By Ryan Parsons
Let’s say you get kicked in the leg while sparring. Chances are you’ll experience some pain, followed by redness. Depending on who kicked you and how hard they did so, there may be swelling and warmth in that area for a few days or weeks.
Here’s what’s happening in your body:
- When another person’s shin slams into your thigh, your immune system releases compounds called cytokines. These act like a fire alarm, signaling other cells to come and fix the problem.
- These other cells are delivered by increased blood flow to the injured area, resulting in warmth and redness and bringing white blood cells, hormones, and nutrients.
Short-term inflammation, especially after acute injury, is a natural process designed to initiate the healing process. But inflammation has a dark side — poor diet, alcohol intake, pollution, smoking, and stress can also trigger our inflammatory response and puts our bodies under constant attack. This low-grade, chronic inflammation has been linked to almost every single chronic disease.
When immune cells are summoned, but have no real problem to solve, they instead begin to attack the body’s own tissues and organs. The destruction caused by these cells, referred to as oxidative stress, eventually adds up to disease.
Do the Foods You Eat Produce Inflammation?
Systemic inflammation is significantly influenced by our lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to diet. There are several foods that have been linked with increased inflammation levels in the body. Avoiding or limiting these foods, while adding specific anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, can significantly reduce the risk of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
What to Avoid: Trans Fats
Also called partially hydrogenated fats, these man-made fats were created to make foods shelf-stable. Most trans fats are formed through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature.
Trans fats are generally found in processed foods such as crackers, cookies, or other baked goods. Restaurants also often use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their deep fryers, because it doesn't have to be changed as often as other oils.
These fats have been linked to increased inflammation levels, elevated cholesterol, and an increased risk of heart disease. According to Harvard University, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is “the worst fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body.” In addition to promoting inflammation, these fats create an over-activity of the immune system and reduce the normal healthy responsiveness of the cells that line our blood vessels.
Healthy Steps You Can Take:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer "generally recognized as safe.” These unhealthy fats will be phased out of the production of food over the next few years. Until then:
- Avoid processed or packaged foods, including nondairy coffee creamer and stick margarines.
- Check the ingredients list on all foods for the words “partially hydrogenated.”
- If you have shortening or other processed oils at home, put them in the trash where they belong and switch to olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee.
What to Avoid: Sugar
Sugar is added to most processed foods these days and we’re paying the price. A high sugar intake is correlated with an increase in inflammation, obesity, and diabetes. It works like this:
- Simple sugars are rapidly digested by the body, increasing our blood sugar and leading to a quick surge in insulin levels.
- Too much insulin and sugar in our blood triggers an increase in inflammation.
- When sugar is not immediately used for energy, it is stored as fat for later use.
- Excessive body fat also increases oxidative stress and inflammation.
A study of 29 healthy young men found that inflammation markers increased significantly after consuming just one or two servings of sugar-sweetened beverages daily for only three weeks. Heart disease markers also increased, as did fasting blood sugar.
The Healthy Steps You Can Take:
Ideally, it is best to limit intake of sugar and foods containing refined carbohydrates, like crackers, chips, cookies, and ice cream, as well as sweetened drinks like soda, sports drinks, and fruit juice. Instead, focus your diet on unprocessed foods such as vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fat.
What to Avoid: Vegetable Oil
Vegetable oils such as corn or canola oil used to be the recommended fat choices over saturated animal fats. That is, until it was discovered that some vegetable oils, particularly those high in omega-6 fats, are extremely pro-inflammatory.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fats:
- The polyunsaturated fats, omega-6 and omega-3s, are both used to make eicosanoids, which are specialized fats found in cell membranes.
- Omega-3 fats are used to make eicosanoids that help lower
- Omega-6 fats are used to make eicosanoids that trigger
- In our body, mega-6 vegetable oils compete for absorption with the healthier omega-3 fat.
- The Western diet is traditionally high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, leading to poor absorption of omega-3 and a high level of inflammatory eicosanoid production.
- High consumption of omega-6 fats is also linked with increased obesity. This is neither ideal for athletes who need to maintain a healthy weight nor for us regular humans.
Over the past thirty years, our fat consumption has come down. But we’re eating more omega-6 fats and less omega-3s. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is important — a dietary imbalance of these two elements contributes to obesity and inflammation.
Healthy Steps You Can Take:
- Aim to eat at two to three servings of fatty fish per week to increase your omega-3s.
- Limit your consumption of inflammatory vegetable oils such as corn or canola oil.
- Add flax and chia seeds to your daily diet for a powerful dose of healthy omega-3 fats.
What to Avoid: Gluten
Gluten is the primary protein in the wheat plant. It is found in all wheat products, such as anything containing rye, bran, flour, bulgur, or barley. Gluten helps provide elasticity to foods — it is the thing that makes bread doughy and pancakes fluffy.
But gluten must be completely avoided by people with Celiac disease, as it causes a severe immune reaction if it is consumed. In addition, many people who do not have Celiac disease may suffer from a gluten sensitivity. This can result in symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, rashes, or even anxiety after consuming gluten-containing foods.
Scientists believe that gluten can set off a reaction in the intestines in some people leading to an inflammatory response, even without an official diagnosis of Celiac disease. Gluten consumption has also been indicated as a trigger for autoimmune disease in sensitive individuals, likely related to its generally inflammatory nature.
Not everyone is sensitive to gluten, but if you are experiencing unexplained headaches, joint pain, or digestive issues, you may consider doing a thirty-day trial of a gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms improve.
Healthy Steps You Can Take:
Eliminating dietary gluten is easier than ever. Try going thirty days without eating gluten-containing foods. That means anything with wheat, rye, and barley, as well as any hybrids or products derived from these grains and see how you feel. Make sure you read your labels as you’ll be surprised all the places that wheat products hide (like your soy sauce!).
How to Reduce Chronic Inflammation
Although diet plays a primary role, managing inflammation also requires lifestyle changes. Combat sports training is inflammatory by nature. Pushing your body to the extreme requires extra attention when it comes to food and recovery. And even if you’re not a competitive fighter, chances are the stress levels in your daily life can often feel like a fight.
You may not be able to control certain inflammatory triggers, such as pollution, but you can manage stress, quit smoking, and take time off exercise when need be. The foods you choose to eat have a dramatic impact on your energy level and recovery in addition to your long term health. Choosing foods that support you in and out of the gym will improve your performance in your next practice and reduce your risk of disease in the long term.
Dr. Ryan Parsons is a veteran MMA coach, manager and co-author of The Four Pack Revolution to be published by Rodale in December 2017. He received his doctorate in Chiropractic Medicine from the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic and is the inventor of Radius Wraps, the first combat sport product to undergo a peer-reviewed university clinical trial. He is the author of the Ultimate Weight Cut Guide for Combat Sports Athletes. Ryan has cut weight with elite athletes on five continents in all kinds of places — saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, hotel rooms, city parks, the beach, and even at an arena under a camera crew’s lights in Brazil.