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One of my primary roles as a holistic doctor is to be a health detective. People come to me to help them figure out what is going on with their bodies, why things are going wrong, and how to fix them so that they can feel better, stop worrying about their health, enjoy life more, and have healthier longevity (ie. age better).

As a health detective, I ask questions like what are your main symptoms, how long has this been going on, what have you been eating, how is your sleep/mood/stress level, did something happen prior to the onset of the problem: a particularly stressful event, accident, loss, exposure to mold or chemicals, a cold/flu, food poisoning, etc.

Over my 25+ years of taking care of people and guiding them towards better health, and through the process of figuring out what is going wrong and why and how to fix it with 1,000s of people, what I have learned is that there is one primary root cause of pretty much all health issues and diseases. No matter what ails you, this one thing is almost certainly the primary underlying factor that has caused the problems you are having, and that needs to be fixed in order for you to achieve vibrant good health.

So what is the #1 root cause of all diseases?

Inflammatory Diet

For the past 50+ years, we humans have been consuming an increasingly unnatural and inflammatory diet, which is a big part of why life expectancy is steadily decreasing in many countries. And so is our healthspan – which is the number of years that we enjoy good health – especially for younger generations.

So what does that mean, inflammatory diet? To begin to answer that, let’s first talk about inflammation.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation refers to your body’s process of fighting against the impact of harmful things, like infections (pathogens), injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself from that impact.

When those things damage your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system. This response includes the release of antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow to the damaged area. In the case of acute inflammation — like getting a cut on your finger or having a cold — the whole process usually lasts for several hours to a couple of weeks.

Chronic inflammation happens when this response lingers, and the accompanying symptoms of increased swelling, redness, heat, pain, and loss of function don’t quiet down within a couple of weeks like it should. Over time, chronic inflammation has a negative impact on your tissues and organs, first because it blocks circulation and the delivery of essential nutrients to cells, and second because it uses up vital resources (such as energy) at a faster rate.

Research indicates that chronic inflammation can lead to a range of conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, fatty liver disease, autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders. And I would expand that list, and contend that just about every health issue that we humans tend to suffer from is either caused by or made worse by chronic inflammation.

Which stems in large part from inflammatory diet.

What Makes A Diet Inflammatory?

The main culprits that make a diet inflammatory are:

  • CAFO (feedlot) meats
  • non-organic foods
  • highly processed foods
  • highly processed vegetable oils
  • carbohydrates
  • grains and pseudograins
  • dairy

And what I have seen time and time again over the years is that when these negative influences are removed, huge improvements in health and vitality nearly always follow.

So let’s unpack each of those a bit.

CAFO Meats

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are agricultural enterprises where tens of thousands of animals are raised in confined, crowded facilities, where they typically have minimal to no fresh air, sunshine or room to roam.

In addition, their feed is a highly processed and unnatural mixture (containing ingredients they wouldn’t normally eat, such as dead animals, and not consisting of their natural diet such as grass and bugs) and it is non-organic (meaning it’s full of health-damaging pesticides and herbicides), and the feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.

And finally, CAFO animals are regularly injected with hormones to speed growth, and with antibiotics to combat the many infections that their unhealthy feed and living conditions tend to foster.

When you think about all of those influences – chronic stress from intense crowding, lack of fresh air and sunshine, eating toxin-laden unnatural feed, and being injected with hormones and antibiotics, you can start to see why the meat from CAFO animals is inflammatory and really not good for us, right?

So, if you can’t take on any other changes right now, start here – improve the quality of your proteins. Wild Pastures is a great source for high quality pastured meats from ethically and sustainably raised animals.

Non-Organic Foods

Like with CAFO meats, other non-organic foods – veggies, fruits, etc. – also contain health-damaging herbicides and pesticides. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), 70% of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains significant amounts of harmful chemical pesticides.

Non-organic foods also contain fewer nutrients than organic, largely because organic farming practices nurture healthier soil, which builds healthier and more nutritious plants.

So organic foods are more nutritious and less inflammatory. Good stuff!

For a list of the most important fruits and veggies to eat organic (and a printable reference card you can carry in your purse or wallet of the top 12, aka “The Dirty Dozen“), check out EWG’s extensively researched list, here. This list is updated each year.

Highly Processed Foods

There are degrees of processing. There’s the minimal processing that we home cooks do to foods, such as chopping, slicing, shredding, and cooking. And then there’s drying, canning and freezing, which we might or might not do at home. Those are all fine and dandy. If you can look at the food on your plate and tell what original whole foods it came from, then it is minimally processed.

Then there’s the stuff that comes in boxes, bags, cans, bottles and jugs, stuff that has long shelf lives and minimal nutritional value. These “foods” are created in big factories, and we couldn’t make them at home if we wanted to. These products usually include many problematic ingredients, including processed flours, processed oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners, trans fats, and more.

