Diet may play role in chronic inflammation

chow_042415_101695235Are there foods you can eat to reduce chronic inflammation?

Health issues related to chronic inflammation have been getting quite a bit of attention in recent years. Ironically, inflammation is an important part of the immune system — in young people, bouts of inflammation actually help fight off disease and help repair damage from injury or exposure to harmful substances.

But according to the National Institutes of Health (more precisely, the National institute on Aging), as people grow older, chronic inflammation often sets in, and it tends to be associated with a whole host of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, frailty, type 2 diabetes, physical disability and dementia.

The challenge is that the science to help us understand this link is still evolving. Does chronic inflammation lead to these conditions? Or is it merely a marker in someone whose body is already trying to deal with them? Or, is it possible that chronic inflammation and these ailments have a more complex relationship?

That said, chronic inflammation is associated with these conditions, some of which can be debilitating. And it appears that an overall healthy diet, especially one that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce mild chronic inflammation. While, again, the evidence isn’t quite clear, it is promising. Knowing that there could be this added benefit to eating right might help nudge you toward reaching for that apple instead of an apple fritter.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the professional association for registered dietitians, recommends against focusing on a specific food for some type of miracle cure against chronic inflammation. There have been some studies that suggest foods such as fatty fish (salmon, for example), berries, tart cherry juice and other specific foods have anti-inflammatory properties. But instead of focusing on a few food items, considering changes to the whole diet is a better approach.

The Academy, and other trusted sources such as the Harvard School of Public Health, offer anti-inflammatory guidance including:

  • Fill up half your plate with fruits and vegetables at meals, and eat a wide variety. For fruit, include strawberries, cherries, oranges and blueberries. Vegetables should include tomatoes and leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards and chard.  Avocados, though high in calories, are also considered to have anti-inflammatory properties because of the heart-healthy fat they contain.
  • Eat nuts, in moderation, as part of your diet, including almonds and walnuts.
  • Incorporate high-fat fish, such as salmon, sardines and anchovies, into your regular meal plan, and choose heart-healthy oils such as olive oil.

Diet isn’t the only thing associated with inflammation. Stress, weight, sleep patterns and physical activity are also among the factors that could have an effect. Strive for balance, not only in your diet but in life, and you may reap more benefits than you realize.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Irene Hatsu, food security specialist for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Why choose whole foods over processed?

chow_041015_463520903I’m dating a guy who loves to cook, which is great, but he seems to rely on a lot of processed foods. Would it be worthwhile, health-wise, to try to shift him more toward fresh, whole foods? 

Probably, yes. But it depends on what you mean by “processed foods.”

Although foods that are minimally processed — frozen fruits and vegetables without sauces or seasonings, for example — fare comparably to their fresh counterparts, highly processed foods often are loaded with sodium, fat, added sugar and calories or are otherwise compromised, such as whole grains being processed into refined grains.

A recent study presented at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting indicates that processed foods may have larger health implications in the U.S. than previously thought.

The study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined the nutritional profile of highly processed foods and how pervasive they are in the typical grocery cart.  What it found was eye-opening.

Between 2000 and 2012, the researchers asked more than 157,000 households to scan barcodes of all foods and beverages they bought at grocery stores. Most households participated in the study for about four years. The researchers gathered information on each item, including nutrition, product description and ingredient listings, to determine how processed each food item was.

The researchers defined “highly processed” food items as those that contained multiple ingredients and industrially formulated mixtures, including soft drinks, cookies, chips, white bread, candy and prepared meals. In contrast, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, dried beans, and fresh meat were classified as unprocessed or minimally processed. The researchers also distinguished between foods that were ready to eat, such as candy and chips; foods that were ready to heat, such as frozen dinners; and foods that required cooking or preparation.

Over the course of the study, the portion of calories from highly processed foods and beverages remained steady at just over 60 percent, the researchers said. By 2012, more than 80 percent of calories from a household’s purchases were in ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat form, and those foods tended to be higher in fat, sugar and salt than minimally processed foods. Their conclusion: While processed foods such as canned vegetables and whole-grain breakfast cereal can contribute to a healthful diet, more highly processed foods could be major culprits in overconsumption and obesity.

The researchers said they hope their findings encourage food manufacturers to boost the health and nutrition in processed food products. In the meantime, take a look at your own grocery cart.

Try to focus purchases on fresh, whole and minimally processed foods. Reading labels can help. Products labeled “whole grain” should have at least 2 grams of fiber per serving. Look for products with less than 5 percent of the recommended values for fat or sodium and that have less added sugar.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to  Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Daniel Remley, Ohio State University Extension’s field specialist in Food, Nutrition and Wellness.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

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Sugar alcohols aren’t sugar or alcohol

bar of chocolat sized up by a magnifying-glassWhat is sugar alcohol? I gave up sugar when I found out it will go into your fat cells if you don’t use it for energy. Does the same thing happen with sugar alcohols? And, is there a difference between different types of sugar alcohol?  

Sugar alcohols aren’t really sugar and aren’t really alcohol.

Without getting steeped in a chemistry lesson, the chemical structure of sugar alcohols resembles both sugar and alcohol (hence the name) but is different than both. That’s why you won’t get drunk on sugar alcohol, and why you might see it listed as an ingredient in gum, candy and other foods labeled as “sugar-free.”

Although they’re not sugar, sugar alcohols do contain calories — up to 3 calories per gram, compared with 4 calories per gram in regular sugar. That’s why you often see the notice “Not a calorie-free food” on sugar-free food items that contain sugar alcohol. It’s possible you may not be saving as many calories as you think.

The calories in sugar alcohols, just like other calories we consume, could end up in fat cells if the calories aren’t immediately used for energy.

There are quite a few different types of sugar alcohols. Also called polyols, they have been used for decades in the food industry as an alternative sweetener and as a thickener. Different types have varying levels of sweetness and varying numbers of calories per gram. For example, according to the International Food Information Council’s Sugar Alcohol Fact Sheet, online at www.foodinsight.org/Sugar_Alcohols_Fact_Sheet:

  • Xylitol has 100 percent of the sweetness of sugar but only 2.4 calories per gram, or 60 percent of the calories of regular sugar.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (or HSH) has just 25-50 percent of the sweetness of sugar but provides 3 calories per gram — 75 percent of the calories of regular sugar.
  • Erythritol has 60-80 percent of the sweetness of sugar but only about 0.2 calories per gram, a fraction of what’s in regular sugar.

A benefit of sugar alcohols is that, although they’re carbohydrates, they’re not absorbed as quickly in the body as regular sugar is, and they are metabolized differently, requiring little or no insulin. If you have diabetes, that could be important, as they won’t spike your blood sugar when you eat them.

Another upside of sugar alcohols is that they aren’t broken down by bacteria in the mouth like sugar is, so they don’t cause cavities.

However, there is a downside, too. Because the body doesn’t digest sugar alcohols very well, they can make their way through the digestive system and into the lower intestine, where, when in large enough quantities, they can cause bloating, gas and even a laxative effect.

These effects vary with different types of sugar alcohols. Erythritol, for example, appears less likely to cause such problems. If you consume sugar alcohols and find yourself with digestive issues, cut back on them for a while and see if it helps.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, Ohio State University Extension’s field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.