Type 2 Diabetes and Inflammation: How They’re Connected and What Nutrition Can Do to Help

By Krista McKay, LWDI Intern

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself from harm. When tissues are damaged, they send signals to increase the flow of blood and other substances to the area, which causes redness and swelling. Acute inflammation is more severe and lasts only for a few days to a few weeks. Common examples of acute inflammation are things like a cut on your finger, an itching bug bite, or a sore throat. Acute inflammation is good for us and is a necessary part of healing. When inflammation is not as beneficial, however, is with chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation (sometimes called “low-grade inflammation”) is the result of a mishap with our immune system constantly being in “attack mode” even when there is no real threat.

Inflammation in Type 2 Diabetes

Chronic inflammation actually plays some type of role in almost every major disease, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and depression. This chronic, prolonged state of inflammation can eventually cause permanent damage to our organs. Besides autoimmune disease, several other risk factors for chronic inflammation have been identified, including increasing age, obesity, poor nutrition, stress, and sleep disorders (2). Inflammation is often a contributing factor to the development of some conditions but can also be the result of the conditions as well. Oftentimes, scientists aren’t even sure which began first. In type 2 diabetes, a few different reasons for why we see inflammation have been identified. One mechanism that is well-understood involves substances called adipokines. Adipokines are pro-inflammatory molecules that can be released by fat tissue. Their release is increased in obesity and is a contributing factor to the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (1), (3).

Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition

Thankfully, when it comes to inflammation, there are a lot of lifestyle factors that we can change to improve it. Things like physical activity, limiting alcohol intake, and quitting smoking are important. Another major way to combat inflammation is through our diet.

So, what exactly is the so-called “anti-inflammatory diet” you might have heard rising in popularity these last few years? Well, it doesn’t really need to be a specific “diet” at all. Anti-inflammatory nutrition involves basic healthy eating patterns with an emphasis on a few special nutrients.

Things to limit include:

  • Saturated fats (fried foods, full fat dairy, red meat)
  • Added sugars (stick to less than 10% of your total calories per day – around 25g for most women and 35g for most men)
  • Refined carbohydrates (white bread and pastries)
  • Processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon)

Things to increase include:

  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants are substances that help reduce damage to our cells from free radicals. Some common vitamins that you may have heard of have antioxidant properties.
    • Sources of vitamin C include broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, kale, strawberries, citrus fruits, honeydew, and cantaloupe.
    • Sources of vitamin E include avocado, dark leafy greens, red bell peppers, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
    • Sources of zinc include poultry, shellfish, whole grains, nuts, and beans.
    • Sources of polyphenols, another subtype of antioxidant, include black and green teas, cocoa powder and dark chocolate, and spices such as cinnamon and ginger.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid that our bodies need but can’t make themselves, which is why we need to get them from food. Omega-3s are known to be able to decrease a range of different substances that are linked to inflammation. 
    • Sources of omega-3s include salmon, tuna, chia, hemp, and flax seeds, edamame beans, and walnuts.

All in all, aim to follow a general healthy eating pattern with lean meats, seafood, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables, emphasizing antioxidants and omega-3s. Other lifestyle factors to consider are exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, and controlling stress. Combined, all of these things will give your body the tools it needs to combat low-grade inflammation and prevent type 2 diabetes and other chronic disease.

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  1. Mancuso P. (2016). The role of adipokines in chronic inflammation. ImmunoTargets and therapy, 5, 47–56. https://doi.org/10.2147/ITT.S73223
  2. Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansal P, et al. Chronic Inflammation. [Updated 2020 Nov 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
  3. Tan, B. L., Norhaizan, M. E., Liew, W. P., & Sulaiman Rahman, H. (2018). Antioxidant and Oxidative Stress: A Mutual Interplay in Age-Related Diseases. Frontiers in pharmacology, 9, 1162. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2018.01162

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