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Can Food Fight Inflammation? with Gabrielle Gambino

A clinical dietitian describes inflammation and discusses the foods that support heart health.

What does “inflammation” look like in our body? And can what we eat help to fight it? This week we answer those questions with Gabrielle Gambino, senior clinical dietician at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She specializes in nutrition for patients with heart failure, and as we explore ways to eat that help keep inflammation at bay, we get an inside look at what “heart healthy eating” really means.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from New York Presbyterian. I’m Faith Salie.

What does “inflammation” look like in our body? And can what we eat help to fight it? 

This week we answer those questions with Gabrielle Gambino, senior clinical dietician at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She  specializes in nutrition for patients with heart failure, and as we explore ways to eat that help keep inflammation at bay, we get an inside look at what “heart healthy eating” really means.

Faith: Gabrielle Gambino, thank you so much for joining us.

Gabrielle: Thank you so much for having me, Faith.

Faith: You usually work with patients on their heart health. Can you describe what heart healthy eating looks like?

Gabrielle: I try to tell my patients it’s different for everybody, but there are some main components to heart healthy eating that we all should be striving for. One of the most important things is the amount of fiber that you have per day. You know, the national guidelines tell us at least 20 grams per day of fiber, 20 to 25 or so is good to kind of bring down our cholesterol, clear our arteries. And help us keep regular. And another fun fact about fiber, which is gut health is now getting more studied in terms of inflammation. So, if we have great bacteria in our gut, the rest of our organs will work a little bit better. Studies are still trying to uncover exactly how this works and which bacteria is the best for us, but most of them are saying, eat more of that fiber, eat more of the fermented foods to give them the fuel that they need to continue doing the good work that they do. Kombucha is good, kimchi is good, even like sauerkraut. So that’s, that’s one component of heart healthy eating. We try to tell people to stick to two grams of sodium a day, and that’s really, really surprising once you start looking at labels to see how much salt is in anything you’re eating. 

Faith: I saw a study recently that said cutting a one teaspoon of salt from your diet each day can lower your top blood pressure reading as much as typical hypertension medication even if you don’t have high blood pressure. That’s significant. That’s a significant dietary change you can make.

Gabrielle: Yeah. It’s actually very surprising to think about that because a lot of people don’t know that one teaspoon of salt is about the amount that you need per day. And it’s an easy thing for you to try to start to do a little bit more of is just watching how much you throw into your recipes or, you know, when you’re sprinkling on top of your food before you eat it. It does really make an impact on your blood pressure.

Faith: So what can people do instead of salt? In lieu of salt, what do you recommend?

Gabrielle: So many flavoring opportunities. One thing that they could try doing is adding a little bit more tart flavors to their cooking. So things like lemon, things like lime, anything that can kind of give more of like a zing to their palate. And then, there’s other things like Mrs. Dash, if you like Mrs. Dash. They have a whole line of different types of variety of flavors that have zero sodium in them. And our patients really like to cook with them, because when you cook with them, the flavor kind of opens up more rather than just pouring something on top. But they’re really good tools to use in the kitchen.

Faith: You mentioned earlier that inflammation impacts gut health. Can you tell us more about inflammation and what that means in our body?

Gabrielle: Essentially, inflammation itself  is your body’s immune response to either a foreign invader or something internal that’s attacking it, so to speak. It’s like your surveillance system, so it’s a reaction of your cells. So in acute inflammation, Say, if you have the flu, or a cold, your body’s immune system is going to ramp up, and it’s gonna send out signals to your cells, and to your organs, to fight that invader. It gets hard when we have chronic inflammation and this is the buzzword. Chronic inflammation comes from something that is completely underlying in your body more than just a few days or maybe even like a few weeks.

Chronic inflammation causes this low grade response of the immune system that eventually leads to havoc within your cells. A lot of hormones are modified with low grade chronic inflammation and that could lead to hyperglycemia where your sugars are constantly elevated. It could lead to cellular lining damage.

So, for cardiovascular disease patients, when they have long term cardiovascular disease, the lining of their blood vessels are damaged, and that could lead to a whole sort of other cascade, So this is what we want to try to avoid. Even, fat cells themselves sometimes have been seen to lead to more chronic inflammation and just feed off of that. That’s what we try to avoid try to eliminate as much as we can from a nutrition standpoint.

Faith: Can we use food to help us combat inflammation?

Gabrielle: Items like non processed foods, things like our superfoods: nutrients in these foods are antioxidants. They’re anti-inflammatory and they try to help our body. bring down that level of cell havoc in our inside.

Faith: That’s vivid. Okay, I don’t want cell havoc, Gabrielle. Tell me what I can eat to stop my cells from going bananas. Hmm.

