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Understanding the Vicious Cycle of Weight Gain and Inflammation — And How You Can Break It Once and for All

When it comes to weight gain and inflammation, it may help to think of them like any complicated relationship. They’re like the Romeo and Juliet of your body — each troublesome in its own way, but when they’re together, they wreak havoc. As you gain weight, inflammation can increase dramatically, says William Li, MD, the Boston-based author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. From there, inflammation can cause even more weight gain, which means you may be stuck in a vicious cycle of chronic inflammation and fat accumulation that ultimately impacts your overall health.

According to Li, the potent pairing can cause disruptions to your gut microbiome — the beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract that play a major role in digestion as well as immune function — emotional health, blood sugar regulation, cholesterol levels, and metabolic functions.

“When you’re caught in this cycle of weight gain and chronic inflammation, it affects far more in your body than you might think,” he says. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t resolve on its own, particularly if you continue to maintain habits that increase inflammation, such as eating unhealthy food and being sedentary. But the good news is some easy lifestyle shifts can help you break this cycle.”

The Backstory

When you gain too much weight, your body produces more of a type of fat called white adipose tissue. While it might seem like fat is inactive, similar to what you’d see in a marbled cut of steak, Li says the opposite is true. Fat stores energy and releases fatty acids when the brain perceives that you need more fuel. While that’s advantageous in the short term, keeping too much of this tissue around can trigger the release of a certain type of immune cell, called macrophages, that prompt more inflammation throughout the body. A 2019 study published in Metabolism Open found that as weight increases, so do inflammatory markers in the blood. Interestingly, this inflammation remains only until the excess pounds come off.

Inflammation also interferes with the regulation of leptin, a hormone that signals when to eat and when you’re full. Without proper functioning of it and other hormones related to hunger and satiety, Li says it can be much easier to overeat and gain weight. Also, he adds, inflammation may cause low energy. Research published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience suggests even low levels of inflammation can lead to persistent fatigue, which means you may be skimping on activity or avoiding it altogether. (The latest science on physical activity’s benefit on overall health — even when there’s obesity — makes this particular side effect of increased inflammation especially damaging.)

It’s an ugly cycle that can be tough to break, notes Li, but it’s definitely worth trying. “Even
a small amount of weight loss can reduce inflammation, and when your inflammation goes down, it can improve your overall health,” he says. (Losing just a few pounds can also improve metabolic markers.) That means minor progress can lead to long-term results, especially if you view inflammation reduction as a slow-and-steady strategy.

Take a Big Picture View

Focusing only on weight loss to break the inflammation-fat connection can be problematic, according to Boston-based dietitian Erin Kenney, MS, RDN, because like any resolution, it’s easy to get discouraged if you set big goals and find yourself falling short of them. “If you start losing weight by following a diet, particularly if it’s restrictive, that can backfire when you hit a plateau,” she says. “If you gain weight back, that often leads to feeling demotivated and you go back to your old eating habits.”

A better approach: Adopt strategies aimed at boosting your overall health and reducing inflammation, with weight loss as a potential side effect. That way, Kenney says, you’re much more apt to notice the benefits of less inflammation, such as fewer colds, better sleep, and more energy — and stick with your new habits. The following tactics reduce inflammation and may prompt weight loss as well:

Pump It Up

When people get active, they often opt for cardio, such as time on the treadmill or elliptical. While that does have benefits, it’s resistance training that builds muscle and that, in turn, decreases inflammation. A 2020 study in the journal Ageing Research Reviews found that people with lower levels of muscle mass, especially those who are older, tend to have higher amounts of inflammation. Strength training has also been associated with improved body composition, which means less fat even if your weight stays the same.

Focus On Sleep

Even if your nutrition and exercise are on track, you may be risking inflammation and fat retention if your sleep quality is lacking, says David Hanscom, MD, a former orthopedic surgeon in Seattle, who now focuses on pain management through non-surgical methods like meditation, exercise, and stress relief. “There is significant evidence that good sleep plays a major role in reducing inflammation and changing body composition,” he says. For example, several studies show that getting fewer than seven hours of shut-eye every night increases your risk of obesity.

Learn to De-Stress

Part of the reason that sleep is so beneficial for breaking the inflammation-fat cycle is that it improves stress levels. But you can increase the effect by employing de-stressing tactics throughout each day, says Hanscom. He notes that stress often ties to both inflammation and weight gain — not to mention a myriad of other health problems — so doing more tension taming is key to building healthier habits in the long run.

Freshen Your Diet

Although it’s important to avoid inflammatory choices like sugary treats, sodas, and fried foods, it can be helpful to focus more on adding to your diet rather than subtracting from it, says Kenney. When you do that, healthy picks often naturally push out the less-beneficial foods and that can reduce feelings of restriction, she says. Focus on anti-inflammatory options like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil. She also suggests adding more spices that have been shown to lower inflammation, such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and cayenne. The number on the scale may not move as much as you’d like at first, but shifts like these can improve your muscle-to-fat ratio while bringing down inflammation, says Li. That gives you all those motivating benefits along the way.

What About Bariatric Surgery?

As you focus on breaking the inflammation-weight gain cycle, it doesn’t matter how you lose weight, the result will be the same. That means people who undergo bariatric surgery — techniques that reduce your ability to eat and/or digest food — as a way to change body composition will see similar anti-inflammation benefits as those who lose weight through non-surgical methods, according to Paresh Dandona, MD, PhD, a researcher who focuses on diabetes, metabolism, and endocrinology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “We see immense benefits in terms of inflammation reduction with bariatric surgery,” he says.

“This comes along with other advantages such as a lower risk of diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and Alzheimer’s disease.” The weight loss itself is responsible for many of these benefits, he says, but another component is the way bariatric surgery has been associated with improved gut health and diversity of good bacteria. If you’re curious about bariatric surgery to get rid of dangerous extra pounds, speak with your doctor about options (and potential side effects).

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Anti-Inflammation.

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