"Inflammatory" foods - is there any science behind this?

I’ve heard quite a bit about how foods like gluten and dairy are “inflammatory” and trigger all sorts of health problems including autoimmune conditions. I’ve been avoiding both for four to six years because of a legitimate, MD-diagnosed allergic condition and instructions from allergists to avoid them. I’ve been surprised at how many people, both people who have autoimmune conditions and people who are perfectly healthy, avoid them by choice. I take the whole “inflammatory” thing with a grain of salt because of my personal experience. I was just curious where this whole “anti-inflammatory” diet thing started and whether there’s any actual science behind any of it. (I would think not, since I’ve done quick searches and found nothing, but there are many people here who are more knowledgeable of the literature than I am.)

1 Like

I would refer you to Dr. Perlmutter’s books: Grain Brain and Brainmaker.

2 Likes

Thanks!

1 Like

[@Jen – About the specific recommendations above, please also read this: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/06/problem-with-the-grain-brain-doctor.html and keep your original grain of salt in mind. Just because a person has “Dr.” in front of their name does not mean they are currently practicing evidence-based medicine. This person (along many other “celebrity” doctors) certainly doesn’t. My good rule of thumb: if the good doctor is busy publishing popular books, they probably don’t have the time to engage with real science. If they are also selling anything, such as supplements, entertainment shows, etc., I definitely can’t count them as an impartial source of medical advice.]

This is not to say that we have the answer to the original question about foods that cause inflammation or that more and better legitimate research might not discover such evidence. But for the moment we actually KNOW very little on this topic and a lot of diets and advice dispensed out there is quackery.

(For what it’s worth, my own husband suffers from a variety of non-acute but persistent issues – which I happen to believe are the result of several years during which he took a prescribed antibiotic, which I think must have ruined his natural gut flora – because of which a little over a year ago he chose to stop eating both gluten and dairy. I give him a hard time about this decision because I don’t think it is a sustainable solution, but at the same time I cannot dispute it when he tells me he’s feeling better since he’s been abstaining. He does try to talk to his primary doctor and endocrinologist about his symptoms, but they have had little of use to offer. I do wish we had proper science to guide our choices in this sphere, but in the absence of it, making such modifications to one’s diet, while still trying to maintain overall good nutrition, is probably one of the few things that allow sufferers of different undiagnosable conditions to feel they can actually do something about their issues. So I can see how it’s a psychologically attractive coping strategy. And it might even “work” for the individual whether because of placebo effect, or something we simply don’t have evidence for, or because of random coincidence. But none of those personal experiences amount to actual science.]

3 Likes

So, there is some complicated science behind it, and that science is important to both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics, but not necessarily in the way people peddling diets might have you believe. From what I can tell (from perusing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject), the two most important factors in diet that contribute to inflammation are levels of insulin and consumption of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

In particular, arachidonic acid (an Omega-6 that is either ingested or converted from linoleic Omega-6) is the main, known culprit in inflammatory responses linked to chronic disease (including metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance). Ingesting arachidonic acid (which is common in some Omega-6 rich oils) seems pretty negative if someone has the genetic profile to be prone to inflammatory responses to diet; linoleic acid is contraindicated in those who have high serum insulin levels and a genetic predisposition to inflammatory response. So, the general thinking based on clinical studies is pretty straightforward: decrease carbohydrate consumption and limit or eliminate high GI foods; decrease Omega-6 intake; increase Omega-3 and polyphenol-rich foods.

In practice, that means a diet low in grains, high in fish and flax oil, low in refined “vegetable oils,” low in carbohydrates, and high in colored (red and green) vegetables. A becoming-standard “nutritional ketogenic” diet with heavy Omega-3 supplementation would likely be a pretty successful anti-inflammatory diet. As for the effectiveness of such a diet, I can only find evidence that it (the anti-inflammatory diet) is useful for combating insulin resistance, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic GI tract disorders, and obesity. As a side note, they’re talking pretty serious Omega-3 supplementation: 3g of EPA & DHA per day, which is as far as I know only obtainable (reasonably) from fish oils.

