How Our Western Diet Affects Inflammation

Much published today about inflammation points to the fact that it’s not good for you. But is it? While inflammation can serve us to respond to trauma or injury, your diet shouldn’t fuel inflammation. A Standard American Diet (SAD) or western diet and inflammation, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand, which can lead to chronic disease and symptoms. The relationship of diet to chronic inflammation is important to understand to avoid disease. A balanced diet, high in anti-inflammatory foods is essential to reducing inflammation and pain.

If we could not respond to trauma or injury without inflammation, we would not be able to protect ourselves. The ability to create inflammation is important as it surrounds and protects sites of trauma or injury, allowing important cells to surround, protect, and heal the site. The problem arises when the inflammation does not resolve normally.

When inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to metabolic dysfunction, Metabolic Chaos®, and disease. Metabolic Chaos® occurs when the body can no longer rebalance on its own and the various metabolic systems are not functioning like they are supposed to, and dysfunction results. Diet and inflammation are important factors in creating or adding to this chaos.

While our bodies are designed to heal and rebalance on their own, the western diet and chronic stress (physical, emotional, chemical) together, significantly contribute to chronic inflammation, Metabolic Chaos®, and the rising rates of chronic disease in America. The SAD diet is an inflammatory diet that consists of 50% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 35% fat. While this is not outside of the range, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines, the quality of the diet is poor.[i]

Low-quality carbohydrates still account for 42% of daily calories, while high-quality carbohydrates — such as whole grains and fruits — only account for 9%.[ii] In addition, the intake of processed foods and high consumption of saturated fats, especially trans fats. Trans fats create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.[iii]

A Western or Standard American Diet causes chronic inflammation which can lead to disease.

A SAD diet can lead to chronic inflammation, along with insulin resistance and weight gain. Increased carb intake raises insulin, a fat-storage hormone, which in itself is pro-inflammatory. Chronic inflammation and a poor diet increase the hormone cortisol, which also increases blood sugar. Chronically high blood sugars from a diet high in sugar and processed carbs lead to insulin resistance, where insulin becomes less effective. Insulin-resistant individuals are often challenged to lose weight when going on weight loss diets because their metabolism slows, blood sugar cannot be stored in cells, and is converted to fat. Classic signs of insulin resistance are increased blood sugar, cravings for carbs even after meals, sudden weight gain, swollen ankles, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, elevated cholesterol, and belly fat.

The SAD diet is also responsible for the change in ratios of omega-6 and omega-3 ratios. The SAD diet most people follow has about 20 parts of omega-6 to one part of omega-3. High levels of Omega 6 can result in chronic low-grade inflammation which is thought to be responsible for the development of many diseases and symptoms such as pain.

Getting away from the SAD diet is important in appropriate omega-6 and omega-3 balance. We need both but at more appropriate ratios. A Mediterranean diet, for example, is about 4 parts of omega-6 to 1 part of omega-3. Reducing the ratio even further, below about 2.5 to 1, may help people with rheumatoid arthritis or colorectal cancer. [iv] The fact that the American diet is so disproportionately high in omega-6 underscores the relationship of diet to chronic inflammation and the reason to change from a western inflammatory diet.

As physicians don’t have a lot of time to spend with patients to support them in changing their diets, they often resort to medications such as statins to support their patients in supporting change without the commitment to help their patients change from a western diet as a first step. Unfortunately, statins favor omega-6 fatty acids, which in turn inhibit omega-3 increasing insulin resistance and the risk of diabetes.[v] This study also showed that taking omega-3’s while on a statin did not help reduce arrhythmias or were enhanced by statins, even indicating a counteractive effect.

An inflammatory diet is also a critical factor in mental decline. A western diet and inflammation are risk factors for mental decline. The anti-inflammatory Mediterranean Diet and Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets have been associated with decreased cognitive decline and incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease.[vi] Currently, there are no effective pharmacological treatments for devastating and disabling cognitive decline conditions, which emphasize the key role of preventive strategies.[vii] This is why going back to the basics of nutrition and dietary patterns is an essential key to maintaining neurological function with aging.

Our immune status and inflammation response to infection with viruses are also dependent on an adequate diet with nutrients. Anti-inflammatory diets can help support inflammation response and pulmonary support with exposure to viruses. An anti-inflammatory diet (based on a dietary inflammatory index) including turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, saffron, dietary vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 are recommended to reduce infection symptoms and duration.[viii]

Another dietary factor causing inflammation is when an individual may be eating foods that they have developed a sensitivity to. Chronic inflammation and diet may be related to an individual developing food sensitivities. Although food sensitivities may have developed due to a variety of other reasons, the goal would be to identify these, remove them, at least temporarily from the diet, until the gut is healed, and then slowly re-introduce them. If they are not removed, the gut may never truly be healed. What’s more, is that a leaky gut can lead to food substances leaking into the circulation and setting up house in organs, leading to autoimmune disease and continuing the inflammatory process.

Helping people with appropriate food choices and not eating a western diet is where health coaching can support people make permanent changes to achieve health and wellness. Health coaches have both the time, expertise, and resources to help support people in their journey to make their desired health changes. As diet and nutrition are at the root of health, individuals can rebalance their bodies with the right support to reduce inflammation.

As a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P), I am trained to help clients identify the relationship of their diet to chronic inflammation. I do this by uncovering their hidden causes of Metabolic Chaos® with functional lab testing and client assessments. I use Metabolic Typing® to help my clients find the right balance of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) to support their metabolism as well as assist them with food sensitivity testing and other tests to identify the presence of leaky gut and inflammation. Then, I develop personalized healing protocols that include diet as well as other factors in health including rest, exercise, stress management, and supplementation. As a Western diet and inflammation are related, changing from this diet is key. Through the healing process, I help clients rebalance their bodies so that they can function like they are supposed to, reducing inflammation and symptoms such as pain.

Find out more about my programs here.

[i] Dan, L. What is the Standard American Diet? https://fullscript.com/blog/standard-american-diet, July 27th, 2020.

[ii] Paddock, C. US diet still contains too many low quality carbs, Medical News Today. September 25, 2019.

[iii]The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good, December 11, 2019.

[iv] Sax, G. The Influence of Diet on Pain Managementhttps://www.hcplive.com/view/gordon-saxe-md-the-influence-diet-pain-management, August 17, 2021.

[v] de Lorgeril M, Salen P, Defaye P, Rabaeus M. Recent findings on the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids and statins, and their interactions: do statins inhibit omega-3?. BMC Med. 2013;11:5. Published 2013 Jan 4. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-5

[vi] Dominguez LJ, Barbagallo M. Nutritional prevention of cognitive decline and dementia. Acta Biomed. 2018;89(2):276-290. Published 2018 Jun 7. doi:10.23750/abm.v89i2.7401

[vii] Dominguez LJ, Barbagallo M, Muñoz-Garcia M, Godos J, Martinez-Gonzalez MA. Dietary Patterns and Cognitive Decline: key features for prevention. Curr Pharm Des. 2019;25(22):2428-2442. doi:10.2174/1381612825666190722110458

[viii] Vahid F, Rahmani D. Can an anti-inflammatory diet be effective in preventing or treating viral respiratory diseases? A systematic narrative review. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2021;43:9-15. doi:10.1016/j.clnesp.2021.04.009

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