The Secret Behind the Weight Gain-Inflammation Connection

Amy Shah
by Amy Shah
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The Secret Behind the Weight Gain-Inflammation Connection

When we think about inflammation, we often think of it as helping us heal from an obvious injury (like a wound) or fighting harmful bacteria. This is good inflammation working in our favor to keep us healthy. But on the flip side, when the immune system is too active, it can make us sick.

We know that major chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, are linked to weight gain, but did you ever wonder how those diseases and inflammation are all intertwined?

Understanding inflammation, especially “bad” inflammation, will help explain this link.


Inflammation is a process you can’t actually see, so how do you know if it’s “good” or “bad”?

Think about the last time you got a bruise. The blood and fluid that rushed in to create that purplish swollen area is the definition of inflammation. As you heal, inflammation subsides and eventually goes away. This is how “good” inflammation is supposed to happen.

But sometimes inflammation can get us into trouble. An example: an allergy where our immune system overreacts to relatively harmless foods (think: peanut butter, shellfish, eggs) or substances (think: pollen, dust, latex).

Poor habits like eating an unhealthy diet, not exercising enough and consuming too much sugar can contribute to a bad type of inflammation called “chronic” inflammation. These habits turn the immune system “on” and help it stay activated for a long period of time. Along with other factors, chronic inflammation can lead to chronic illness.



The way our immune system reacts to smoking and stress increases our risk for heart disease. How? Smoking and stress damage cells and activate your immune system, leading to a low level of chronic inflammation. Over time, chronic inflammation makes your arteries more likely to collect plaque, which stiffens and clogs them, and can lead to heart disease.

Chronic inflammation contributes to type 2 diabetes by worsening “insulin resistance,” a condition where your body produces insulin but your cells don’t respond to it very well so your blood sugar stays abnormally high. How does chronic inflammation do this? Simply put, fat cells are capable of creating chemical signals that lead to chronic inflammation. But they mainly do so when you habitually eat too many calories and sugar. These chemical signals also mess with the way that insulin works in our bodies, aggravating insulin resistance.


If fat cells can contribute to chronic inflammation, then it’s reasonable to expect that weight gain, especially in the form of fat tissue, also contributes to chronic inflammation. As we gain weight, some fat cells expand beyond their capacity while trying to do their job storing our extra calories as fat. When this happens, they turn on and add to the inflammation already present in our bodies. At this point, these cells aren’t just fat storage warehouses—they’re like little inflammation factories, sending out signals to activate the immune system. Losing weight allows the fat cells to shrink back to a more normal size and turns off the signals that trigger chronic inflammation.

A study from the UK published in 2008 shows that chronic inflammation is linked to weight gain. Researchers followed people over nine years and monitored things like their weight gain and blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a chemical that shows up when the immune system is activated.

They found something interesting: Weight increases were associated with more inflammation, and the relationship was linear. This means that as a person’s weight increased, so did the level of CRP in their blood. This relationship between weight and inflammation suggests losing weight should help—and some studies prove this.

One study published in 2004 by Wake Forest University in North Carolina, involving more than 250 people, found that inflammation decreased among participants who went on a low-calorie diet to lose weight. Since losing weight helps decrease inflammation, it may also keep our chronic-illness risk at bay, although more studies are needed to prove this link.


Changing your diet and losing weight are two of the best ways to lower inflammation. Here are some tips:


Eating antioxidant- and polyphenol-rich foods can cut down on inflammation by reducing “free-radical damage.” Free radicals are generated by the body when it’s in a state of stress. If the immune system becomes overwhelmed by free radicals, cells are harmed and inflammation gets worse. Antioxidants and polyphenols are great for fighting that process. To get them, try drinking green tea and eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies; here are some examples of what to reach for: broccoli, kale, collards, rutabaga, turnips, berries.


Getting a good ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is important for reducing inflammation. Most of us consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, so the key to balancing things is to increase omega-3 intake. Omega-6-heavy foods like seeds and nuts and their oils, and refined vegetable oils (used in many snack foods, crackers, cookies, etc.), tend to stir up inflammation, while foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, flax and chia seeds, avocado and walnuts dampen it.


Turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and ginger have all been shown in studies to have anti-inflammatory properties. You can’t overdo these, so sprinkle them liberally onto your food.


Moving around releases a burst of anti-inflammatory proteins from the cells to the rest of the body. However, moderate exercise is key. An example of moderate exercise is 45–60 minutes of cardio, such as walking or jogging, about three times a week.


Cortisol, the so-called “stress” hormone, wears many other hats, including regulating the immune response. Reducing stress helps to keep hormones like cortisol under control and that, in turn, helps lower inflammation.


Lack of sleep makes the body ripe for infection, while more sleep has the opposite effect. A review of several studies published in 2008 found that sleeping less than eight hours a night was linked to weight gain. There is a complex yet harmonious dance occurring in your body during restful sleep; this strengthens your immune system in a good way.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

About the Author

Amy Shah
Amy Shah

Amy is a medical doctor specializing in food allergies and inflammation. She combines her nutrition background with medical training from Harvard and Columbia hospitals to provide a unique take on wellness. Check out her special free gift for MyFitnessPal users.


88 responses to “The Secret Behind the Weight Gain-Inflammation Connection”

  1. Jeff D says:

    Very good info. I had a bad case of tendonitis in my elbow that I had a hell of time trying to get rid of. I went to my Dr and I expected that he was going to give me a shot of cortisone. To my surprise he told me to take Turmeric twice a day with food. He had me taking 2000mg a day. Within 1 month it was dramatically better. Now my workouts are back to normal. Amazing what simple changes in diet can do to your body!

  2. Northwoods Dan says:

    Very good article. It’s an underrated issue. Thanks for discussing it.

  3. Jade Crowley says:

    Thanks for info, very useful.

  4. tjonesdixon says:

    Actually, you can overdo cinnamon. The most common supermarket cinnamon is high in cumarin which, when taken to excess, can adversely affect the liver and kidneys. So the recommended amount is less than 1tsp per day. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is OK.

  5. Delores says:

    I’m glad u put this up and I find it really helpful

    • janet Annaian says:

      Who ever has thyroid problem please check on computer about the fruit call.
      Chayote i read about it its good for thyroid,high blood pressure so on just check it.

  6. Clarice Peterson says:

    Thanks for this article! I restricted a LOT of the foods that were causing my inflammatory condition & lost 35 pounds last summer! Unfortunately, the foods that I am sensitive to include, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, cayenne, paprika, peppers (the “nightshade” fruits & vegies)! Please advise readers to pay attention to their own bodies when doing an “elimination” diet, to see what is causing their inflammation.

  7. Melanie Tucker says:

    I have started drinking the mixture below each morning & I think it’s really helping! I’d love your opinion on this ‘concoction’ and if there is anything unecessary in there!

    2 tbsp Bragg’s ACV
    1 tbsp black strap molasses
    1/4 tsp turmeric
    1/4 tsp cinnamon
    Juice from 1/2 lemon
    8 oz warm water

  8. Sharon Bird says:

    Coffee is supposed to have two and a half times the polyphenols and antioxidants of green tea. Studies show that 3-6 cups of Joe a day increases average life span. The life span benefits appeared to be linearly proportional to cups a day (6 cups had twice the benefit of 3).

  9. Kathryn says:

    I agree that this is a great article. However, in addition to weight gain, chronic gut inflammation can also cause havoc on one’s endocrine system (different hormones) to cause lots of things to get out of whack (imbalance). The efforts to get everything back in balance is unfortunately, not as easy as one would like. I have first hand experience with this and am still “unraveling” the intricate puzzle. Every “body” is different so what may work for one person may not work for another. Recommended foods, drinks, and other items need to be evaluated/monitored since one’s body may not like/want those things. The key is to really be in tune with your body. I am optimistic that I will get to the bottom of my “adventure” and will be able to share my experiences with others.

  10. Melanie Manos says:

    I have Hashi also. You can still eat those food just have to steam or cook them takes the goitrogenic properties out of them.

