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The common culprit behind obesity, heart disease and depression

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Heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s: these diseases share a common culprit.

Low-grade inflammation.

In 2004, Time magazine called inflammation a "secret killer”, proposing that “there might be a single, inflammation-reducing remedy that would prevent all [of these diseases].”

Research suggests one of those remedies could be our diet.

Research suggests a remedy to inflammation could be our diet.

Research suggests a remedy to inflammation could be our diet.

Photo: Stocksy

Last month, Ana Garcia-Arellano and her colleagues from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, put a recently developed dietary inflammatory index (DII) to the test. The index ranks foods based on their inflammatory effect on the body.

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Foods that promote inflammation include red meat and processed foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats and food additives. Even though excess weight causes inflammation, the inflammatory effect of these foods has been found even when obesity is accounted for.

Of course, food can also heal. An anti-inflammatory diet includes abundant extra virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, whole grains and red wine. Biologically active compounds called polyphenols in plant foods which are known for their antioxidant benefits also fight inflammation. These foods – such as kale, blueberries and salmon – or their nutritional components feature on the anti-inflammatory end of the DII. Plant foods are also high in fibre, feeding the hundred trillion gut bacteria which mounting evidence shows are also important allies in immunity and inflammation.

In two large population samples and a pooled analysis of ten other studies, the researchers found people with high inflammatory diet scores had a 23 per cent higher risk of premature death than those with low scores.

Senior author Associate Professor Miguel Ruiz-Canela is not surprised by the findings.

His team had previously found that a pro-inflammatory diet is related to a higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression.

“Thus, a higher risk of death can be expected since the main causes of death are chronic diseases associated with inflammation,” he says.

Inflammation is not always a bad thing.

When you cut yourself or sprain an ankle it not only hurts; it swells up and goes hot and red. That’s the body’s immune system recruiting its inflammatory troops to battle. Other conditions that provoke this acute immune response include tonsillitis, sinusitis or appendicitis. Once the condition is healed, the troops stand down and all is clear. Without acute inflammation, wounds could not heal and pathogens would invade our body.

But if inflammation perseveres, chronic disease can ensue. This happens if the inflammatory trigger does not go away, or the body’s immune system gets confused and starts attacking itself.

The tell-tale signs of chronic inflammation are not as clear as a bruise, wound or sore throat. But researchers can get clues by measuring various inflammatory markers in the blood.

For instance, atherosclerosis – a leading cause of heart attacks – occurs when arteries narrow due to plaque building up inside the blood vessels. Ruiz-Canela says researchers now believe this is caused by inflammation.

Chronic diseases are responsible for 70 per cent of deaths worldwide each year. In a World Health Organisation press release in March this year, global ambassador Michael R Bloomberg said, “For the first time in history, more people are dying of noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, than infectious disease.”

Smoking, physical inactivity, some medications, excessive alcohol, diet and sugary drinks are all primary culprits, and inflammation helps account for their assault on people’s health.

Recently, a ground-breaking study – the CANTOS trial – found that an anti-inflammatory drug can reduce risk of heart disease. But it is costly.

Ruiz-Canela argues that, since everyone is exposed to food, "From a public health perspective the most effective and efficient approach is the promotion of healthy dietary patterns with anti-inflammatory effects.”

Although the impact of chronic inflammation is not immediate nor obvious, this research suggests that food is inflaming people. And as Ruiz-Canela points out, “a diet with a higher anti-inflammatory potential is likely to reduce many potential causes of premature death.”

So treat your body. Tuck into some grilled salmon with succulent vegetables infused with extra virgin olive oil, a spicy vegetable curry with dal or a warm Mediterranean roast vegetable salad with quinoa and parsley, topped with mint yoghurt.

The benefits appear to be greater than previously thought.

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