As great (and necessary!) all this information is, putting it all together to determine if something is healthy or not still takes a bit of detective work and analyzing. Imagine if there was also a score included on the nutritional panel, which clearly rated the food's overall health impact.
For Suzanne Judd, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist, it isn't just an imaginary, cool idea. Dr. Judd (who is a professor in the department of biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health) and her team created an inflammation index of foods, which seeks to determine just how much inflammation many foods cause, as well as how much inflammation some foods prevent. The results were published in the Journal of Nutrition.
"My goal was to try to figure out if there is a way that we can use math to create a diet score that represents what people eat and look at that score to see how it represents overall health and the risk of disease," Dr. Judd says of her research. "We wanted to look at scores that would be associated with inflammation within the body."
Here, she gives the full lowdown on how the study's inflammation index of foods was developed, including how it can applied to how we eat.
Watch the video below to see what a dietitian says about food and inflammation:
How the inflammatory index was determined
To create their inflammation scoring system, Dr. Judd and her team cross-referenced 19 food groups and four lifestyle characteristics with a subset of existing data from over 30,000 people captured in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke Study (REGARDS). This data set represents people from a wide range of ethnicities and geographic locations. Participants in the study shared the foods they ate regularly by looking at a list of 109 food items and reporting how often they ate them. They also gave a rundown of their lifestyle habits and activity levels, and also had blood work done.
Dr. Judd and her team used the blood samples of this dataset to analyze the levels of inflammation markers in the blood, then created a mathematical formula that could calculate how the various food groups and lifestyle habits impacted those inflammation markers. (A separate study also looked at the results of colonoscopies and polyps, aka abnormal tissues that are also signs of systemic inflammation.) The result? "We were able to put together a score based on what was found in people's blood," Dr. Judd says.
How the most popular foods ranked on the inflammation index
The study's novel new ranking system (called the DIS and LIS, which stands for dietary inflammation score and lifestyle inflammation score) gave various food categories a score based on the above-mentioned data. The more negative a number, the better it is for fighting inflammation; the more positive the number, the more inflammation it causes.
A teaser of some of the food inflammation scores:
- Tomatoes: -0.78
- Apples and berries: -0.65
- Deep yellow or orange vegetables: -0.57
- Poultry: -0.45
- Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables: -0.14
- High-fat dairy: -0.14
- Fish: -0.08
- Red and organ meat: 0.02
- Added sugars: 0.56
- Processed meats: 0.68
- Refined grains and starchy vegetables: 0.72
Some of the big takeaways don't come as a surprise: Leafy greens, tomatoes, apples and berries, deep yellow or orange vegetables, nuts, legumes, and fish are all linked to lowering the risk for inflammation. Added sugar, on the other hand, has one of the highest inflammation scores.
Still, there are some surprises. While meat generally has an unhealthy rep in the food world these days, the type of meat matters for inflammation. Processed meat has a high inflammatory score of 0.68, but poultry like chicken had a score of -0.45, meaning that it can actually lower inflammation. Red meat has an inflammatory effect, but only slightly at 0.02. "Processed meats are really hard on the body because of the amount of nitrates," Dr. Judd explains.
Dairy is another food group that may surprise some: it had an even lower inflammation score than fish. (Although Dr. Judd says the caveat to this is that it does cause an inflammatory response in some people because of a lactose allergy or sensitivity.)
How the findings apply to life outside the lab
Dr. Judd says that she really hopes people will start using the index to make healthy eating decisions that put them at less risk for developing inflammation, which can lead to a whole slew of awful diseases. "It gives a feeling—although we can't say for sure—that if you switched to this diet [of foods linked to lowering inflammation] that your inflammation would go down. And it certainly gives a sense of the types of foods that might be associated with increased inflammation risk down the road," she says.
She says she hopes that inflammation scores will end up on food labels someday, but acknowledges that it's a lengthy process to get a change like that approved. "The biggest challenge is that we need to have an agreed upon definition of what the score is," she says. There are currently other types of inflammation scoring systems, called the DII and EDIP, but they look at nutrients rather than whole foods, and also don't factor in lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking.
Still, just because the scoring system isn't spelled out on nutrition labels just yet doesn't mean you can't start applying the info to your own life. The good news is that the findings reiterate nutritional advice you've likely heard many times before: Colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, dairy, and fish are all good for you, red meat can be healthy in moderation, and added sugar and processed meats should be kept to a minimum.
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