Some references that might be useful if you can get institutional access:

N.B. There is a lot of pseudoscience tomfoolery out there on such diets, which makes sense (there is money to be made in peddling diets). The links I’ve provided above, however, are to peer-reviewed research with direct application to insulin resistance and R.A. As with all dietary research, however, it is difficult to say how generalizable results of such studies are. You may find such a high Omega-3, low carb diet useful, or you may not. YDMV

4 Likes

Don’t worry, just because I’m interested in reading these books doesn’t mean I believe them!! :slight_smile:

Thanks for the information and references!! I’m a graduate student (though not in anything related to science or nutrition), so I do have full access to periodical databases.

2 Likes

Initially I heard about this diet when I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease. For some reason thyroid-related sites are full of people telling everyone to avoid gluten and dairy. I commented to a post saying that I’d been gluten- and dairy-free for two years prior to diagnosis and that I didn’t believe these foods had any impact on autoimmune conditions. I got in a huge argument and essentially left the group. Then I was surprised by several people without any health issues who I encountered “in real life” who avoided both. It made me think that there must be something helpful about this, because truly avoiding both is not that easy to do. Incidentally, I’ve continued following a gluten- and dairy-free diet (although I’m going to try reintroducing gluten soon—in a low-carb way) for the past year and a half and there are still detectable antibodies attacking my thyroid and I’m still needing the same dose of medication as when I was diagnosed. So, at least for me, there appears to be no benefit at all as far as autoimmunity goes.

So, obviously there are many, many people who disagree with me on the following. Except for those with certain kinds of allergies and actual Celiac disease, I haven’t seen any evidence indicating that gluten can cause inflammation (or even problems) for most people. Gluten is, after all, a fairly simple protein that is not that different from other plant proteins. And while yes, it certainly wreaks havoc on those with Celiac, I don’t see a mechanism for causing problems in others.

Then again, people are notoriously fiddly about their diets. Some things bother some people and not others, and there is rarely anything pathological about it. My body just doesn’t process certain kinds of fat as well as other people, so eating too much beef (in particular) and certain kind of lard or tallow-based pastries causes me pretty serious GI distress. Does that mean I have a “disordered” digestion? Probably not haha. My body just doesn’t like beef fat very much. Pork, chicken, and fish don’t seem to bother me at all. So I eat only lean beef and avoid things cooked in or with tallow. Which isn’t that hard on a low-carb diet anyways :slight_smile:

As far as gluten itself, I actually add it to my low-carb recipes. I make some breads with almond meal, vital wheat gluten, wheat bran and eggs, and they turn out really good. Haven’t yet tried yeast-leavened low-carb breads, but egg and baking powder works well as long as you add some wheat gluten to the recipe.

2 Likes

See, this is partly what I find annoying. So many people claim they are “allergic” when they’re either outright lying, or they’ve been told by some naturopath or a book that they have an allergy.

I’d be interested in your recipes. When I re-introduce gluten, I would like to do so in a low-carb manner. So I bought some wraps and some vital wheat gluten, but have no idea how to use the latter.

1 Like

Some people do a low-histamine diet, which is a very real/science-based thing and maybe what you’re referring to? It only is necessary if you have abnormal reactivity to histamines though, like in Mast Cell Activation Syndrome/Disorder. A similar diet is sometimes helpful for migraine sufferers. I’m pretty sure that it’s the same diet Tom Brady follows and calls a anti-inflammation diet, but I have no idea if it’s beneficial beyond people with those types of conditions. I know that despite having possible mild MCAS myself, I’m not doing it, because it eliminates so many of the foods I eat as part of the low carb diet key to my diabetes control (aged cheeses, meats that haven’t just been cooked, nuts/seeds, fermented foods, vinegar, tuna, avocados, etc) and also foods I love (dark chocolate, many spices, many fruits, etc). If my MCAS symptoms ever get more intense, I might need to do it though.

