Are the foods I eat making me unhealthy?
We all have heard the expression “you are what you eat” and for this week’s blog, I’d like to discuss how some of the foods we eat have a negative eﬀect on our health by causing inflammation in our cells and bodies.
Let’s start with a typical American breakfast. Usually, someone grabs for something on the go like a pastry or breakfast burrito with either coffee and/or juice. Lunch may include a soup, sandwich, or leftovers from the night before like pasta or rice. Dinner may be some kind of meat, starch, and a vegetable or even take out. These meals tend to be heavy on carbohydrates with moderate to high protein and saturated fat levels.
When a person consumes food that has carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks them down into sugar, which enters the bloodstream. As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin which signals the cells to absorb the blood sugar to use as storage for fuel. Insulin helps control the amount of blood sugar a person has in their bloodstream.
Now, not all carbohydrates work the same in the body. Some trigger a quick spike in blood sugar (refined carbs), while others (complex carbs) work more slowly, keeping blood sugar more level. The glycemic index addresses these differences by assigning a number to foods that reflect how quickly they increase blood glucose compared to pure glucose (sugar).
Carbohydrates with a low GI value are more slowly digested causing a slower rise in blood glucose. The lower the blood glucose, the less insulin we need. (see chart below)
Low (0 to 55)
- Bulgar, barley
- Pasta, parboiled (converted) rice
- High-fiber bran cereal
- Oatmeal, steel-cut or rolled
- Carrots, non-starchy vegetables, greens
- Apples, oranges, grapefruit, and many other fruits
- Most nuts, legumes, and beans
- Milk and yogurt
Moderate (56 to 69)
- Pita bread, rye bread
- Brown rice
High (70 or higher)
- White bread and bagels
- Most processed cereals and instant oatmeal, including bran flakes
- Most snack foods
- White rice
- Watermelon and pineapple
A diet high in carbohydrates is one cause of insulin resistance. Resistance to insulin results in increased blood sugar because the body’s cells don’t respond normally to insulin. Glucose can’t enter the cells as easily, so it builds up in the blood. This can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes and chronic inflammation.
The three main carbohydrates are: starch, sugar, and fiber. Foods high in starch include vegetables like corn, winter squash and potatoes, some legumes, and grains made from wheat like pasta, bread and crackers, oats, and rice.
Sugar is another source of carbs. There are two main types: 1) naturally occurring sugars like those found in milk or fruit. 2) added sugars, which are added during processing, like in regular soda, sweets, and baked goods. Added sugars have various names like dextrose, fructose, lactose, table sugar, turbinado, and agave.
Fiber comes from plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole intact grains. Good sources of dietary fiber include: lentils, peas, beans, fruits and vegetables especially with edible skin like pears and apples and fruits with edible seeds like berries. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios, and sunflower seeds are another great source of fiber along with whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and farro.
Let’s move on to the proteins we eat. First, we should all strive for grass-fed meats, organic poultry and wild seafood. Some examples of inflammatory proteins are processed meats because they contain inflammatory advanced glycation end products and saturated fats. Many will also contain various chemicals and other compounds that may be inflammatory. Some meats will be unhealthier than others but they should all be used in moderation.
Fat is another thing to think about when we are choosing what to eat. Fat has gotten a bad rap but we now know that we need it—that is, the healthy fats. This doesn’t mean to go out and eat a bunch of bacon and sausage. Instead choose avocados, grass-fed butter, walnuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Substitute vegetable oil with olive oil for a less inflammatory option.
Other inflammatory foods to avoid include gluten, refined wheat flour, excessive alcohol, artificial sweeteners, dairy, fried foods and white sugar.
Why is it important to avoid or minimize the consumption of inflammatory foods? And what is inflammation anyway??
Inflammation is your body’s process of fighting against things that are harmful. When something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system. This response includes the release of antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow to the damaged area. The whole process usually lasts for a few hours or days in the case of acute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation happens when this response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Over time, chronic inflammation can eventually damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs. This may lead to DNA damage, tissue death, and internal scarring. Research has shown that chronic inflammation is associated with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Check back for next week’s blog to see how you can control, and even reverse, inflammation with a healthy lifestyle and anti-inflammatory diet because it is important to take control of your health now before it is too late.