Inflammation is essential for the healing and repair of bodily injuries and diseases. Unfortunately, like everything else in human life, too much inflammation over a too long period of time is, well, too much. Low-grade chronic inflammation predisposes you to every major disease you don’t want including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Research also shows that inflammation contributes to poor bone health, depression and anger disorders, and aggressive behaviors.
The first thing you need to know is that there are two kinds of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the short-term healing and repair response to injuries, pollutants, viruses or bacteria. Acute inflammation has many easily identifiable symptoms including swelling, pus, redness, heat, and soreness. Everyone knows how a cut on a finger is healed through the acute inflammation process.
Chronic inflammation is a long-term systemic response to a wide range of ongoing irritations to the body. The most common irritants are smoking, diet, prescription and non-prescription drugs, excessive alcohol consumption and gum disease. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation has no symptoms and can only be detected through a test for high levels of a bodily chemical called CRP (C-Reactive Protein). Chronic inflammation is always associated with obesity and has a direct relationship to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes).
These are the three types of foods that are most likely to contribute to chronic inflammation:
1. Consumption of refined (highly processed) carbohydrates and all drinks made with caloric sweeteners.
2. An imbalance and overconsumption of Omega-6 type polyunsaturated fats in relationship to Omega-3 type polyunsaturated fats
3. Consumption of man-made trans fats.
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of refined carbohydrates, which includes foods or drinks made with sugar and other caloric sweeteners and foods made with any kind of powdery flour (including wheat, potato, corn). Consider the results of the Nurses’ Health Study, an unusually large scale research project which began in 1984 with 75,500 healthy female nurses. By 1994 (10 years later), 761 nurses had either died of heart disease or were diagnosed with heart disease. When the nurses’ diets were examined, researchers found a statistical correlation between the women who consistently ate foods with a high glycemic diet (refined carbohydrates) and the presence of heart disease. In fact, the women who ate the most refined carbohydrates had double the risk of a heart attack.
“Sugar can play a role in inflammatory diseases,” says Dave Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Poor regulation of glucose and insulin is a breeding ground for inflammation.” Another problem with refined carbohydrates is the fact that these foods lead to the generation of more free radicals. A free radical is a rogue molecule that inflames blood vessels, stimulates the immune response and generates even more inflammation. And, of course, refined carbohydrates are the type of food most likely to lead to weight gain and an increase in girth, which is yet another stimulant for inflammation. In short, when it comes to inflammation, refined carbohydrates of any kind are a triple bad whammy.
Now let’s take a look at the impact of omega-6 type polyunsaturated oils on inflammation. Unsaturated fats are highly promoted by most public health organizations and other nutritional experts as a “heart healthy” fat. Because of this people tend to eat polyunsaturated fats and particularly polyunsaturated oils without concern. What’s not understood is the fact that there are two types of polyunsaturated fats, Omega-6 and Omega-3, and they have to be eaten in relatively equal balance to reap any health benefits. When the consumption of Omega-6 type fats overwhelms Omega-3 type fats, a deficiency is created. This deficiency disrupts the immune response and inflammation occurs. Inflammation is a natural, necessary part of the immune response, but it can go wild.
Omega-6 and Omega-3 are also called linolenic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Both are essential fats, which means the body can’t manufacture these substances, and they have to be eaten. The problem is that Omega-3 type fats are not common in the western diet, whereas Omega-6 type fats are promoted as a health food, and they’re the dominant type of fat used in fast foods and packaged foods. The best source for Omega-3 type fats is cold water fish. Less ideally, Omega-3’s can also be derived from plant-baed sources like flaxseeds and walnuts. The most common source of Omega-6 type fats are polyunsaturated oils such as generic vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil.
Consider the Israeli Paradox. A paradox, by the way, is a situation where the actual outcome is different than the expected outcome. The Israeli Paradox was identified in 1996 to describe the a relatively high incidence of coronary heart disease found among Israeli Jews despite low saturated fat consumption (the so-called bad fat) and high polyunsaturated fat consumption (the so-called good fat).
Researchers suggest the paradox has to do with Israel’s high intake of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. “Little butter is consumed in Israel, but large quantities of soybean, corn and safflower oil are..” In fact, Israel has one of the highest dietary polyunsaturated/saturated fat ratios in the world. The consumption of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats is about 8% higher than in the USA and 10-12% higher than most European countries. “Israelies eat less animal fat and cholesterol and fewer calories than Americans, but they have comparable rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many cancers. They have an ideal diet, as far as the American food pyramid is concerned, but far from ideal health.”
And lastly, we have man-made trans fats. Scientists, health experts and health organizations around the world universally agree that man-made trans fats are a highly toxic substance that should be removed from the world’s food supply. In 2015 the US FDA determined that trans fats were no longer GRAS (generally recognized as safe), and they established a schedule to have them removed from our food supply by 2018. Unfortunately, a move is underfoot by food manufacturers and other powerful associations to repeal this ban because the amounts of trans fats being used are alleged to be minuscule and harmless.
Trans fats are always made from liquid polyunsaturated oil (usually soybean oil). A process called partial hydrogenation is used to convert the liquid oil into a hard substance. It’s important to know and recognize the partial hydrogenation term because food manufacturers will not announce that a trans fat is in their product, but they’re mandated by law to state that a partially hydrogenated substance is an ingredient in the prepared food.
In addition to looking at the all important ingredients list for the partially hydrogenated term, some foods offer visual clues about whether or not they’re made with trans fats. Peanut butters, for example, are a good example. The peanut butters made with trans fats are completely emulsified and do not have a tell0tale ring of liquid at the top of the jar. Compare this to peanut butters made without trans fats which always have a layer of oil at the top of the jar which needs to be manually mixed back into the peanut butter. The presence of trans fats makes the peanut butter harder and more solid.
As it turns out, the hardening characteristic is an irritant to the body, and this is what makes trans fats so toxic and undesirable. After you eat something made with trans fats, the hardened molecules do not break down Instead they travel through your blood vessels, potentially leaving little nicks and tears as they move along. These abrasions provoke an inflammation response, which includes the call for LDL cholesterol to cover up the injury. The waxy cholesterol covers up the nick in the same helpful way that a scab covers up a booboo on the skin. Over time, however, the cholesterol continues to collect and contributes to blockages. One of the most interesting new nutritional theories is the idea that high LDL cholesterol might be a protective response to inflammation.
There’s one other issue concerning trans fats to be aware of. Stove top cooking with Omega-6 polyunsaturated oils can also be unhealthy. The application of very high heat has the potential to inadvertently convert the oil to a trans fat. High heat also releases free radicals which, as we already discussed, provoke inflammation. When cooking at home, it’s safest to choose oils that have a high percentage of monounsaturated fat and a low percentage of polyunsaturated fat like olive oil or high heat canola oil. Avoid vegetable oil (which is probably soy or a soy blend) and corn oil. Olive oil is widely recognized as a protective, healthy fat and a key ingredient in the Mediterranean diet.