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Inflammation: The New Health Hoax

A new watch word has hit my Snake Oil Radar: "inflammation."  I have noticed a distinct and suspicious trend in things - food especially - being described as "anti-inflammatory."  It's such a broad and sinister term, "inflammation."  And the claim that certain nutrients are anti-inflammatory makes you think, "Well I don't want to be inflamed!"  It can't hurt, right?  To buy the thing someone is advertising as being "anti-inflammatory?"  Only in the sense that it just encourages them.

"Inflammation" is a real thing, of course.  If you sprain your ankle, it gets inflamed.  Blood and white blood vessels rush to the scene, your body's EMTs, ready to help.  In some diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, this process goes awry.  The EMTs keep showing up and administering epinephrine shots and defibrillating innocent bystanders, despite the lack of a 911 call.  

Rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases are still largely unknown, which of course frightens people.  And this level of inflammation is at the cellular level, it happens in your joints and blood vessels, where you can't see what's going on.  Also scary!  Furthermore, there aren't really any tests for inflammation.  You can have it and not even know!

Most damning, the inflammatory response can result in chills, fatigue, and general malaise.  Well who hasn't suffered from that?  I go through a serious bout of malaise at least once a day.  And I'm not even a hypochondriac!

Inflammation is this year's vague health term.  To quote About.com, "Pro-inflammatory foods […] may raise your risk for chronic disease."  I don't know about you, but I don't want any chronic disease!  In which case, you are advised by About.com to avoid processed foods, trans and saturated fats, nitrites, sugar, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and arachidonic acid.  

(Keep an eye out for arachidonic acid, by the way.  It's a rising star in the field of bogus health claims.  Factory farmed beef is higher in arachidonic acid than pasture-raised beef, which makes some people point and exclaim "I told you so!")

On the flip side, you should gravitate towards anti-inflammatory foods like fresh fruits, omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil, soy protein, lean meat, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.  Which is to say, all the stuff you should be eating just because it's healthier.  There's really no need to slap a layer of fear-based pseudoscience on the statement "you should eat more green leafy vegetables."

This business about inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods is mildly relevant to people who suffer from chronic pain disorders and diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.  Even then, the science is iffy at best.  And projecting it out to the public at large is about as scientific as choosing foods based on which of the four humors they represent.  Telling people to avoid sugar because of its pro-inflammatory effects is about as medically significant as advising melancholy people to avoid cold cuts because they increase the effects of black bile.

I don't half think that America's obsession with confusing food and medicine has a lot to do with our lousy health care system.  Being collectively unable to go to the doctor when we want has turned us into a nation of grocery store hypochondriacs.

Creative Commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user justinknol