Part 3 - Chronic Inflammation - What's Wrong With Our Modern Diet - 9 Ways to Fight Inflammation
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Part 3 – The effects of our modern diet on chronic inflammation
This article is part 3 of a series talking about chronic inflammation and its devastating effects on our health. For more on this topic, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series (here 1,2 )
In this article, I am going to talk about what is wrong in our modern eating habits, known to trigger low-grade chronic inflammation in our body. Also, give you simple ways to fight inflammation and stay healthy.
Some frightening statistics:
- More than 50% of the U.S. adult population has one chronic health condition and 27% have multiple chronic conditions. Chronic diseases account for 7 out of every 10 deaths in America (3)
- Around 40% of adult Americans are obese,and 9% of them are morbidly obese. Also, 19% of children aged 2-19 are obese (4, 5, 6)
- Nearly 40 percent of Americans adults, 65 and older, take five prescriptions medication daily (7)
- Life expectancy in the United States is actually decreasing over the last few years. Average life expectancy dropped from 78.9 years in 2019 to 77 years in 2020, and it fell by a smaller amount in 2021, 76.6 years (8, 9)
How did we get to this point?
How did we get to the point where we have an epidemic of overweight and obesity, half of our country’s population is dealing with one or more chronic diseases, and where our life expectancy is decreasing over the last few years?
Blaming our genetics
Scientists once believed that the secret to our health and longevity was inside of our DNA. However, since the human genome was sequenced, they recognized the limitations of our genes in preventing and reversing disease. Now, they know that our genes are responsible for less than 10 percent of existing diseases.
Then, we cannot blame the genetic factor as the major cause of chronic diseases anymore. Instead, scientists understood that around 90% of chronic disease are caused by environmental factors such as unhealthy diet and lifestyle.
In fact, a recent analysis suggests that about 50 percent of premature deaths globally are the result of a small set of unhealthy exposures or factors, including poor nutrition, inadequate physical activity, smoking, drug overuse, and exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
Basically, scientists are understanding that the development of diseases, in most cases, is a consequence of a complex interaction between multiple genetic and environmental factors. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
Our choices influence the expression of our genes
If we think that our choices, regarding our diet and lifestyle, influence the expression of our genes, we understand that it gives us profound power.
In fact, this discovery shows us that we can use our diet and lifestyle to our advantage as powerful weapons to support our health and well-being. Consequently, help to reduce the burden of chronic diseases we are seeing around us. (15, 16)
The mismatch between our genes and our modern diet and lifestyle
Like all living things, humans are adapted to live and thrive in a specific environment. However, environmental changes happened in a rapid and radical way that we didn’t have a chance to genetically adapt to them. As result, we have an incompatibility between our genes and our modern environment.
Scientists are saying that more than 90% of all chronic modern diseases are predominantly driven by changes in our diet and lifestyle rather than determined by our genetics.
We are learning that our food is more than calories. Our food is information. In fact, everything we eat and also the way we perceive the world is regulating our physiology in real-time. . (17, 18)
Radical changes in our diet and lifestyle as the root cause of chronic diseases
In the last few decades, our diet undergone to radical changes, mostly, motivated by the industrialization of our food. And currently, our diet and lifestyle are completely different from what our ancestors experienced.
The consequences of our mistakes and choices that conflict with our genetics, is the pandemic of chronic conditions that humanity never ever experienced before.
The good news is that if we are willing to adopt a diet and lifestyle that agree with our genes, it is believed to be enough to significantly prevent the vast majority of chronic inflammatory conditions we are seeing around us. Including obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and more.. (19, 20, 21)
Low-grade chronic inflammation is perpetuated by our modern diet
As we saw in Part 1 of this series, inflammation can act as both a “friend and foe” (see more here - 22).
In reality, according to scientists, low-grade chronic inflammation can turn into a silent killer, since it is an important underlying mechanism for the development of most modern chronic diseases. (23)
That is why is extremely important for us to identify the foods causing inflammation in our modern diet and little by little, get rid of them from our plates.
Let’s understand what is wrong with our modern eating habits.
The quality of the Standard American Diet (SAD)
Our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers ate for hundreds of thousands of years unprocessed, fresh, high-quality foods from both, animals and plants.
On the other hand, the Standard Diet, SAD is a combination of 50% carbohydrates, mostly from highly processed foods, 35% fat, mostly from industrial seed/grain oils, and 15% proteins, mostly from CAFO animals.
