As athletes, we spend time regularly dealing with inflammation. This might take the form of an ice pack on a sore muscle or wearing compression clothing to enhance the recovery process. Inflammation comes with the territory, and each athlete learns to manage it. While exercise might induce acute inflammation, everybody—not just athletes—is impacted by inflammation, and though some of it is beneficial and healing (like the exercise-induced kind), other types of inflammation are harmful, serious, and life-threatening. What we eat and drink can cause inflammation in the body that may lead to chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and autoimmune disease.
“Inflammation is a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Vivian Chen, a former allopathic doctor who now teaches and empowers individuals to take charge of their own health and healing via Plateful Health. “In the acute situation, for example, if you have a cut or you burn yourself, acute inflammation brings the necessary cells to the wound to help the body repair and regenerate. In an ideal world, once the body has healed, the inflammation calms down and the body goes back to harmony. Sometimes, however, the inflammation doesn’t go away and instead turns into chronic inflammation where the body thinks there is still (healing) work to be done and keeps sending inflammatory cells into tissues. This is when chronic diseases and pain can ensue because the inflammatory messengers can recruit cells that cause tissue damage, disrupt hormonal signaling, and release with a whole host of symptoms such as eczema, fatigue and arthritis.”
Each day in training and competition, an athlete breaks down muscle and attempts to repair it as fast as possible through nutrition and rest in order to be able to train or compete again the next day. If the foods we eat are creating and/or increasing inflammation in the body, those foods are delaying the body’s ability to heal and recover, thereby adversely impacting athletic performance in addition to damaging the body’s overall health.
Despite what we have learned growing up via our parents and advertising campaigns, dairy products are among the most harmful and inflammatory inducing—especially for those among the 65 percent of the human population that is lactose intolerant. “Our bodies are very clever and are always trying to protect us. If there is chronic inflammation going on, it means there is something lurking in your body that shouldn’t be there. Your immune system is on high alert because it is encountering things that shouldn’t be in your body, and so it triggers a chronic, low-grade inflammatory response to try to counteract and remove it,” explained Dr. Chen.
“Over time, the inflammatory cells and cytokines that get released can actually damage tissues like blood vessels, causing them to clog up and become leaky. This, as you can imagine, can then impair blood flow and affect athletic performance and recovery as it has an adverse effect on oxygen delivery. In addition, inflammation in the body means cells that would normally be recruited for regenerating damaged tissue during performance are diverted away, meaning it could take longer for the body to repair itself after training. Inflammatory cytokines, which are the chemical messengers that the body uses to communicate with, can also cause fatigue which will also interfere with athletic performance.”
Many people aren’t even aware that they are intolerant of dairy products and eggs until they remove them from their diet and “miraculously” find that symptoms that they’ve dealt with or accepted for years “suddenly” disappear. According to Dr. Chen, eating animal products can also be a source of environmental toxins. “Studies have shown that toxins like to hide in the fatty tissues. Dairy and animal products are often high in fat content and therefore can contain high levels of toxins. These toxins also trigger inflammation in the body as it puts the immune system on high alert,” she cautioned.
To minimize inflammation, there are other types of foods to avoid besides just dairy and animal products. Dr. Chen suggested, “Remove foods that cause inflammation like refined sugar, refined flour, refined oils high in omega-6 like vegetable/sunflower oil, and foods which commonly cause intolerances and allergies like dairy and eggs.”She emphasized, “Stick to a diet that is full of whole foods as close to the way it came out of the earth.”
Some people think they need to consume dairy products for calcium, but you can get calcium from plant-based sources such as kale, bok choy, oranges, tofu, edamame, broccoli, almonds, and okra.
Since dairy products and eggs are major culprits that diminish athletic performance and impair recovery, what type of foods are anti-inflammatory and beneficial to performance and enhance recovery? “Add foods rich in antioxidants which help to combat inflammation. The foods highest in antioxidants are plants because they contain phytochemicals with an array of different nutrients which help our body detoxify, counteract free radicals and fight inflammation,” advised Dr. Chen. Great sources of antioxidants are dark chocolate, pecans, cranberries, kidney beans, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, strawberries, grapes, and squash. Dr. Chen advocates eating the rainbow which translates to eating a wide variety of richly-colored fruits and vegetables. She explained, “Each color contains different phytonutrients that perform different functions. Foods that help to boost blood flow to tissues can help with recovery. Some examples are arugula, cacao, beets, blueberries and pomegranates.”
Dr. Chen’s conclusion on inflammation is simple. “Not only will you boost your performance by reducing inflammation, but you will also reduce your chances of getting chronic diseases.” That’s sage advice applicable to us all—athlete or otherwise.
*This guest post by Rick Scott (#veganhockeyplayer) is reprinted with permission from Switch4Good.
Copyright 2023 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.
100% online, learn at your own pace
A trusted credential from eCornell
Personalized feedback from our team of instructors
20,000+ students and counting