The Anti-Inflammatory Diet Prevents Diabetes and Heart Disease

By Susan E. Sklar, M.D.
The anti-inflammatory diet is one of many popular diets that are all the rage right now. People have heard of various versions of the anti-inflammatory diet: The Keto diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the Paleo diet. Here, we’ll talk about the relationship between the anti-inflammatory diet and two very common chronic diseases: diabetes and heart disease.
Every year, heart disease kills around 647,000 Americans.[1] It costs an annual $320 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses.[2]

Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects 10.5% of the American population.[3] It is strongly related to obesity and the fast food diet. Every year, it costs the nation around $327 billion in medical care and lost productivity.[4]

These two diseases alone have a huge impact on people’s lives. Worse, they are on the rise worldwide. These are serious, long-term conditions that have several key things in common.

First, they are both “lifestyle” diseases. They tend to occur in people with certain lifestyles. For example, both diabetes and heart disease occur more often in people with lack of exercise and poor nutrition. Both of these diseases are linked with excess body fat. There’s also a strong link to inflammation in the body.

We know there are a variety of risk factors such as genetics and environmental toxin exposure. This article addresses inflammation specifically. After we go over inflammation’s role, we will give you some tips how to improve your nutrition and lifestyle. While there are no guarantees, a strong understanding and implementation of these concepts can help decrease your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

What about Inflammation

Inflammation has been getting a lot of bad press lately. The truth is, though, it’s not always a bad thing. Like most areas of health, balance is the most important thing. The word inflammation comes from the Latin word “inflammo“. It means, “I set alight,” or, “I ignite”.

Inflammation is a natural process! It also helps fight infections from viruses and bacteria. Our bodies use it to protect against toxins. Inflammation can even help reduce damage from these things. Inflammation helps eliminate or repair damaged cells and tissues.

The problem arises when inflammation sticks around longer than necessary. Long-term, or chronic, inflammation is often associated with many health problems. Guess which ones make the list? You’re probably right: it includes diabetes and heart disease. Excess body weight is one cause of long-term inflammation.

Acute Vs. Chronic Inflammation: How the Difference Impacts Your Body

When inflammation happens in a big way, but doesn’t last, it’s called “acute” inflammation. This is when a problem hits fast and hard. You may notice redness and heat around the affected area. Some people pain and swelling.

This short-duration inflammation can help your body heal from injuries and infections.

When inflammation sticks around longer than necessary, it’s called “chronic” inflammation. Over time, it can cause severe damage to the body. You may not notice any symptoms or signs. Unfortunately, it’s silently doing a lot of harm. Chronic inflammation is linked to problems like diabetes, heart disease, and excess body fat. Moreover, it is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and a host of other diseases. Even mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety, can get worse because of it.

What Inflammation Does

Inflammation stems from the immune system’s response. It involves chemical changes inside our cells.

One of the molecules is the well-known “free radical”. You may have heard talk about that one before! Free radicals–known as oxidants–help fight infection. They also help cells communicate. However, when they’re in overdrive and aren’t counteracted with antioxidants, they can tip the balance. This causes damage to healthy cells.

Some inflammatory molecules can be measured with blood tests. The most notable? The C-reactive protein (CRP).

CRP is one of the “markers” of inflammation. When found in a blood test at high levels, it indicates that there is inflammation in the body. Those CRP levels are associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. It is also associated with obesity and smoking.  It may even be an indicator of some cancers, such as colon cancer.  Some researchers even believe that these levels can predict whether someone will develop those conditions in the future.[5]

Chronic Inflammation Increases Diabetes

Diabetes is a complex metabolic problem. The body of a patient with diabetes does not manage blood sugar very well.

In a normal person, blood sugar levels naturally go up and down throughout the day. They go up when we eat and down when we get hungry. In a person with good blood sugar control, the body naturally handles it. When blood sugar gets high, insulin is released. This tells our cells to absorb sugar out of the blood to level it out.

