There's a lot more to losing weight than the amount of calories you consume. Here's what you should know about inflammation and weight loss.
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It's clear that there's a lot more to weight loss that just calories in and calories out, but what are those other dynamics at play? Does inflammation cause weight gain?

Research suggests that reducing inflammation is a good first step to long-term weight loss. But how exactly does inflammation prevent the body from losing weight? I'm breaking down the connection, plus five ways to prevent inflammation from stifling your weight-loss goals.

Inflammation and Body Weight

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When inflammation is present, even those with the most disciplined eating and exercise habits may have little progress losing weight. The reason stems largely from changes seen when the body gains weight or is carrying excess weight, many of which are cyclical and build on one another. Here's a brief look at how inflammation and weight are connected.

Inflammation Increases with Weight Gain

Weight gain is associated with increased inflammation in the body. A 2019 study published by Elsevier found that levels of a key inflammatory marker in the blood known as C-reactive protein (CRP) increased as weight increased. This inflammation appears to be triggered by hormonal and metabolic changes and remains until excess weight is lost.

Inflammation and Weight Gain Lead to Insulin Resistance

Inflammation in the body can lead to insulin resistance. This is due to inflammatory compounds that impair the way insulin works. This leads to higher glucose levels, as well as fat accumulation in the liver which further contributes to insulin resistance. They can then start to fuel one another, causing a vicious cycle: weight gain causes more insulin resistance, and insulin resistance leads to more weight gain.

Weight Gain Triggers Leptin Resistance

Leptin is a key hormone that tells the brain when to eat, when to stop eating and when to speed up or slow down metabolism. However, research published by the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2020 suggests that leptin functioning is altered with weight gain and inflammation. The effect is that the brain doesn't get proper feedback, so leptin levels remain low which triggers the appetite to increase and metabolism to slow (as if the body were starving), making weight loss pursuits even harder.

The inflammatory combination of weight gain, insulin resistance and leptin resistance build on each other, but may also be exacerbated by things like stress, lack of sleep, eating processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle. When looking at these inflammatory effects associated with weight gain, it's easy to see why simply monitoring calories-in versus calories-out doesn't always work.

How to Reduce Inflammation and Lose Weight

Cobb Salad with Herb-Rubbed Chicken

If you have excess weight, you're likely experiencing some level of inflammation, which makes the body irritated and stressed. In a situation like this, the body's primary focus is survival and healing, not weight loss. So, to lose weight, it's key to reduce inflammation and other potential irritants to help the body get back to more healthy operating conditions.

So, how do you reduce inflammation to lose weight? Here are five things to do.

Skip Processed Foods and Added Sugars

Chemicals, additives, coloring, added sugars and other compounds in processed foods are all potential sources of irritation. Avoiding these ingredients by choosing more whole foods and minimally processed products is key to reducing inflammation and losing weight. When purchasing a packaged product, take a look at the ingredients list. Does it mirror what you might use if you were making the food from scratch, without a ton of additives? If the answer is yes, it's likely a minimally processed product. If not, try to opt for something else.

Incorporate Anti-inflammatory Produce and Fats

While getting rid of irritants, it's also important to refuel with foods containing anti-inflammatory compounds like antioxidants, phytochemicals and omega-3 fatty acids. Good sources of these are vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish and healthy fats, such as plant-based oils, nuts and avocados.

So load up on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and broccoli, snack on berries and nuts, incorporate fatty fish like salmon into your menu two times per week and use moderate amounts of healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil.

Go to Bed on Time

Did you know that many health professionals now consider sleep just as important to weight loss as diet and activity? Adult bodies need approximately 7 to 8 hours of continuous sleep most nights to rest, repair and recharge for the next day. Sure, caffeine may help energy levels temporarily, but the effects of inadequate sleep go a lot further. Routinely not getting enough sleep (6 hours or less) leaves the body without the resources it needs to function properly, creating new inflammation and aggravating existing inflammation.

Incorporate Gut-Friendly Foods

Strengthening the gut's microbe barrier is essential to reducing inflammation because it can prevent future irritants from slipping through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. To do this, try to incorporate foods every day that are fermented or contain active live bacteria cultures such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso or kimchi.

De-stress

As much as we want to focus strictly on food and exercise for weight loss, mental and psychological health is just as important because low-grade inflammation won't go away if stress levels run continuously high. Finding a way to escape that stress—such as doing yoga, meditating or walking for 10 minutes a day—provides quick relief psychologically and anti-inflammatory effects physiologically. If stress is too much of a daily problem, learning how to manage and cope when it does occur is key for not triggering new inflammation or aggravating existing inflammation.

The Bottom Line

Inflammation increases with weight gain, which leads to insulin resistance and leptin resistance. So, if you're looking to lose weight, reducing inflammation is key. You can do this by avoiding processed foods and added sugars, eating more anti-inflammatory foods, getting enough sleep and decreasing stress levels. Reducing the amount of inflammation in your body will also lower your risk for diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is the author of Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less and a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She is the recipient of a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.