The problem with the SAD diet is not the proportion of its’ macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat). In fact, if we look at hunter-gatherer societies, regardless of the proportion of their macronutrient intake, there is no data showing that they suffer from any chronic inflammatory conditions.
Actually, the SAD diet is a perfect combination for a disaster because it includes foods that are not aligned with our genetics. Then, these food-like, low quality products can trigger a cascade of chronic inflammatory responses in our digestive tract that might result in imbalances in our gut microbiota and beyond it. (24, 25, 26, 27)
The SAD consequences of the standard American diet (SAD)
Undeniably, our country is facing an unprecedented health crisis as a result of our modern eating habits that are motivated by convenience, not quality.
As we can imagine, part of the solution for this crisis is not in our medicine cabinet. Instead, the solution is in our kitchen.
In fact, the answer for this epidemic of chronic diseases we are seeing around us is not more pharmaceutical and conventional care. Instead, we are missing one of the most important concepts of all: our food can be our best medicine. (28)
Our food can be our best medicine
Thankfully, we still have doctors such as Dr. Mark Hyman (www.drhyman.com), 11-times New York Times bestselling author, international leader in the field of functional medicine, one of my favorite doctors and teacher, who says:
“Food isn’t like medicine, it is medicine, and it’s our number one tool for creating the vibrant health we deserve”. (29)
How can we solve this bittersweet dilemma?
To turn this epidemic of chronic disease around we need to take some responsibility for how we get here, and where we want to go.
Basically, we must overcome the fear of our kitchens. Then, with a plan and daily action, we can slowly incorporate new eating habits by eliminating common inflammation-causing aggressors from our grocery list and from our plates. Aligning our foods to feed our health.
We can create in our kitchen a delicious and incredible variety of flavors, proper nutrition, incredible aromas, and colors, all at once. Nourishing our bodies and strengthening our health and well-being.
What is wrong with the Standard American Diet (SAD)
Today, eating processed foods and fast foods may kill more people prematurely than cigarette smoking.
However, it is scary because currently, 67 percent of all calories consumed in the U.S. come from highly processed foods. “Food-like“ products that are caloric dense, nutrient poor, and packed with toxins that are making us inflamed, overweight, and sick.
Without any question, t is crucial for us to identify everything we are eating that can cause body inflammation and change our eating habits. (30, 31, 32, 33)
The SAD diet is too high in:
- Ultra-processed carbohydrates (acellular carbs)
- Industrial seed/grains oils
- Omega-6 fatty acids
- Refined sugar
- Food additives
- CAFO meats
On the other hand, the SAD diet is too low in:
- Cellular carbohydrates
- Omega-3 fatty acids
9 ways the Standard American Diet (SAD) is causing chronic low-grade inflammation
1- The SAD Diet is very high in refined carbohydrates or acellular carbs
The acellular carbohydrates of flours, sugar, and processed plant-starch products no longer have their cell wall intact as they were removed in their processing. As result, they are considerably denser in carbohydrates. Also, they are mostly depleted from vital nutrients such as fibers, minerals, and vitamins.
The problem is, for many of us, processed foods, fast foods, and restaurant meals are the primary source of our calories. Often eaten multiple times per day.
In general, modern food has a huge impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels and can result in weight gain, obesity, metabolic disorders, and diabetes. Also, it is not friendly to our gut microbiome and is associated to increase the permeability of the gut barrier, inflammation, and to cause imbalances in the composition of our gut flora/microbiome.
Gut imbalances or intestinal dysbiosis might lead to serious health consequences and it is associated with a wide range of diseases. Including weight gain, obesity, metabolic disorders, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), allergic disorders, cardiovascular disorders, autoimmune problems, neuroinflammatory disorders, colon cancer, to name a few. (34, 35, 36))
2- The SAD Diet is very high in industrial seed/grain oils
In the last few decades, we had a huge increase in the consumption of industrial seed/grain oils, such as canola, soybeans, corn oil, safflower, sunflower, etc. Oils that are extremely dense in omega-6 fatty acids.
In fact, we can find industrial seed/grain oils everywhere in our modern food. From the bread we eat, to breakfast cereal, to baby food, to almost all processed foods available in the market, to restaurant meals, to fast foods, etc.
Then, individuals who are following the Standard American Diet had a radical increase in their omega 6 consumption since they are on average, consuming between 5 to 10 tablespoons of industrial seed/grain oil per day, without perceiving it.