Avoiding all highly processed, nutrient-poor, inflammatory foods will do wonders for your health.

Highly Processed Vegetable Oils

You probably already know that trans fats are bad for you. But you’ve been told for ages now that vegetable oils are good for you. And yet it turns out (like so many things we’ve been told for the past 50 years), many of the so-called “healthy” vegetable oils are actually highly processed, full of chemicals, and highly inflammatory, and not at all healthy.

To understand why that is, let’s look at how vegetable oils are made, and what they contain.

Vegetable oils are those derived from plant matter, such as nuts, seeds, and fruits, and are extracted in different ways, depending on the source. The simplest and healthiest extraction processes are ones that could be done at home (and still are, in some places) – manual pressing, such as with olives and palm kernels, and boiling, such as with coconut.

But many vegetable oils require intense industrial processing in order to be extracted and made into something edible, and that industrial process degrades the oils so much that multiple chemicals must be applied in order to make them palatable and shelf stable. This industrial process includes:

  • high-heat (read: nutrient destroying) extraction
  • chemical extraction with petroleum-based hexane
  • the use of de-gummers to remove sediment and improve texture
  • the addition of bleaches to remove natural colors
  • the addition of deodorizers to mask unsavory flavors and odors, many due to the oils going rancid during processing

In addition, most vegetable oils are high in PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) which contain a lot of Omega-6s and are thus highly inflammatory.

The unhealthy vegetable oils to look out for in all sorts of foods and studiously avoid are:

  • canola (rapeseed)
  • corn
  • cottonseed
  • grapeseed
  • safflower
  • soybean
  • sunflower

Instead, stick with the healthy oils that I cover in my guide, What to Eat for Optimal Health.

Carbohydrates

This topic could take up a whole book all on its own! In fact, it has, many times over. To simplify things, I’ll say this – carbohydrates raise blood sugar, which is inflammatory, so reducing carbohydrate consumption helps quell inflammation.

Secondarily, carbohydrates also stimulate the production of the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage, and fat cells contribute to chronic systemic inflammation.

Chronic overconsumption of carbohydrates can lead to chronic overstimulation of insulin, which leads to insulin resistance. This leads to chronically elevated blood sugar, which is, again inflammatory.

So in the quest to reduce inflammation – as part of our journey towards addressing the root causes of all disease – reducing carbohydrate intake (of all kinds) is typically very helpful. In my 25+ years of experience as a holistic doctor, what I have seen is that almost everyone has better overall health and vitality with a relatively low carbohydrate intake.

For more details on diet, read my guide, What to Eat for Optimal Health.

Grains and Pseudograins

While they are a subset of carbohydrates in general, grains and pseudograins deserve a bit of attention all to themselves.

What we call grains are the seeds of grasses in the Poaceae family, aka cereal grasses. This family includes: wheat, barley, rye, corn, millet, oats, sorghum, spelt, teff, rice, and wild rice.

Then there are pseudograins, which are the seeds of broadleaf plants (not in the Poaceae family of grasses) that are used in the same way as grains. Examples include quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, and chia seeds.

All grains and pseudograins contain inflammatory lectins (including gluten) and phytates, and stimulate the production of leaky-gut-inducing zonulin, and they are all significant dietary contributors to chronic inflammation. So a big key in reducing inflammation is removing grains from the diet.

Dairy

And last but not least, dairy. OMG, dairy. So delicious, so comforting, so satisfying.

But sadly, dairy is not our friend. For starters, dairy (from cows especially, but from all mammal sources) is allergenic and immune system aggravating (ie. inflammatory) and mucous producing. Dairy is also digestion-irritating, causing gas, bloating, belching, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal cramping and pain. It also causes acne, rashes and other skin issues in many. And it can cause and aggravate sleep apnea. Plus, non-organic dairy contains all sorts of nasty inflammatory junk, including herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and – wait for it – the pus from the infections that are caused by the unhealthy and unnatural diets that cows are fed. (Ew.) And finally, the whey protein in dairy is very insulinogenic, which contributes to the development of insulin resistance – something to be avoided if you are aiming for optimal health.

So, if you have any health issues, cutting out dairy completely will almost always improve things. Because dairy is addictive (it contains opioid-like compounds), this isn’t always easy, but it is well worth the effort.

Summing Up

So that’s the inflammatory-diet-as-a-root-cause-of-disease story in a nutshell. To reduce this primary root cause of disease and optimize health and vitality, minimize:

  • CAFO (feedlot) meats
  • non-organic foods
  • highly processed foods
  • highly processed vegetable oils
  • carbohydrates
  • grains and pseudograins
  • and dairy

And again, for more details, check out my guide, What to Eat for Optimal Health.