Some info on it:


http://www.amymyersmd.com/2016/02/everything-you-need-to-know-about-histamine-intolerance/

1 Like

Thanks for this. I don’t know if they’re the same thing. I’ve heard of low-histamine diets, but what got me wondering about the anti-inflammatory one (which seems mostly focused on dairy and gluten) is that people with autoimmune conditions were telling me it was a cure-all (which I don’t believe!) and that totally healthy people seem to be following it, for some reason.

I myself am avoiding wheat/dairy because of eosinophilic esophagitis, and avoiding a few other foods that I have IgE-mediated allergies to. My reactions to foods have actually gotten a lot better since I’ve gone low-carb, although that may just be because I’m making almost everything from scratch and almost never eat out. I used to have a lot of “random” reactions that I think were related to cross-contamination. My diet, between low-carb and allergies, is restricted enough that I’m not restricting it any further unless I develop an actual (medically confirmed) allergy to it.

1 Like

From a Celiac point of view, these people who are willingly giving up gluten and seeking the more limited and more expensive gluten-free options - are REALLY REALLY appreciated. It is through their voluntary choices which have over the past few years DRASTICALLY increased the gluten-free options available as well as reduced prices somewhat.

Personally I would never recommend somebody to avoid gluten if they have no actual problem with it - but it sure does make life just a little bit easier for the person with the Celiac diagnosis or wheat allergy.

2 Likes

Yes, this is true. Can’t argue that the gluten-free fad has been helpful. I’ve also found the paleo fad very helpful as someone avoiding wheat, dairy, potato (in about 95% of gluten- and dairy-free products), and eating low-carb. Recently I’ve seen a number of commerically-available items marketed as “paleo” that I can actually eat.

1 Like

I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s 20 years ago. Four years ago, I received my celiac disease diagnosis. Since going gluten free to manage my celiac disease, my thyroid antibodies have decreased significantly. My thyroid is no longer enlarged and my nodules are gone. Was it a gluten free diet or just treating celiac disease that I had undiagnosed for most of my life that impacted my thyroid? Who knows?

The downside is that some restaurants don’t take actual celiacs seriously anymore. I rarely eat out, but I’ve heard this complaint multiple times.

3 Likes

For sure. I tried to give this one 5 likes. Dang system only took my first like.
ha ha ha

1 Like

I think the issue of people making up fake allergies just because they have preferences (or have read in a book that they have an allergy) and restaurants claiming they serve gluten-free stuff while not taking any precautions against cross-contamination, are two separate issues. But yeah, I have seen a fair number of restaurants advertise “gluten-free” but then have a little footnote saying something to the effect of, “not suitable for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease.” I have an anaphylactic food allergy myself, so rarely eat out. I find it more of a stressful rather than enjoyable experience.

4 Likes

Ok. So I have seen this also. And I really do get this.

What we would be looking for would be everybody involved in the food preparation and serving to know that a food allergy is present on the order. All ingredients should be known and the Chef should be positive there are no known allergens contained within that order/dish. Clean cooking utensils and pans should be used. Gloves should be changed. No foods containing that allergen (ie - pieces of bread) should be passed over where crumbs could drop. Open flour (or whatever the allergen is) should not be right next to the food to be served. The Chef should know about food allergies and know things like a deep fry cooker does not “kill” off the gluten. The server should be careful in transporting the food.

So if these are followed with attention to detail LIKE IT WAS THEIR OWN CHILD then great. At the same time I understand the entire facility is not gluten free and there could be some cross contamination which happens even though a good deal of effort has been made to satisfy the request. This then becomes the duty of the person with the allergy (or Celiac) to decide if they can reasonable “take the chance”.

It can be a hard call.

I totally understand not eating out very often.

Worrying about what might happen pretty much removes the enjoyment most people would associate with eating out.

1 Like

A big part of my problem is that I’m so, so sensitive to cross-contamination that I’ve had reactions even with very allergy-aware restaurants. And, because my allergen isn’t a “priority allergen” (as wheat is) it can be an ingredient in foods without having to be listed. Combine all that with diabetes and trying to carb-count and other food allergies that really restrict what I can eat, and restaurant food is something I avoid unless absolutely necessary.

3 Likes