  11. Meridian King says:

    Correct. Carbohydrates (even “complex”) cause inflammation. It is the reason even 5,000 year old mummies had evidence of heart disease. It’s all about the inflammation.

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  12. John Dolan says:

    Great info Amy! I’m going to share this on my health & wellness blog.

  13. Z24Cav says:

    No mention of ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory either.

  14. Z24Cav says:

    No mention of ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory either.

  15. Karen Phillipp says:

    I love my coffee, too. I add cinnamon every morning to it.
    NO more than 2 cups per day for me.

  16. Charlie Christ says:

    I was thinking the same thing about grains and yes especially wheat when I read this article.


  17. CEF says:

    Good article overall, but there should be a caveat on cayenne. It is a nightshade, which leads to arthritis for some people! My arthritis went away when I stopped eating nightshades. Most articles on “healthy” eating encourage people to eat nightshades without any warning that they could cause a crippling and painful disease.

    • Clarice Peterson says:

      I agree completely! (I wrote something about my own experience earlier in these comments)! My doctor who had been treating me for years didn’t know about “nightshades”, but she gasped when she saw how much weight I lost when I stopped using them! She was going to recommend my “elimination diet” to another patient of hers who has been having similar problems with inflammation!

    • Paula says:

      I have heard this before about nightshades. What are nightshades & is there a list of them I can print out & keep on hand?

      • Clarice Peterson says:

        Paula, I hope you don’t mind if I give an answer to your question. “Nightshades” (also known as belladonna) are foods like, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cayenne, paprika (hidden in ALL kinds of processed foods), berries, etc… I have NOT been able to find a full list of all of them on line! (I made the mistake of eating blackberries because they weren’t on any list, and after a terrible reaction, found that they ARE also included! Even blueberries ACT like nightshades to some people. It’s crazy! You could go to a doctor and get an allergy test ($300) or try an “elimination diet” on your own. It’s “trial & error” at this point for me. I am also sensitive to something called “salicylates”, which is a whole other list of foods! Good luck to you, I know that being your own advocate is the key.

  18. Felita Viruet Delikat says:

    I am surprise no mention specifically pineapple and walnuts I use as anti immflam
    instead of motrin I make pineapple walnut salad and eat with dash cayenne pep
    works great

  19. Heather Morrison-Cyr says:

    Help, I am SOOO confused. I have been diagnosed with having a highly sensitive thyroid and as such it is recommended I stay away from many foods (gluten, soy, dairy, SUGAR) including cruciferous vegetables such as kale and broccoli. YET, I have been told that hypothyroidism can be caused by inflammation and anti-inflammatory foods include cruciferous vegetables. So I’m not quite sure what to do.

    • Sarah Sanders says:

      Hi Heather, do you have a sensitive thyroid in the hyper or hypo direction? Just want to clarify. Have you talked with your doctor about taking an iodine supplement? I lean towards hypothyroid. I started on an iodine supplement and now I have more energy and better digestion than I have in years. I actually tapered off the supplement and now only take it every couple of days, just as a booster. It changed my life. While it is true that cruciferous veggies are “antagonistic” to the thyroid, their health benefits outweigh that effect. If you are on an iodine supplement, that effect can be cancelled out.

      • Heather Morrison-Cyr says:

        Sarah, thank you for responding. I lean (heavily) towards hypothyroid. I am on an iodine supplement and I am very happy that you mentioned using it can cancel out the antagonistic effects of cruciferous vegetables. I had not heard that, but then that is why I keep researching and reading about thyroid issues. I look forward to eating sautéed kale with hot sauce very soon.

        Thanks again 🙂

    • Vnus5 says:

      My understanding is that it’s only RAW cruciferous that is a problem for thyroid. Steam it a bit and it should be fine.

  20. Morgan says:

    Common sources of red meat such as beef, lamb and pork have a sugar called N- glycolylneuraminic acid that the human body is not born with. When consuming red meat, the body sends antibodies in order to fight against this foreign substance. Thus, diseases like type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer are five times more likely to occur. Research it; it’s very interesting!

