.
Swap out processed sugars (cane sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup) for raw organic honey, organic Grade B maple syrup (which contains higher levels vitamins, minerals and calcium than its Grade A counterpart), liquid stevia (look for certified organic stevia leaf extract, or stivia rebaudiana, and avoid products using “natural flavors” or other unknown ingredients), or fresh/frozen fruit.
In the end, if you can go without adding a little something sweet to your dishes, sans sugar is always the best bet, no matter how “healthy” your sweetener of choice is compared to others.
The pervasive sodium-blood pressure association myth has been harming our health even since before the low-fat diet myth took hold. The problem lies not in the consumption of sodium itself, but in the disruption of the delicate sodium to potassium ratio within our bodies, which becomes dangerously out of balance the more sodium and the less potassium we ingest. Maintaining a proper sodium to potassium ratio (which historically is meant to hover around 1:16), is critical for maintaining proper pH levels in body fluids and regulating blood pressure. It is believed that potassium deficiency is actually more responsible for hypertension (high blood pressure) than excess sodium. The best way to balance out your sodium and potassium levels? Swap out table salt (98% Sodium Chloride) for sea salt or pink Himalayan salt (84% Sodium Chloride), which contain far more of the health-promoting minerals silicon, phosphorus and vanadium. Additionally, regularly incorporate more potassium-rich foods in your diet, such as Lima beans, winter squash, cooked spinach, and certain fruits and vegetables (papaya, prunes, cantaloupe, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, avocados, asparagus and pumpkin). By eliminating processed and packaged foods, and replacing them with organic whole foods, you will significantly eliminate your sodium intake while simultaneously increasing potassium.
3. Wheat Flour
While the wheat of our youth provided notable nutritional value, the wheat grown today is far from nutritious. When grown in well-nourished, fertile soil, whole wheat is rich in vitamin B complex, vitamin E, many minerals, including calcium and iron, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Proper growing and milling methods are necessary to preserve these nutrients and prevent rancidity. Unfortunately, due to the indiscretions inflicted by contemporary farming and processing on modern wheat, many people have become intolerant or even allergic to this once nourishing grain. These indiscretions include depletion of the soil through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals, high-heat milling, refining and improper preparation, such as extrusion. Besides contributing to the overall toxic load in our bodies, these chemicals increase our susceptibility to neurotoxic diseases as well as to conditions like cancer. Many of the pesticides function as xenoestrogens, foreign “estrogen” that can reap havoc with our hormone balance and may be a contributing factor to a number of health conditions. They have also been linked to abnormalities and hormone-related cancers including fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer and endometriosis.
The damage inflicted on wheat does not end with cultivation and storage, but continues into milling and processing. It was not until the late nineteenth century that white bread, biscuits, and cakes made from white flour and sugars became mainstays in the diets of industrialized nations, and these products were only made possible with the invention of high-speed milling machines. High-speed mills reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and this heat destroys vital nutrients and creates rancidity in the bran and the germ. The resulting white flour contains only a fraction of the nutrients of the original grain. Even whole wheat flour is compromised during the modern milling process. Vitamin E in the germ is destroyed–a real tragedy because whole wheat used to be our most readily available source of vitamin E. These changes have not only resulted in tooth decay, but problems with fertility, mental health and disease progression. Literally dozens of dough conditioners and preservatives go into modern bread, as well as toxic ingredients like partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and soy flour. Soy flour–loaded with antinutrients–is added to virtually all brand-name breads today to improve rise and prevent sticking. And at the end of the line, wheat, and nearly all other grains, rapidly convert to sugar and rapidly accelerate aging and chronic illness.
Swap out wheat for almond flour or coconut flour instead. While these two flours do come in a bag (unless you make them on your own with a food processor), they are minimally processed are a great substitute for baking many foods that typically contain wheat. Just be sure to refrigerate any flours made from nuts or seeds as the oils in these are unstable at or above room temperature (coconut flour is the exception due to its heat stable saturated oils).
4. Certain Oils
Vegetable oils such as corn, soy and canola, are the far from the health oils in which we were once led to believe. Polyunsaturated oils, which include vegetable oils like corn, soy, safflower and canola , are the worst oils you can eat, as Americans’ intake of omega-6 fat from these vegetable oils is generally far too high. Further, polyunsaturated oils are the worst oils to cook with because they tend to become easily oxidized or rancid when exposed to heat from cooking due to their unstable nature. This results in the formation of trans fat and damaging free radicals. Consumption of these oils has been linked to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, liver problems and cancer. Even the proven health benefits of olive oil disappear once it is heated above the smoke point of 270 °F, which is why this nutritious oil should be reserved for salad dressings or dipping.