However, this radical increase in omega-6 consumption has a price in our health and is highly associated with the increase in all chronic inflammatory modern diet-related diseases. Including, cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, asthma, allergies, poor memory, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, dementia, autism, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and more. (37, 38, 39)
3- The SAD Diet and the excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids
Anthropological research suggests that humans evolved on a diet with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is around 1:1 to maximum, 1:4, and they were relatively free of modern inflammatory diseases. Meaning that mostly, our ancestors were eating for millions of years about the same amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fats in their diets.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids do not produce the same effects on our body:
- Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation
- Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to anti-inflammatory effects
After the industrial revolution, we are greatly exceeding our ancestor’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Currently, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is between 10:1 and 25:1. Meaning that today, there are individuals eating up to 25 times more omega-6 in their diets than omega-3s.
As we saw above, such a dramatic shift in the historical omega-6 to omega 3 ratio has devastating consequences on our health and well-being. . (40, 41, 42)
4- The SAD Diet and the excessive consumption of sugar
Sugar is a refined, devitalized, additive product that contains no vitamins or minerals, but calories. It has detrimental effects on our physiology, leading to weight gain, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, weakened immune-system, and much more.
However, the consumption of sugar has greatly and steadily increased over the past decades. Nowadays, the average American consumes 130 pounds of sugar a year. Approximately 3 pounds a week. On average, an adult consumes 22 tablespoons of sugar per day, and a child is even worse, 32 tablespoons a day.
In fact, sugar is the most added ingredient in processed foods and is found in cakes, cookies, brownies, ice cream, candies, pies, ketchup, crackers, soups, bread, peanut butter, cereal, salad dressing, cured meats, sodas, yogurts (even a plain one), sauces, salad dressing, etc.
The consumption of these products has a huge impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels and can cause diabetes, weight gain, obesity, metabolic disorders, inflammation, and more.
If we look at obesity per se, it is a complex, multi factorial, and largely preventable disease that is showing steady growth, and affects, along with overweight, over 30 percent of the world population. Sadly, it includes children.
In the United States in 2017-2020, the obesity prevalence among children and adolescents aged 2-19 years was 19.7 percent. Affecting about 14.7 million children and adolescents. (43, 44, 45, 46)
- 12.7% among 2 to 5 years old
- 20.7% among 6 to 11 years old
- 22.2% among 12 to 19 years old.
5- The SAD Diet and the excessive consumption of food additives
Food additives are substances used by the food industry to give a food a marketable quality, making them more appealing and enhancing the taste, freshness, color, texture, preventing spoilage, etc.
According to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are thousands of ingredients used to make processed foods. They keep a list of over 3,000 ingredients in their database.
However, the FDA has never looked at long-term safety studies in most of their 3,000 food additives.
Besides it, the food industry has added thousands of ingredients to foods with little or no government supervision. Look like they are finding excuses in old-laws that allow them to consider a food additive to be “generally recognized as safe” – or GRAS – without the U.S. FDA approval or even its knowledge (read more in the links below).
However, accumulating evidence suggests that food additives can disturb the homeostasis in our gut and contribute to a cascade of chronic inflammatory responses in our gut and behind it.
Food additives are known to create digestive disorders, hyperactivity, insomnia, irritability, allergic reactions, cancer, and much more. . (47, 48, 49, 50, 51)
6- The SAD Diet and the excessive consumption of CAFO meat (Confined Animal Feeding Operations)
“CAFO is a specific type of large-scale industrial agricultural facility that raises animals, usually at high-density, for the consumption of meat, eggs, or milk”. 70% of cows, 98% of pigs, and 99% of chickens and turkeys of American livestock are now raised in CAFO.
CAFO animals are raised in confinement and are fed with defined feeds that are formulated to increase their growth rates. “These days, animal-feed contains mixtures of plant-based products such as corn, soy, as well as other ingredients ranging from dead animals and animal waste to antibiotics and arsenic.”
A report from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that around 70% of antibiotics produced annually in the United States are given to animals. The antibiotics used in human medicine belong to the same general classes as those used in animals, and there is strong evidence that antibiotics used in animal products are transferred to humans, impacting human health.
In fact, CAFO animals are completely different from grass-fed animals or the kind of protein consumed by our ancestors. And the modern practice of feeding cattle grains significantly reduces the quality of their products.
Then, CAFO animals have lower levels the omega-3 content compared to pasture-raised animals. Also, lower levels of vitamins A and E, glutathione, thiamine, riboflavin, and beta-carotene compared to grass-fed ones. Besides, conventionally raised chickens and eggs have lower levels of vitamins A, E, D, and flavonoids, compared to free-range chickens. (52, 53, 54, 55, 56)
What is missing in the SAD diet?
