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Smart Nutrition for Athletes: Inflammation and Recovery

Inflammation is already a constant for serious athletes who train their bodies to the limit, and beyond. Strength and endurance is built by forcing the body to adapt to new levels of physical stress, and these adaptations can’t be done without causing micro-traumas in the muscles, bones and tissues. To repair these micro-injuries the body produces an inflammation response: increased blood cells and fluids are sent to the affected area until the damage is fixed. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or that post-workout ache that feels like a job well done, is inflammation at work. 

What is chronic inflammation? 

There’s nothing wrong or unhealthy about bodily inflammation in response to injury. Known as acute inflammation, this is how humans have adapted and thrived for millions of years. Inflammation is also the body’s response to pathogens such as viruses, sending white blood cells and antibodies to affected areas to knock out the invasive bug. 

Problems arise when inflammation goes from acute, meaning in response to something, to chronic. With chronic inflammation, the body goes from repairing tissues to breaking tissues down. For reasons yet unknown to science, chronic inflammation makes the body behave as if it’s being attacked—and then it attacks itself. For athletes this means performance suffers, injuries increase, recovery time takes longer, and susceptibility to inflammation-linked diseases such as arthritis and asthma also increases. 

But placing the body under stress is what athletes do. While proper rest is one way to prevent acute inflammation from turning chronic, the other way is through diet. Broadly speaking, the foods we eat can either douse the flame, or throw a log on the fire.  

Foods that reduce inflammation and speed recovery

Proper nutrition really does make a difference: studies have shown diets high in omega-3-fatty-acids, fiber and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables help to lower inflammation and speed recovery. Conversely, diets high in sugars, refined starches, saturated fats and trans fats have been found to increase inflammation. 

Most athletes already have a good sense of how to eat well, but not every athlete can tell if a meal is inflammation-causing or inflammation-fighting. Here are a few strategies to make every meal count: 

  1. Eat a Mediterranean-style diet
    One of the most-researched diets with anti-inflammatory qualities is the Mediterranean-style way of eating: a plant-rich regime that concentrates on fish and seafood as proteins, olive oil as the main fat, and very little dairy and red meats. Researchers believe one of the highlights of this diet is the high omega-3-fatty-acid intake through fish and plant sources. The other inflammation-fighting aspect is the low ratio of omega-6-fatty-acids, a fat source known to cause inflammation in too high amounts. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in a Mediterranean-style diet (and most pre-industrial diets) is about 3:1. For a typical Western diet, it’s at least 14:1. The problem for many athletes with Mediterranean-style eating is, although they’re good fats, it’s easy to consume too many calorie-dense fats. This is where a tool such as SmartPlate® can spot the excess and help you adjust every meal, helping you optimize this anti-inflammatory diet while keeping macros at ideal ratios for lean muscle mass. 
  1. Increase fiber
    A recent study made the direct connection between a high-fiber diet and lower levels of C-reactive proteins, which are the markers of chronic inflammation. With data collected from over 9,000 people, researchers found that a diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables was associated with low levels of C-reactive proteins. Whole-grains, fruits and vegetables are also naturally lower on the glycemic index, or GI, which keeps blood glucose levels stable. Multiple small studies have demonstrated avoiding glucose spikes is connected with a reduction in bodily inflammation. Not only can SmartPlate® analyze every meal to help you spot excess sugars and boost fiber intake, there’s a built-in Blood Glucose and Carbs Program that will suggest blood sugar-friendly foods and send alerts if you’re exceeding your carb limit. 
  2. Focus on antioxidants
    Extended periods of athletic training, and especially high-impact sports, produce high levels of radical oxidative species, or ROS. A normal by-product of respiration and cellular turnover, ROS in competitive athletes can easily reach levels the body can’t manage. When this happens, ROS causes oxidative stress, which then sets the stage for chronic inflammation. Studies have shown, however, that antioxidants found in foods are very effective at blocking the negative effects of ROS. This is why we’re often told to “eat the rainbow”—heavily pigmented fruits and vegetables contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants: 
  • Foods rich vitamin A (carrots), vitamin C (pineapple) and vitamin E (avocados) are potent antioxidants that are known to help control oxidative stress 
  • Another antioxidant group, the anthocyanins, are the purples and reds found in foods like blueberries and cherries and have been found to specifically reduce muscle pain and inflammation 
  • Vitamin D is another inflammation-fighting antioxidant found in fatty fish and mushrooms 
  • The nitrates group (not to be confused with inflammation-causing nitrites found in processed meats) is often overlooked, but vegetables such as beets, celery and garlic contain nitrates which the body then converts to nitric oxide. This essential molecule helps increase blood flow which then speeds tissue recovery and also plays a role in reducing inflammation. 

The easiest way to know if your food choices are helping or hindering your training routine is to let SmartPlate® do the analysis for you while it tracks your meals and logs your progress. Don’t leave chronic inflammation to chance, order SmartPlate® today