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New research finds that eating a pro-inflammatory diet may raise your risk of heart failure and cardiovascular disease. SDI Productions/Getty Images
  • A pro-inflammatory diet has been linked to a biomarker commonly associated with heart failure.
  • Foods like red meat, white flour, sugar, and seed oils, are known to be pro-inflammatory foods.
  • In a large observational study, pro-inflammatory foods were associated with higher amounts of the biomarker in the body.

Pro-inflammatory foods can lead to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, scientists have linked them with a biomarker normally found in heart failure patients.

You are what you eat. That old adage still holds up when talking about inflammation.

Red meat, seed oils, white flour, and other highly processed foods are significant pro-inflammatory foods. Eating too much of these things, which is common in the standard American diet, isn’t good for your health.

While a hamburger now and then probably isn’t going to kill you, continually eating a diet rich in pro-inflammatory foods can lead to chronic inflammation, a major risk factor for other serious health problems like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Researchers have now discovered another clue as to how pro-inflammatory foods and increased risk of CVD are linked by isolating a specific blood biomarker associated with heart failure.

In a large observational study of nearly 11,000 Americans, those who ate more pro-inflammatory foods had larger amounts of the biomarker in their blood, indicating the potential for CVD in the future. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The findings suggest “a robust link between pro-inflammatory diets and increased heart failure biomarkers, with implications for dietary modifications in cardiovascular risk management,” the study authors wrote.

“This is consistent with the data and current research that shows how important nutrition and diet are, especially with heart failure and cardiovascular disease,” Alyssa Kwan, MS, RD, a Clinical Dietician in Cardiology at Stanford Medicine who wasn’t affiliated with the research, told Healthline.

There is plenty of prior evidence that indicates an association between a pro-inflammatory diet and cardiovascular disease outcomes. A large observational study from 2021 involving almost 20,000 Americans found a positive correlation between a pro-inflammatory diet and heart failure.

Building on studies like these, the authors wanted to investigate specifically whether a diet high in inflammation-causing foods would affect a biomarker known as NT-proBNP.

NT-proBNP is commonly associated with heart failure. While even healthy individuals have some level of the biomarker in their blood, when detected at higher levels it means that the heart is under stress and could be indicative of heart failure.

“These are blood-based biomarkers that most literally reflect cardiac wall stress. When does cardiac wall stress happen? If you have too much fluid on board, it can lead to pressure and volume stress on the heart, which can then lead to increased release of these biomarkers,” Dr. Matthew Feinstein, MD, an Associate Professor of Cardiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who wasn’t affiliated with the research, told Healthline.

The study authors found that diet was a factor linked to the presence of NT-proBNP in the bloodstream.

Researchers included 10,766 American adults in their study through the NHANES health database. The NHANES program is a self-reported survey that is designed to assess the health and nutrition of Americans that has been running since the 1960s.

The study participants took part in NHANES between 1999 and 2004 and were split almost evenly between men and women. The cohort was predominantly White (76.87%) but also included Black individuals (10.76%) and Mexican Americans (3.23%).

Researchers investigated biomarker levels in participants while comparing them against an index used to quantify diet in terms of its pro- or anti-inflammatory potential, known as the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII).

Using the DII, researchers can assign an individual a composite score based on a large number of variables about the effect of their diet on inflammation.

Participants in the study who had a higher DII score had higher levels of NT-proBNP in their bodies. In those who did not have heart failure, a single unit increase in the DII score was associated with a “significant elevation” of the biomarker of 8.57pg/mL.

When researchers compared those with the highest DII scores compared to those with the lowest, they found nearly a 40pg/mL elevation between the two groups.

Feinstein told Healthline that the findings are meaningful but subtle and don’t indicate that a pro-inflammatory diet was directly leading to heart failure.

“What are we detecting here? Probably, it’s reasonable to say that what we’re detecting here is a marker of subclinical cardiac congestion and wall stress. That’s, that’s not necessarily heart failure, but a component of a pre-heart failure,” he said.

In patients who already had heart failure, the study did not find any significant association between DII score and biomarker levels.

So, a pro-inflammatory diet is obviously bad for you. But, how do you get started eating the right foods and help lower inflammation?

“Decades of research have shown that certain dietary patterns (such as the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats) tend to be beneficial to inflammatory markers,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS RD, a Dietician with Cleveland Clinic, and co-author of Regenerative Health, told Healthline.

Top anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Berries
  • Fatty fish
  • Broccoli
  • Avocados
  • Green tea
  • Peppers
  • Grapes
  • Turmeric
  • Dark chocolate
  • Extra virgin olive oil

“We know that a high intake of Omega-3 is actually anti-inflammatory. So, that includes oily fish, like salmon and sardines, but also other foods like chia and flax seeds. Those are all anti-inflammatory things that we want to see people eating more of,” said Kwan.

And if you’re not sure quite how to get started with a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle, Kirkpatrick offers some great advice:

“Get nutritional bang for your buck. It’s not the cookies, fast food items, or sugar soda we have occasionally that may impact inflammation – it’s when these foods become the foods more frequently consumed. So – if the focus is high nutrient-dense foods most of the time, along with regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and stress management, then the risk of inflammation may go down,” she said.

Researchers have linked a pro-inflammatory diet with a biomarker typically associated with heart failure.

In a study of nearly 11,000 Americans, those who scored higher on a dietary index for inflammatory foods had more of the biomarker in their blood.

The biomarker doesn’t mean a person has heart failure but can indicate increased stress on the heart muscle.