    • Kaja Lafleur says:

      Morgan, most beef, pork, and lamb are fed grains which increase the omega6 to omega 3 ratio 24 to 1, which is where inflammation is caused when consumed. Therefore leading to heart disease and cancer, among other diseases. It’s best to eat grass fed meats and wild caught seafood to keep inflammation down and not fear developing any kind of disease. Doesn’t mean you can over due it though, but it is a much better way to have your proteins.

  21. Valerie says:

    Great article! My doc has been monitoring my C-reactive protein numbers. They are unusually high but my other cardiac numbers (cholesterol, etc.) are good. Ever since I started a high-stress job, plus entering menopause, my weight has increased 30 pounds (past 3 years) without any change in diet or decrease in exercise. I am drinking a turmeric based tea before bed and spend my days drinking cayenne/lemon water. I go again for blood work in December. Let’s hope those C-reactive numbers decrease! I am convinced of the stress related connection.

    • trickytrixie says:

      High CRP with normal lipids could be a sign of an autoimmune disease. Like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus or something similar. You should discuss w/your doctor just exactly what he is looking for.

      • Valerie says:

        Thanks for the information — I have not been diagnosed with any other autoimmunity and have no symptoms. I am going to see a gastro doc to rule out IBS, etc.

  22. Sarah Sanders says:

    I’m not sure I’d call 45-60 minutes of jogging “moderate exercise”. I suppose that depends on who you are. If you haven’t been exercising, something like yoga and walking would probably be a better idea. Yoga is amazing for managing inflammation. For my recovery day after doing interval sprints, I do a 30 minute flexibility yoga routine. It heals all the soreness in my muscles virtually overnight!

  23. funkybro says:

    Just as an experiment I went on a totally strict Paleo diet for 45 days. I then had my comprehensive physical and the results were affirmative for the diet. Most notably, my PSA count returned to the very low level I had about ten years ago. The problem with Paleo is that it’s just so hard to keep it up. No bread means no sandwiches. No milk takes away ice cream, coffee creamer, yogurt and, of course milk, all of which I love. No legumes means no black eyed peas, no pinto beans, no field peas, all of which I love. No grains means no corn on the cob which tastes wonderful, especially when cooked on the grill. No sugar means, well, no sugar, and that takes away so many of life’s little pleasures such as cookies, cake and other tasty desserts. Also, no wine, no beer, just tequila. Eating just meat, vegetables and fruit (in moderation) is just too difficult to keep up for long.

    My solution has been to use the above sparingly, as a lifetime of deprivation is no recipe for long term adherence. The trick is to keep track of your “exceptions” for before you know it, the exceptions can easily become the “rule.”

  24. sasa says:

    I would like to read the 2008 publication from UK that you referenced. Could you please send it?

  25. Khal Sadiq says:

    Can you expand on this article to include autoinflammatory conditions such as FMF

  26. Diane says:

    I eat all of the things on the anti-inflammatory food list. I have fibromyalgia and changing my diet to a moderate Keto diet got rid of all of my pain and inflammation within 2 weeks of starting it. Have loss all of the excess weight that I gained with this condition. My blood tests have all come back normal and I am now back to a healthy weight and exercising 5 days a week.

    • Sheryl says:

      Hi Diane! Was just reading this article and all of the comments and your comment popped up saying “new comment” and I came back to read it. I too have the “UGLY ‘F’ word” and can’t get any relief and I also have RSD/CRPS (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy/Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome) and stay in excruciating pain 24/7!! I am so tired of these disorders having complete control over my body! And my life! The low quality of life I have has got to change! Please do share more about what you are doing to help with your fibromyalgia! Maybe if I can get one of these under control I could have a better quality of life. Thank you for any information you can provide!

    • Cindy Collins says:

      Diane, what is a “moderate” keto diet?

  27. Lynn Nappari says:

    I’m so happy to see this! I’ve already proven to myself the link between diet and inflammation, and I share my experience at every opportunity with those who I think may benefit from following an anti-inflammatory diet. I also tell health care practitioners about it and find some to be very interested while others seem to have an attitude of, “Oh, that’s nice. Well, it’s good if it works for you.”