Unfortunately, the truly healthy oil, coconut oil, is regarded as the ‘dangerous’ oil and vegetables oils are regarded as healthy, when it should be the other way around.
Swap out highly processed oils such as vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil, partially hydrogenated oil (just to mention a few) for high-quality saturated and omega-3 oils. The best sources for saturated oils are from organic extra-virgin coconut oil and grass-fed butter. The best omega-3 sources come from hemp seeds, chia seeds, avocados or avocado oils.
5. Pasteurized Cow Dairy
The reason commercial milk needs to be pasteurized is because it often comes from sickly cows standing on a rotating assembly line inside a giant metal structure. Since the animals tend to have high rates of disease and contamination, courtesy of the factory farming model, drinking such milk raw would be highly inadvisable! It must be pasteurized in order to be safe to drink. Drinking milk from the cows of confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) will also expose you to antibiotics, and in many cases the genetically engineered growth hormone rBGH (unless labeled as being rBGH-free), which has been linked to an increased cancer risk. Besides that, the pasteurization process also transforms the physical structure of the proteins in milk, such as casein, and alters the shape of the amino acid configuration into a foreign protein that your body is not equipped to handle. Allergies to dairy are almost solely caused by pasteurization’s destruction of the naturally present enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose once ingested. The human body was not designed to ingest milk past weaning, let alone that of another species. In order for our bodies to properly break down and assimilate dairy products, mainly lactose, we need lactase to be present at the same time – an enzyme that we simply cannot make on our own. The pasteurization process also destroys friendly bacteria found naturally in milk and drastically reduces the micronutrient and vitamin content.
This is simply not the case with milk from a grass-fed, pastured cow, raised under clean and healthy conditions. Rather than harboring pathogenic bacteria that must be killed, raw milk from a grass-fed, pastured cow contains a storehouse of nutrition and beneficial bacteria (probiotics) lacking from CAFO milk. Raw milk from grass-fed cows is full of things that your body will thrive on, including healthy bacteria, raw fat, and cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). It’s not uncommon for people who drink raw milk to report improvement or disappearance of troubling health issues – everything from allergies to digestive trouble to skin problems like eczema. And since raw milk maintains the presence and integrity of the enzyme lactase, the body can easily break down and assimilate lactose, preventing or even reversing dairy-specific allergies.
Swap out pasteurized milk for raw, or cow dairy altogether for that of sheep or goat. Around the age of 1.5-2 years, our bodies significantly decrease in the amount of digestive enzymes created that specifically help to digest dairy. The molecular make-up of the sheep and goat dairy is more easily digested in the human body. Another reason cow dairy does not work as well is because the feed is typically made up from genetically modified corn and soy which creates inflammation in the cows. This is then passed on to us when we eat cow dairy. Last, casein is used in much dairy and many people are highly sensitive to it. When shopping for sheep and goat dairy, read the ingredients so that you can chose a dairy product free of casein.
After consuming an alcoholic beverage, a small portion of the ethanol gets broken down by the stomach and intestine as a “first pass” effect, while some is metabolized by your brain and other organs. The fact that ethanol is partially metabolized in your brain is the reason you experience that familiar “buzz.” The remaining ethanol hits your liver, where it must be broken down. Your liver converts ethanol to substances that produce free radicals, which damage proteins in your liver.
Some of these substances are converted to glucose, but a large amount become excess “junk chemicals;” particles that stimulate arterial plaque formation and triglycerides. Together with the ethanol, these lipids upregulate enzymes that induce an inflammatory cascade, which in turn causes hepatic insulin resistance, liver inflammation and cirrhosis (scarring). Fat globules accumulate in your liver as well, which can lead to fatty liver disease.
Swap out alcohol for good old fashioned H2O, Kombucha drinks (without added sugar; try brewing your own at home!) or tea. Alcohol tops the list of most inflammatory and toxic foods, and with a pause from the holidays, it seems like a reasonable time to take a break in order to regain and experience the most optimal and vibrant health.