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Eating Well

Inflammation and weight gain

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Is there a link between inflammation and weight gain?

Inflammation is a natural and healthy bodily reaction when the body is fighting off an infection or responding to some other injury. But there is another aspect to inflammation we need to be aware of – it’s potential to cause weight gain.

There is nothing quite like the start of the new year that makes so many people start questioning their weight and start striving for a healthier body. Of course, temporary dieting is less successful than a lifestyle change that includes plenty of vegetables, daily exercise and consuming the best foods. But if you have a goal to achieve a healthier weight, sometimes what isn’t as visible is the culprit.

We need our body’s inflammatory response at times – think about the last time you accidentally cut your finger while chopping up something for dinner or skinned your knee after a fall. The blood that rushed to that area also set off reactions that caused your body’s immune system to begin the work of healing that cut. Part of that immune response was inflammation—the swelling around the area is what we often see and associate with inflammation. This is a normal, natural and healthy immune response. It’s a “good” sort of inflammation that helps you heal.

The trouble with inflammation occurs when it becomes a chronic issue. When we eat lots of sugar or consume high-calorie foods with little nutrients or foods containing inflammatory compounds such as gluten or other lectin proteins, we become predisposed to chronic inflammation. Also, when we don’t exercise, chronic inflammation is more likely to develop. This chronic inflammation is a constant attack and stress on the body. It’s as if the immune system is turned on and can’t turn off.

Can certain foods cause inflammation that leads to weight gain?

There is a link between inflammation and weight gain – abdominal fat and fat surrounding our internal organs are particularly egregious when it comes to inflammation. These fats contribute to cardiovascular disease and hormone disruption. Unfortunately it can be a vicious cycle—fat causes inflammation and inflammation makes it difficult to burn fat. Therefore inflammation and weight gain can be seen to go hand-in-hand.

C-reactive protein (CRP) is one marker in the blood that correlates with the level of inflammation. It can be measured when your doctor orders blood testing. When you are ill with an acute respiratory virus, for example, your CRP would increase and reflect the inflammatory response that your body is using at that time to fight off the infection.
Western diets and lack of exercise put people at risk for inflammation, as reflected in their CRP levels.1 Losing weight helps the fat cells that may be enlarged shrink back down to a normal size and that helps decrease the ongoing inflammatory mechanisms in the body.2

Chronic inflammation is a culprit of many health problems—from leaky gut and gastrointestinal distress to chronic pain and achy joints. Chronic inflammation stems from many factors, including chronic stress, lack of sleep, exposure to environmental stressors (such as pollution or work hazards) and, in particular, unhealthy eating habits, especially when they lead to obesity. It takes a while for chronic inflammation to build up in the body. And it takes a while to reduce it.

Can changing your diet combat inflammation and weight gain?

What you eat may be the key factor in reducing inflammation and weight gain. A study analysed more than 300 obese or overweight older adults who were enrolled in a program with a lower-calorie diet and increased exercise. The study concluded that the lower calorie consumption played a larger part in decreasing the levels of CRP than the exercise did.3 That means not that the exercise was not beneficial but rather that the key was healthy eating.

Make sure the foods and drinks you’re consuming are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help combat free radical attacks on your body that are significant factors of chronic inflammation. Drink green tea, eat leafy greens and consume berries, all of which are antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods.

As noted, the antioxidant-rich foods are also anti-inflammatory. Other anti-inflammatory foods are wild-caught, fatty fish such as anchovies, sardines, salmon and halibut. Raw nuts and seeds, avocados and non-starchy vegetables also help keep inflammation at bay. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and kombucha are also anti-inflammatory. Be sure to incorporate anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, ginger and oregano (virtually all spices are rich in antioxidants and work against chronic inflammation).

Don’t avoid consuming plenty of high-quality fats like those in most nuts, avocados, olive oil and coconut. Do avoid refined, bleached and deodorised (highly processed) vegetable oils.

What else can I do to prevent inflammation and weight gain?

Help maintain a healthy gut (digestive system) with high-quality probiotics. Manage stress with plenty of nightly sleep. Exercise in a way that pushes your limits slightly but that doesn’t overburden your body (i.e. don’t overdo it). Keep in mind that too much exercise can be as inflammatory as not enough. Finally, try to restrict your alcohol and sugar intake, and keep caffeine use to a level that doesn’t overstimulate you or interfere with sleep.

This all may sound like a lot to do but don’t dwell on all of this excessively. Extremism and worrying too much can produce stress and therefore produce inflammation in your body as well. Just be aware and do your best.

  1. Thompson, Amanda L., et al. “Weight Gain Trajectories Associated With Elevated C‐Reactive Protein Levels in Chinese Adults.” Journal of the American Heart Association, vol. 5, no. 9, Sept. 2016, doi:10.1161/jaha.116.003262. []
  2. Yatsuya, H, et al. “Changes in C-Reactive Protein During Weight Loss and the Association with Changes in Anthropometric Variables in Men and Women: LIFE Study.” International Journal of Obesity, vol. 35, no. 5, May 2010, pp. 684–691., doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.200. []
  3. Nicklas, Barbara J, et al. “Diet-Induced Weight Loss, Exercise, and Chronic Inflammation in Older, Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 79, no. 4, Apr. 2004, pp. 544–551., doi:10.1093/ajcn/79.4.544. []