One of our patients named Kathy comes to mind. Her body does not manage blood sugar well. She is what we call pre-diabetic. Kathy’s blood sugar levels stay too high for too long after she eats. Her fasting blood glucose (done first thing in the morning before she has eaten) is over 90. Furthermore, her fasting insulin level is over 3.5. This means that her pancreas has to release more than a healthy amount of insulin to get sugar into her cells for fuel.

Insulin is a storage hormone. More insulin release means more fat getting packed on to her body. This is known as insulin resistance—her cells are resistant to insulin helping glucose enter the cell. Her pancreas needs to make more and more insulin. She needs to change her high carbohydrate diet and sedentary lifestyle or she could become diabetic.  Poor blood sugar management can lead to serious health consequences: amputation, blindness, and kidney disease.

Inflammation can cause diabetes

About 95% of diabetes is type 2 diabetes (T2DM). This used to be known as “adult-onset” diabetes. A host of nutrition and lifestyle habits contribute to this diagnosis. Often, these habits take decades for their effects to sink in. However, when it hits, those choices can promote excess body fat and inflammation. This leads to an imbalance between insulin need and production.

Many scientists believe that inflammation is one of the key factors when it comes to diabetes. It negatively affects insulin-producing pancreas cells. It’s also one of the causes of insulin resistance. Some researchers argue that most of the factors that promote diabetes are linked with inflammation.

Chronic Inflammation Increases Heart Disease

Heart disease is a major cause of death across America, Canada, Australia, and the European Union. In fact, one in four deaths in the US each year are caused by heart disease.[1] Many more people live with debilitating symptoms of chest pain, difficulty breathing and decreased energy and movement.

In 2006, researchers discovered the first link between inflammation and heart disease.[6] The first stage of heart disease is called “atherosclerosis”. Inflammation is a key factor in this stage. As heart disease continues, it can cause an increased risk for things like heart attacks and strokes. Inflammation continues to play a serious role.

Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) starts when there are too many “free radicals” inside the blood vessels. It can have a number of causes:

  • High blood sugar
  • High levels of oxidized fats in the blood (from too many free radicals)
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • High levels of homocysteine (an inflammatory molecule)[7]

All these problems can cause damage to the inside surfaces of blood vessels. This allows the buildup of plaque. Plaque is comprised of immune cells that are trying to come to the rescue of the damaged blood vessel lining.  Over time, this increases chronic inflammation. The plaque narrows the inside of the blood vessels. Over time, it can lead to complications like heart attacks.

Let’s get back to Kathy, for example. Kathy has high blood sugar that she struggles to control. Unknown to her, inflammation is increasing throughout her body. As plaque silently continues to build up inside her blood vessels, she does not notice any health problems—until one day she has chest pain. A trip to the emergency room results in the diagnosis of a heart attack. She didn’t make changes to her diet or exercise habits which could have prevented this.  What if we could rewrite Kathy’s medical history? Check out the tips below.

Nutrition and Lifestyle Upgrades

There’s a lot of evidence out there that suggests that improving nutrition and lifestyle can make a big difference in your overall health. It can help reduce many of the risk factors of chronic disease–including inflammation!

In fact, according to the NIH:

“People with insulin resistance and prediabetes can decrease their risk for diabetes by eating a healthy diet and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, not smoking, and taking medication.”[8]

The main treatment for atherosclerosis? Lifestyle changes.

One of the biggest changes you can make if you have prediabetic symptoms? Lifestyle changes.

Want to upgrade your nutrition and lifestyle? Try some of these strategies.

An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

A nutritious diet has a lot of benefits. It promotes overall health. It reduces the risk of many chronic diseases by reducing inflammation. Anti-inflammatory diets and foods are currently the topic of a lot of research.

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet includes:

  • A lot of vegetables, fruits, and legumes (beans)
  • Some fish, whole grains, tree nuts, and dairy
  • Small amounts of olive oil, tea, cocoa, red wine, herbs, and spices
  • Low levels of red meat and salt
  • A low glycemic index (it doesn’t raise blood sugar very high after you eat it)

The Mediterranean diet is known for supporting health, promoting emotional well-being, and even extending lifespan. It can lower the risks of obesity and diabetes–even in patients who do not note weight loss! Scientists think this may because of its anti-inflammatory properties.

