What is inflammation and what makes it chronic?

Inflammation and weight gain are both buzzwords in popular media, but how are they connected? And are they harming your health? Here I’ll share what you need to know about chronic inflammation, and how to reduce it, before you embark on a weight loss diet.

Inflammation is a natural part of your body’s defenses against intruders like infection, disease, and toxins. If you’ve ever had a cut, scrape, or splinter, you’re already familiar with your body’s acute inflammatory response: The area around the wound gets red, warm, swollen, and painful before it starts to heal.

This healing process is mediated by your immune system, which recruits threat-neutralizing white blood cells and grants structural proteins and other cells access to the wound site to rebuild healthy tissue. This type of inflammation is welcome: it means your body is working hard to keep you healthy.

Chronic inflammation is much more insidious. Chronic inflammation begins as a reaction to an inflammatory stimulus like a pathogen or a toxin. However, whereas acute inflammation is short-lived, chronic inflammation typically has a slower onset, and can last for months to years.

This slow and extended inflammatory response causes tissue damage, impacts wound healing, and can play a role in the development of chronic disease like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Symptoms of chronic inflammation include joint and muscle pain, chronic fatigue, depression, gastrointestinal disorders, weight changes, and compromised healing.

We know of several risk factors for chronic inflammation. It tends to increase with age and with smoking cigarettes. It is also affected by things like increased physical and emotional stress, and consistently not getting enough quality sleep.

Dietary factors also play a role in inflammation. A diet rich in saturated fats, trans-fats, and excess added sugars can contribute to inflammation over time, while other foods help to decrease it (more about this later).

How are inflammation and weight gain related?

Weight is also commonly associated with increased risk of chronic inflammation. Studies suggest that body fat is capable of releasing pro-inflammatory messengers (collectively called adipokines) that contribute to chronic inflammation.

Sedentary lifestyle and poor diet are often blamed for the incidence of chronic inflammation in individuals deemed “overweight.” As such, many people are prescribed weight loss diets and exercise plans to “lose fat” and “get healthier.”

At first glance, data shows that adipokine production and inflammation can be significantly decreased with weight reduction. However, it’s important to dig a little further.

While it’s true that weight loss may temporarily improve measures of inflammation, we also know that weight loss interventions fail more than 95% of the time. By fail, I mean that any weight that is initially lost in the first 6-12 months can and will be gained back, most likely followed by additional weight gain, in the following 3-5 years.

This means that relief from chronic inflammation is merely temporary until weight regain takes place and the cycle starts anew.

What’s more, further research suggests that weight cycling (this roller coaster of losing and gaining and losing and gaining weight) makes chronic inflammation worse– worse than just maintaining one’s original weight. This means that dieting and weight cycling actually increase the risk of developing inflammation-mediated chronic disease, not decrease it.

Outside of exacerbating inflammation, we also know that the process of weight cycling wreaks havoc on our bodies, causing undue harm to our long term physical and psychological health.

Addressing chronic inflammation and weight gain without diets

So if research shows that diets and weight loss just make inflammation worse, why are we prescribing them for the reduction of chronic inflammation? The answer is: We shouldn’t be.

Why are we recommending weight loss diets to treat chronic inflammation?

The great news is that there’s a better, more effective way to treat chronic inflammation (and it doesn’t require weight loss). Health at Every Size (HAES) focuses on adopting healthy behaviors to improve health outcomes.

Healthy behaviors include consuming more nutrient-dense foods, practicing mindful eating, performing joyful exercise, getting adequate sleep, and finding ways to reduce stress. And while weight loss may be a side effect, it is not the end goal. HAES is considered a “weight-neutral” approach, acknowledging that health can be achieved and maintained without a focus on weight or weight loss.

Research confirms the effectiveness of the HAES approach in improving health markers, including those for chronic inflammation (specifically C-reactive protein, one of the adipokines mentioned earlier). When compared with traditional weight loss interventions, HAES produces statistically significant improvements in health.

What’s more, HAES participants are able to maintain newly learned healthy behaviors in the long term– something weight loss diets have never been able to achieve. Want to know more about how a HAES dietitian can help you reach your health goals? Read on here.

Below are healthy behaviors consistent with HAES that can reduce chronic inflammation without diets or weight loss:

Healthy behaviors that reduce chronic inflammation

Healthy behaviors can mitigate inflammation independent of weight loss

Stop Dieting

Weight loss diets produce only temporary reductions in inflammation and will eventually make things worse. Ending the damaging cycle of dieting, weight loss, weight regain, and dieting again is paramount to your long term health.

