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How a pro-inflammatory diet of red meat and processed foods can affect heart health

Slices of steak on a plate
Red meat is listed as one of the foods in a pro-inflammatory diet. Juan Moyano/Stocksy
  • Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death worldwide.
  • Researchers say pro-inflammatoy diets may be linked to a heart disease biomarker.
  • Experts say the Mediterranean and DASH diets can help improve overall cardiovascular health.

A pro-inflammatory diet may be linked to a heart disease biomarker, an indication that such an eating plan is bad for heart health.

That’s according to a study published today in the journal PLOS One.

“With cardiovascular diseases standing as a leading cause of mortality worldwide, the interplay between diet-induced inflammation, as quantified by the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII) Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , and heart failure biomarker NT-proBNP has not been investigated in the general population,” the authors of the study wrote.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999–2004, involving 10,766 people.

The relationship between inflammation and the harmful heart biomarker was evaluated through multivariable-adjusted regression models.

In subjects not experiencing heart failure, a unit increase in the DII was significantly associated with an increase in NT-proBNP levels.

In participants with a history of heart failure, those in the second and third DII quartile trended toward higher NT-proBNP levels, compared to those in the lowest quartile.

The researchers said they identified a positive correlation between the DII and NT-proBNP levels, suggesting a “robust link between pro-inflammatory diets and increased heart failure biomarkers.”

How inflammation affects the body

According to the National Library of Medicine Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , inflammation is “the body’s immune system’s response to an irritant. The irritant might be a germ, but it could also be a foreign object, such as a splinter in your finger.”

“When a wound swells up, turns red and hurts, it may be a sign of inflammation,” the article states.

Inflammation doesn’t only start when, for example, a wound has already been infected by bacteria Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source , is oozing pus or healing poorly. It already starts when the body is trying to fight against a harmful irritant.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, foods can cause inflammation. For example, refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pastries, French fries, and other fried foods can cause inflammation.

Other foods that can cause inflammation include soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages as well as red meat, processed meat, margarine, shortening, and lard.

Foods that fight inflammation include tomatoes, olive oil, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collards as well as nuts like almonds and walnuts, and fatty fish such salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges are also effective inflammation reducers.

Excess inflammation contributes to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease as well as obesity.

The study authors said the World Health Organization Trusted Source World Health Organization Highly respected international organization Go to source identifies cardiovascular diseases as the primary cause of mortality worldwide, responsible for millions of fatalities each year. Identifying risk factors for heart failure “is essential for its prevention, early diagnosis, and management.”

Critical need for research into heart health

 “The surge in heart failure cases, propelled by an aging demographic, highlights the critical need for extensive research into cardiovascular health,” the study authors wrote. “However, [heart failure] frequently develops insidiously, with significant symptoms emerging only upon the occurrence of severe health episodes.”

The team said the DII index used in the study has revealed a significant association between the DII and cardiovascular health. The DII evaluates the inflammatory impact of dietary components, offering insights into chronic inflammation and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, an interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in California, told Medical News Today that research in recent years highlights the relationships between the types of foods we eat and specific cardiovascular conditions. 

“This research furthers our understanding of how certain types of diets can impact heart failure, which may potentially allow us to improve heart failure outcomes through carefully modifying the components of our diets,” said Chen, who was not involved in the study.

He noted that a pro-inflammatory diet includes foods shown to increase levels of inflammatory markers, such as CRP, IL-6, and TNF-alpha, in our bloodstream. 

“Examples of pro-inflammatory foods include foods high in saturated fat, sweets, fried foods, highly processed foods, refined grains, and foods high in sodium,” Chen said. “We advise patients to avoid these types of foods as much as possible, as inflammation has been shown to increase the risk of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

The health dangers of pro-inflammatory diets

Dr. Danielle Kelvas is the chief executive officer and founder of DKMD Consulting and the physician advisor for telemedicine weight loss service The HGC Institute.

Kelvas, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today that doctors talk about the effects of a pro-inflammatory diet, but “it’s nice to put some solid numbers and data to it.”

“A pro-inflammatory diet will raise heart failure biomarker NT-proBNP, a direct measure of heart health,” Kelvas said. “The study looked at over 10,000 people, which is an excellent population sample, and had approximately equal numbers of men and women. The study accounted for many common confounds: smoking, hypertension, kidney disease, BMI, smoking, etc, and diet still made a statistically significant difference on NT-proBNP.”

Kelvas said the study is critical.

“I’ve been preaching this for years – your diet absolutely makes a difference in health outcomes,” Kelvas said. “Many people want to simply take a pill and hope their situation will get better, but biology just doesn’t work that way. We are what we eat. If we’re consuming things that cause inflammation, your body will suffer, regardless of what medication we throw at you.”

“This study is paving the way to illustrate that protecting your heart, and really all of your organs, begins with nutrition,” Kelvas added. “You can make a serious impact on your health by simply eating better.”

Improving your diet to lessen chance of heart trouble

Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and science communications officer at the online nutrition encyclopedia Examine, told Medical News Today there are various practical steps people can take to improve their diet’s inflammatory profile and potentially reduce their risk of heart failure.

“These include incorporating more whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, along with healthy fats and lean proteins, while limiting heavily refined food products, added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats,” said Costa, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Myriad studies highlight the cardio-protective properties of polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, and dietary fiber, due to their anti-inflammatory effects, which are linked to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and heart failure.”

Costa recommended the Mediterranean and DASH diets for improving overall cardiovascular health. She also said regular physical activity, stress management, reduced alcohol intake, and smoking cessation is important.

“Individuals, especially those with conditions like heart failure, should continue to monitor and regulate their diets with the support and guidance of a registered dietitian to reduce inflammation and improve overall health,” Costa said. “With the right dietary approach, heart failure patients may see improvements in their symptoms and quality of life.”

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

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