Foods on the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet includes foods high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidants. These include:

  • Polyphenols (found in colorful fruits and vegetables)
  • Flavonoids (found in colorful fruits and vegetables)
  • Unsaturated fats, including olive oil and Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and fish oil)
  • Anti-inflammatory vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E (highest in sunflower seeds, almonds, avocadoes, and spinach) and selenium (highest in Brazil nuts)

These foods do not just fight inflammation. They are known to improve insulin sensitivity. They can lead to improved blood lipids (cholesterol panel). Over time, they also improve gut health, which can have a major benefit to overall health.

FUN FACT: Most people get some of the highest amounts of dietary polyphenols from coffee and/or tea. I don’t recommend a lot of cream or sugar! You can, however, enjoy your tea or coffee within reason.

Benefits of Foods on the Mediterranean Diet

Many of the effects of these foods have been demonstrated in medical studies. Extra virgin olive oil, tree nuts, and cocoa all have anti-inflammatory effects. They can reduce blood levels of CRP in both humans and animals.[5]

Individual components of a food can be important to overall health and decreasing inflammation. More important, however, is the whole diet! This includes all the foods you eat and all the lifestyle choices that go along with it. One or two individual aspects can make a difference. They do not, however, have the same effect as a holistic approach. You want an approach that incorporates your whole diet and lifestyle!

What if we re-write Kathy’s story knowing what it takes to lower inflammation?  Kathy takes her pre-diabetes diagnosis seriously.  She stops eating muffins and donuts on the way to work.  She starts walking in the morning before going to her office and makes sure to have a healthy lunch of a green salad with chicken or salmon and some nuts or seeds sprinkled on it.  She makes a healthy olive oil dressing for it.  She decides to get up from her desk at work every hour and move for five minutes.

She swaps out sugary soda for plain tea and water. Eventually, she takes on more challenges, joins a gym, and tries out new workout videos.

When Kathy next visits her doctor, she is surprised by how healthy Kathy has become.  She has lost fifteen pounds, her blood sugar is no longer in the diabetic range, and she is on the road to long-term health.  She has dodged the heart attack bullet.

Sugar and Starch: The Inflammation Link

Excess sugars and starches raise blood sugar levels and increase our risk of chronic diseases. They also promote inflammation in the body.

Animal studies show that diet makes a big difference. Animals who eat sweets and white bread and drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages have more health problems. They have higher levels of inflammation, including higher levels of inflammatory markers like CRP. People who don’t eat as many of these things have lower than average CRP levels.

One possible reason? More sugar and starch may increase the production of inflammatory molecules and free radicals. They might give immune cells more fuel, which can increase their activity.

Want to upgrade your nutrition in this area? Eat fewer sugars and starches! Pay particular attention to “added” sugars and “refined” starches. These foods are often highly processed and more likely to increase inflammation.

Dietary Fat and Potential Inflammation Challenges

Some lab and animal show studies show that increased levels of saturated fats can increase the production of CRP and free radicals. Meals with unsaturated fats seem to reduce the inflammatory response after the meal. Try some of these ideas:

Fish

Unsaturated fats like omega-3’s from fish seem to be particularly healthful. People who eat more fish tend to have lower levels of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Fish-based omega-3’s reduce inflammation in several ways. First, they reduce inflammation by creating healthier cell membranes (the covering around each cell). Then, they release molecules that actually fight inflammation in your body.

Tree Nuts

Tree nuts are another good source of unsaturated fats and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Nuts do contain a fair amount of fat. This makes many people avoid them! Studies, however, show that people who regularly eat nuts do not tend to have a higher BMI (body mass index) or more body fat. Even adding nuts to the diet doesn’t seem to promote weight gain compared to the number of calories they contain. Many studies show no weight gain at all after adding nuts to the diet.