As we saw above, more than half the calories Americans consume comes from nutrient-depleted, ultra-processed, and pro-inflammatory foods. Including refined flours, industrial seed oils, refined sugar, and CAFO animals.
In fact, the SAD diet is way too low in nutrient-dense foods that we are genetically hardwired to eat such as grass-fed animals, roots, fruits, leaves, and vegetables.
Below we are going to find out what is missing in the Standard American Diet.
1- Our modern diet is lacking vital nutrients
Nutrients are chemical substances that are required for many important processes in our body. For example, to support basic functions such as growth and development, repair and maintenance of overall health across our lifespan.
However, micronutrient deficiency is becoming a serious topic as it is affecting an estimated 2 billion people worldwide.
As you can imagine, the problem is with our modern diet that is loaded with calories but nutrient depleted. In fact, most Americans are well-fed but malnourished, as they are greatly exceeding their energy or caloric intake but are unaware that they are eating empty calories that lack vital micronutrients.
Numerous sources, including the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, have emphasized deficiencies in vital nutrients within the U.S. population. They say that 31 percent of Americans are at risk of at least one vitamin deficiency.
The most common nutritional deficiencies are calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, potassium, vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12, and choline.
Besides, a prolonged, inadequate intake of essential micronutrients is a common contributor to poor growth, intellectual impairments, perinatal complications, and several serious chronic health conditions, including death. (57, 58, 59, 60, 61)
2- - Our modern diet is lacking cellular carbohydrates
Cellular carbohydrates are found in plant foods such as roots and tubers, fruits, leaves, and vegetables. They are called cellular because their carbohydrates are stored inside cells surrounded by fiber, and these cells remain intact even after cooking.
These foods have a low carbohydrate, energy/calorie density. As result, they take longer to be digested and are gradually absorbed. They keep us satiated for longer periods of time and cause a gradual increase in blood glucose and insulin secretion by the pancreas.
Cellular carbohydrates are functional foods that were present in the diet of our ancestors for millions of years. They are foods consistent with our evolutionary condition and essential to promote intestinal health, as they stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria (read more here).
These carbs are part of any healthy eating plan, as they provide us not only with their energy, but also with their vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. All essential nutrients for optimal health. (62, 63)
3- Our modern diet is lacking omega-3 fatty acids
For optimal health, it is essential for us to keep the right balance between our omega-6 and omega-3 intake. As we saw before, it appears to be 1:1 to maximum, 4:1. Essentially, how much omega-3 we need is directly dependent on our own omega-6 consumption. The more omega-6 we eat, the more omega-3 we will need to balance their ratio.
This is a good reason for us to avoid the consumption of pro-inflammatory processed foods, packed with industrial seed oils, rich in omega-6s.
Also, we must include in our diet omega-3 rich foods such as organ meat such as liver, heart, tongue, kidney, etc. And wild fatty fish that are low in mercury content such as sardines, mackerel, wild salmon, herring, crustaceans, and seafood.
These are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet and are packed with omega-3 and vital nutrients that are readily available, easily digested, and fast absorbed.
Symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include chronic inflammation, fatigue, poor memory, skin problems, mood swings and depression, severe headaches, poor circulation, cardiovascular problems, asthma, cancer, and more. . (64, 65, 66)
Ways to reduce low-grade chronic inflammation
Basically, if you want to reduce inflammation, start by taking a look in your kitchen, not in your medicine cabinet.
How to improve your diet?
In summary, if we want to battle chronic inflammation and keep optimal health, we must start changing our grocery list and our eating habits.
1- As a general rule: if a food comes in a bag or box, don’t buy it
2- Ditch processed carbohydrates, processed foods in general, industrial seed/grain oils, refined sugar, and CAFO animals. Products that are loaded with omega-6, food additives, and toxins.
3- Use your food as your best medicine. Basically, focus on high-quality, nutrient-dense type of diet. Then, choose grass-fed animals and eggs, small wild fish and seafood, and about equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Aim for a plate with the color of a rainbow and eat a large variety of vegetables and fruits. Finally, do not forget to keep an appropriate cellular carbohydrate intake, to help you restore your gut microbiota, achieve your personal goals and strengthen your health in general. (Please, look here for more info 67)
I am sure that these recommendations will help you more than any drug available on the market.
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The information and advice presented on this site, regardless of the date, should never be used as a medical advice or as a substitute for direct medical advice or care from your doctor or a qualified clinician.
This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or illness without consulting your doctor. Please, consult with a health care practitioner before you start any new diet for weight-loss or weight-maintenance program.