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What’s the Connection? Metabolic Health and Inflammation

by Axel Baumann · July 10, 2020 · 6 minute read
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Are you metabolically healthy? 

Metabolism refers to the chemical reactions that produce or consume energy in the body’s cells in order to sustain life. It is at work 24/7, and it is related to numerous other processes in the body. For example converting food into energy, building muscle, creating hormones, burning fats, and even fueling your immune system. To fulfill the huge task of keeping you alive and well, your metabolism has multiple components that are orchestrated with outstanding synchronicity. The main components of this “orchestra” are enzymes, hormones, and electrical and chemical signals. These processes allow every cell in your body to communicate and work optimally. The term metabolic health, refers to the proper functioning of all these components.  

Health goes beyond the number you see on the scale

The advances in health technology and research over the past decade have radically changed our understanding of the mechanisms of health and disease. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the most prevalent metabolic diseases of contemporary society is obesity. Obesity is considered a high risk for developing multiple diseases or comorbidities. Recent studies suggest that an individual can be metabolically healthy obese, while others can be metabolically unhealthy obese. Although both groups are classified as obese, there is a difference between the two. The first group, besides their excess of weight and body fat mass, still present a healthy equilibrium in their internal balance. Yet the second group presents the classic complications associated with obesity, such as insulin resistance, hypertension, etc. 

Furthermore, metabolically unhealthy results can also be found in lean individuals. Science has yet to explain all the mechanisms behind being metabolically unhealthy. That being said the incapacity for using efficient fats as source of fuel (or being metabolically inflexible) and chronic inflammation, have been described as main contributors to reduced metabolic health.

Is inflammation bad for your health? 

It is very common to hear about the negative effects of inflammation. The assumption is that inflammation should be reduced as much as possible. However despite this common assumption, it is important to understand the purpose of inflammation. It is a part of the body’s defense mechanism and is crucial to the healing process after an injury. 

There are 2 primary types of inflammation: 

One is acute or (classic) inflammation. This is triggered as a defense mechanism in response to foreign invaders, such as viruses or bacteria. Additionally, this type of inflammation is also triggered by injury. Damaged tissue release signals known as cytokines, these signals trigger immune cells, hormones, and nutrients to repair the damage. Without this type of inflammation as a physiological response, injuries and wounds could turn deadly.

The other type is known as silent inflammation. This is known as chronic low-level inflammation, below the threshold of pain. Unlike acute inflammation, due to the lack of pain, usually nothing is done to stop it. This results in years of inflammation, which ends in organ damage, loss of organ function, and the onset of numerous diseases.

Fat cells play a major role in inflammation

Throughout the years, adipocytes (fat cells), are reduced to an inert cell that stores energy and prevents you from fitting into your pants. Thanks to the advancements in research, we were able to understand more about the adipose tissue. This tissue is a complex organ, creating hormones and contributes in regulating metabolism through a number of mechanisms. 

Fats cells are constantly communicating with organs such as the brain, liver and muscle. They do so through chemical signals (adipokines). Adipokines are part of a large family that contributes to regulating the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, immune function and body weight (among others). Moreover, the signals released by fat cells also increase inflammation levels. It is for this reason that excess fat is considered a chronic-low grade inflammatory state. 

Imagine it this way, adipose tissue is a chemical factory, the bigger the factory the higher its capacity for production. The excess of adipokines induces a pro-inflammatory state, affecting function and damaging organ cells such as the pancreas or the liver. Multiple studies have looked at long-term inflammation as a high risk for developing metabolic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cerebrovascular and cardiovascular disease. 

The perfect nutritional storm

Silent inflammation is also highly influenced by the food you eat. The western diet is often characterized by the convergence of distinct dietary change, termed the “perfect nutritional storm” for increasing inflammation. 

These foods are:

  • Sugar:

    Advances in technology has decreased the costs producing refined carbs (mainly sugar). This consequently increased the availability of these ingredients dramatically. A recent review was published of sugar consumption made in 18 developed countries. Evidence suggests that the total intake of sugar for infants is 20%-38% of their total daily caloric intake. For adults this number is between 14%-25%. That’s a lot, right? Identifying food containing sugar can be tricky nowadays. This is because most of the time the food industry uses so many different types of caloric sweeteners and not only sugar. For example: corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, malt syrup (among others).

  • Omega 6 fats overconsumption:

    Throughout the past 50 years, omega 6 was a minor component of the human diet. However, vegetable oils made from corn, soy sunflower or safflower have increased by more than 400% since 1980. This has resulted in a disproportionate intake of omega 6, which has a pro-inflammatory effect on the body.  

  • Food processing 

    The modern food system has developed towards generating foods containing large amounts of sugar, fat, salt and chemical additives. In other words ultra-processed foods. A recent report was published in 2019 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It concluded that the over-reliance on these foods is gradually displacing home-prepared meals and the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. This is substantially decreasing the quality of one’s diet and nutrition. 

Your best ally –  the greengrocer

Fighting back inflammation doesn’t necessarily mean taking pills. Food components can affect the same molecular targets as pharmacological drugs. Food’s anti-inflammatory properties are not only connected to their nutrients, but also to their natural compounds. According to the studies, multiple food components have clinically proven to contain anti-inflammatory properties. Here are some examples to help you make wiser food choices:   

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The most representative food of the mediterranean diet. Multiple studies have associated its consumption to lower inflammation levels.   
  • Ginger: Contains a natural compound called gingerol. This has an anti-inflammatory property. 
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables: Are an essential source of phytochemicals such as polyphenols. These natural compounds inhibit the inflammation process.
  • Nuts, chia, flax, fatty fish and algae: These all contain a fat known as Omega 3. This has been found to decrease inflammation levels.
  • Turmeric: This is a potent anti-inflammatory spice. That is because it has the component curcumin. A popular spice used among professional athletes due to its ability to diminish muscle damage generated by inflammation post workouts. Additionally, curcumin has also demonstrated clinical improvements on inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease (among others). 

Taking care of your metabolism

Metabolism regulates all the chemical processes in your body, maintaining internal balance. If there is one thing we can learn from the advancements of science, is that the health paradigm is changing. We are understanding more and more that we do not need to necessarily rely on pharmacological drugs, rather improve our lifestyles. In other words, the choices we make and the way we live our lives have an impact on our internal balance. The food we eat, our stress levels, the quality of our sleep all contribute to this internal balance. By improving this factor, you are actively improving your metabolic health. 


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Axel Baumann

Axel Baumann

Axel has a Bachelors degree in Human Nutrition from the Universidad ISALUD, Argentina, and a Masters degree in Nutrition and Metabolism from the Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. He is also a Certified Diabetes Educator from the Sociedad Argentina de Diabetes, International Diabetes Federation.