Why don’t fat-containing nuts promote weight gain? Several studies show an increase in the resting metabolic rate in people who eat nuts. The people who eat nuts seem to burn more calories even when they aren’t active! This may be because of the type of fat, the protein, the fiber, or the polyphenol content in the nuts.

You can upgrade your dietary fats by eating more fish and nuts. Fish and nuts contain unsaturated fats that have anti-inflammatory effects. They can also improve insulin sensitivity.[9] In some cases, they can even improve the health of your pancreatic insulin-producing cells!

What About Fish Oil Supplements?

Many studies have shown success in decreasing heart disease risk factors by taking fish oil. Fish oil can help improve fat metabolism and help the body “thin” the blood. Fish oil supplements, however, have mixed reviews compared to eating fish when it comes to reducing inflammation. If you have a choice, eat the fish! Find fun and creative ways to mix fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies into your diet.

Decreasing Inflammation with Dietary Fiber

People who eat more fiber tend to have lower risks of diabetes and heart disease. There are a few ways this is thought to work. One of them? You guessed it: reduced inflammation. People who eat more fiber, usually in the form of fruits and vegetables, also tend to have lower levels of CRP. In fact, animal studies show that eating fiber reduces the levels of inflammatory markers –and may reduce excess body fat along with it.

It could be because fiber slows down the absorption of food in the body. This can reduce blood sugar spikes. Fiber is also great for all those friendly microbes in your gut!

Want to get that great fiber boost? Try including:

  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (beans and lentils)
  • Cocoa
  • Seeds (like sesame seeds)
  • Tree nuts (like almonds)
  • Avocados
  • Raspberries
  • Squash

Find Out More About How Anti-Inflammatory Diets Can Help You

Diabetes and heart disease are serious conditions. As science identifies more things they have in common, it also identifies new ways to treat and prevent them. Two big details linked to both conditions include excess body fat and increased levels of inflammation. You saw how Kathy improved her health when she implemented healthy diet and exercise recommendations.  The anti-inflammatory diet is one giant step you can take to prevent and improve those chronic diseases. Want to learn more about how you can improve your overall health? Contact us today.

Resources

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention
    Heart Disease Facts
    Center for Disease Control and Prevention December 2, 2019
    LINK: Heart Disease Facts
  2. Dalia Giedrimiene and Rachel King
    Abstract 207: Burden of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) on Economic Cost. Comparison of Outcomes in US and Europe
    Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes. 2017;10:A207
    LINK: Abstract 207: Burden of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) on Economic Cost. Comparison of Outcomes in US and Europe
  3. Centers for Disease Control
    Diabetes Statistics
    Centers for Disease Control National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020
    LINK: Diabetes Statistics
  4. Matthew P. Petersen
    Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2017
    Diabetes Care 2018 May; 41(5): 917-928.
    LINK: Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2017
  5. Nanri A, Moore MA, Kono S.
    Impact of C-reactive protein on disease risk and its relation to dietary factors.
    Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2007 Apr-Jun;8(2):167-77.
    LINK: Impact of C-reactive protein on disease risk and its relation to dietary factors.
  6. Libby P.
    Inflammation and cardiovascular disease mechanisms.
    Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):456S-460S.
    LINK: Inflammation and cardiovascular disease mechanisms.
  7. Maxwell SR.
    Coronary artery disease–free radical damage, antioxidant protection and the role of homocysteine.
    Basic Res Cardiol. 2000;95 Suppl 1:I65-71.
    LINK: Coronary artery disease–free radical damage, antioxidant protection and the role of homocysteine.
  8. NIH Publication
    Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes
    NIH Publication No. 14–4893 June 2014
    LINK: Insulin Resistance
    and Prediabetes
  9. Yoona Kim, Jennifer B. Keogh, and Peter M. Clifton*
    Benefits of Nut Consumption on Insulin Resistance and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Multiple Potential Mechanisms of Actions
    Nutrients. 2017 Nov; 9(11): 1271.
    LINK: Benefits of Nut Consumption on Insulin Resistance and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Multiple Potential Mechanisms of Actions

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