Gabrielle: We’re looking at fresh fruits, fresh vegetables things that aren’t processed by factories. Whole grain breads, whole grain rice Those types of foods are much better than what you would see in a package, like, chips, cookies, because those types of foods have a lot of preservatives in them. They have no fiber. They have a ton of sugar. And sugar is actually shown, dietary sugar, to contribute to low grade inflammation. So, we want to avoid those foods if we can. 

Faith: So we hear about superfoods, how do they fit into this?

Gabrielle: Superfoods are packed with antioxidants, polyphenols, all the good things that help us combat inflammation. These foods are like the megabuses of those types of nutrients and our bodies love them. 

Faith: Is there a list of superfoods and if we all just make sure we eat blueberries every day, or can we just add it to our diet to improve our health? Is that how it works? 

Gabrielle: I think the biggest thing to just remember is to keep as much color in your diet as possible, because all of these antioxidant foods, all these superfoods are very pigmented. They’re very vibrant in color. And that’s kind of where you know to go. So keeping that in mind, not having such a bland white rice and potato type of meal and adding some color in there can help you get more of those beautiful nutrients that your body needs.

Faith: What are your personal favorite superfoods?

Gabrielle: I do love acai. I think it’s a great flavor. Quinoa is another powerhouse of these nutrients that our body needs, and I love quinoa, so that’s another one that I really like to eat. My other favorite nutrient-rich foods that I enjoy eating a lot are sweet potatoes. They are packed with beta carotene, packed with fiber before you go work out or something that’s a really good food to have.

Faith: If something is nutrient rich or nutrient dense, what does that mean?

Gabrielle: Nutrient rich means that all of those vitamins, those minerals, those polyphenols, the fibers, essential nutrients that your body cannot make for itself, is in this food. These foods are kind of the most natural forms of themselves. You won’t see them on the shelves in boxes. Mostly you’ll see them around the periphery of the grocery store where all the fresh foods are. And they’re the ones that your body really, really loves to eat, really, really loves to digest and can use the most efficiently.

Faith: Fiber, fermented things, reduce salt, eat colorful things, stay to the periphery of the grocery store. Is there anything else that you really like to leave your heart patients with when you’re talking to them about food choices?

Gabrielle: I would just say be kind to yourself and look for ways to incorporate some of these healthful foods into your day to day and make it work for you. So don’t try to uphold your whole life and eat salads and all these foods that you don’t even like. Just trying to find ways to add these components in where it fits best.

Faith: Are there things younger people should consider about the ways they eat to improve their long term health? Because, you know, when we’re young we feel pretty invincible.

Gabrielle: I think sometimes when you’re younger, you think you can eat the same thing that’s very high in sugar, very high in fat, over and over again and not think anything of it. But trying to vbe more moderate in that approach and maybe add in a little bit of the extra healthy foods here and there to really get yourself used to that and to start to live a better life that can be more sustainable in the future.

Faith: How can people set themselves up for success if they’re not used to cooking?

Gabrielle: So, I think living in the city, a lot of us aren’t used to cooking and we’re very busy and either we aren’t exposed to how to cook when we’re younger or, whatever is happening in our lives. One thing to think about is setting a day, either on the weekend or some other day that you’re free, to prepare very easy bulk meals that are versatile.

So, if you go to the store and you get chicken breast and then you have a few vegetables you can pop in the oven. You can use that for certain types of meals throughout the week and just prepare it all on like a Sunday to be reheated for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. That’s a really good way to start cooking for yourself. It kind of takes away the time and all the labor involved in a weekday. And it gets you a little bit in that mindset of preparing things for yourself and not going to that seamless app every night.

And another thing to think about is maybe every once in a while, I actually do this myself, is going on social media and getting inspiration from other people I think is something that we can easily do on our in our spare time and try to find more options that work for us that way too.

Faith: Gabrielle Gambino, you’ve got a great heart. Thank you, thank you for sharing it with us, and thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Gabrielle: Of course. Thank you so much for having me again. This is wonderful.

Our many thanks to Gabrielle Gambino. I’m Faith Salie.

Health Matters is a production of NewYork-Presbyterian.

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Gabrielle: … like I’m from Pittsburgh, and I love ketchup I put it on literally everything it’s kind of disgusting

Faith: Okay. So let’s pause because I love ketchup too. And I know ketchup has a lot of sugar and it has a lot of salt and there’s other stuff in it, but I love ketchup. So what do you…you love ketchup too…

Gabrielle: I love ketchup.

Faith: So in real life, what do you do? You’ve got the, you’ve got the ketchup in your hand. Do you use it?

Gabrielle: Absolutely… but…

Faith: Mindfully, right?

Gabrielle: Exactly I use it mindfully.

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