    I first discovered the anti-inflammatory diet developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, which is recommended by the Arthritis Foundation and available on its web site – basically the same information you’ve provided, but in a “food pyramid” format.

    Adhering to the A-I diet makes a tremendous difference in the amount of pain I have from the osteoarthritis in both my knees that has deteriorated to the point of bone-on-bone. (I’m a “candidate” for knee replacements, but don’t want them.)

    Especially notable is that since I’ve become more mindful of this, I’ve realized that my pain increases proportionately to any amount of sugar I consume.

    As a Type 2 Diabetic, I knew there was some connection with insulin resistance, but not how significantly involved it is with weight gain. I’m looking forward to discussing this with my doctor at my next quarterly check-up.

    In the meantime, I’ll be sharing this article all over the place!

  28. elks says:

    As far as spices go, they are good but the statement that ‘you can’t overdo them’ is not true. As with anything you put in your body you must be aware of an interactions. Turmeric and cinnamon especially may interact with some medications and/or supplements, vitamins. Just check with your pharmacist first.

  29. Elliott Hankin says:

    Cinnamon has been found to cause liver problems if used too much. This is a recent find

  30. Cristin Callahan says:

    Are pickled vegtables (marinated in vinegar) considered fermented?

    • Vnus5 says:

      No. Vinegar is considered an inflammatory. Fermenting involves only salt brine and time. There are books on it.

  31. keepyourpower says:

    I eat most of the right foods, above, and I am still inflamed.

  32. Mary Bennett Knight says:

    It’s pretty simple…eat whole organic foods, drink water, exercise and get plenty of rest. Stay away from processed foods, “fast” foods and sodas. Get lots of fresh air and meditate daily. Life is good.

  33. Ellie says:

    nothing was said about coffee. pure coffee I found some from Germany, very good

  34. Shade Umbreon says:

    I don’t see a mention of lemongrass either, it being both a natural diuretic and anti-inflammatory. I drink a cup of ginger lemongrass tea every night, which not only helps me sleep, but keeps inflammation in my legs down [I suffer from both edema and general swelling in the legs].

  35. jenna says:

    I am on an anti inflammatory diet because I have auto immune diseases, I am feeling so much better and loosing weight,question,I am reading conflicting reports on eggs, can I eat organic omega 3 eggs? I cant afford allot of grass fed meats and need protein,thanks

  36. Christy says:

    Data taken from studies published in 2004 and 2008???? I would expect a physician to be citing more current studies if they want to be considered credible.

  37. Lidia says:

    Could you please make an article about bloating too?

  38. ron Dowers says:

    Glutten free diet,inflammation and lupus

  39. Vnus5 says:

    I was taking turmeric every day and found that it greatly aggravated my migraines. I discovered this by taking a doctor recommended curcumin “pain reliever” when I had one, and OMG the headache became so much worse. I stopped taking turmeric after that and had headaches less frequently. There is a list of foods high in “histamine” that aggravate inflammation in some people, and I appear to be one of them. On that list are turmeric, cinnamon, tomatoes, spinach, green tea, all tea, and a lot of other “anti-inflammatory” foods. Just Google it.

  40. BNgirl says:

    Ok…heard and agree, but this is my issue…I am in Menopause, but am very active (workout with weights, do cardio and also yoga and pilates at least 5 times a week). In the last month I have gained about 9 pounds. I am not sick, am eating all the right things and cannot get the weight off. I have been searching for answers and cannot seem to find anything that resonates except that I might be having a reaction to something that I have never had a reaction to before. If there are any women out there with similar situation, please post. I can use all the advice I can get. Thanks.

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  42. grayns says:

    That’s because it isn’t that simple. Grains do not present problems to all people.

  43. Lynda says:

    Do you have the UK study correlating cellular inflammation and weight loss resistance.?

  44. Abu Toyib says:

    Very good article and very useful. Thanks for discussing it.

  45. Abu Toyib says:

    Very good article and very useful. Thanks for discussing it.

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  48. Syahy says:

    Nice Information.. Keep Going! Thanks for sharing

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