Choosing to ditch dieting and weight cycling for good can feel challenging, especially if you’ve dieted for years. Check out [this blog] for some helpful tips as you navigate the beginning of your non-diet journey.

Try Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is the practice of eating in the absence of all dieting behavior. Many HAES interventions that have been studied in a clinical setting use intuitive eating to teach participants how to tap into their internal hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues.

Intuitive eating practices can also be improved with [mindfulness exercises]. With intuitive eating, no foods are “off-limits,” giving the individual the power to choose foods that are both physically and emotionally satisfying.

And contrary to widespread belief that diets and food rules are required to eat a healthy diet, intuitive eating is associated with increased consumption of vegetables and improved dietary quality scores. It is also associated with the reduction of inflammation markers and the maintenance of a healthy weight. Learn more about intuitive eating here.

Consume More Anti-Inflammatory Foods

While some foods like saturated fats, trans fats, and excess added sugars can contribute to inflammation, other foods have been shown to effectively reduce it.

Consider adding more of the following foods into your daily routine:

  • Fatty fish or fish oil like salmon, mackerel, and sardines
  • Eggs (yolks included)
  • Nuts like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts
  • Seeds like pumpkin, flax, sunflower, and hemp
  • Dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and spinach
  • Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and potatoes
  • Berries like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and acai berries
  • Fresh fruit like red grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots
  • Dried fruit like raisins, dates, and plums
  • Canola, olive, corn, safflower, and rapeseed oils
  • Dark chocolate

Kaitlin shares more about anti-inflammatory foods and delicious recipes here.

Maintain a Healthy Gut

As we learn more about gut health, we have a better understanding of how our gut microbiome (the community of bacteria that live in our bellies) contribute to inflammation.

Two species of gut bacteria in particular, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, have been extensively studied for their role in successfully decreasing inflammation. The key to maintaining a healthy gut involves populating your gut with these healthy strains of bacteria (probiotics), and feeding them the food they love so they can thrive (prebiotics).

You can get probiotics from foods like yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh. You can also take a high quality probiotic supplement. Prebiotics come from high fiber foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Our digestive health experts can make recommendations and help you navigate you gut health journey.

Engage in Joyful Movement

Exercise has been shown to decrease inflammation independent of weight loss. As such, many HAES interventions include an exercise component that doesn’t focus on calories burned or pounds dropped. Instead of setting goals for frequency and intensity, exercise should be performed with a goal of promoting self-care.

The key is to choose daily activities that are pleasurable and sustainable. Low intensity exercise like walking, stretching, or yoga are great ways to stay active, decrease stress, and reduce inflammation.

Get Enough Sleep

Our sleep cycle plays an important role in our whole-body health, including inflammation. Inadequate sleep, either in quality or duration, contributes to elevated cortisol, exacerbates chronic inflammation, and increases risk of metabolic disease. Make sleep a self-care priority, aiming to get between 7-8 hours a night.

New research suggests that shutting off blue light devices two hours before bedtime can also improve sleep quality and duration. Consistency matters: Going to bed and waking up around the same time everyday can help reset your body’s internal clock and maximize those 8 sleeping hours.

In Summary

Inflammation and weight gain may be related but intentional weight loss will, at best, only temporarily improve symptoms. All of the above can help you decrease chronic inflammation without obsessing over the number on the scale or engaging in dangerous dieting behaviors.

Again, while weight loss may be a side effect of engaging in healthy behaviors and self care, it is not the goal, which makes them more sustainable over time. Here at RBA, we believe in the effectiveness of HAES, not only to reduce chronic inflammation, but to improve whole body physical and emotional health.

Want to know more about how our HAES approach to health and nutrition can help you?

Feel free to contact us!

Evidence-based references about inflammation and weight gain:

Chronic Inflammation – Pahwa R, et al.
Adipose Tissue Inflammation and Metabolic Dysfunction: Role of Exercise – Park Y.
Influence of obesity, physical inactivity, and weight cycling on chronic inflammation – Strohacker K, et al.
Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators:literature review – Van Dyke N, et al.
Evidence-based Ways to Promote Metabolic Health – Outland L.
The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss – Tylka T, et al.
Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift – Bacon L, et al.
Sleep loss and inflammation – Mullington J, et al.

Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.