You’ve started dreaming up new ways to cook salmon. When you toss a salad, you sprinkle on some chopped walnuts. You’ve learned to love flaxseeds. So far, so good, but adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet is just the first step you should take to turn down the heat in your body. To gain total control over the damaging effects of chronic inflammation, cutting back on or eliminating certain foods may be just as important.
Which foods spark flames? Relax—you don’t have to give up chiles rellenos or any other tongue-searing dishes you may enjoy. The main inflammation inducers in most diets are less obvious—and more omnipresent. Some may be staples in your kitchen. Others you may not think much about unless you read the ingredient list on labels. All coax your body’s immune system into producing more inflammatory chemicals than it needs to defend itself, which could increase your risk of developing one of many debilitating chronic illnesses.
If the thought of avoiding certain foods leaves you feeling deprived, don’t worry. In some cases, the inflammation-inducing culprits described below have healthful counterparts that will fit nicely into your diet. In other instances, food processors have begun to replace such ingredients with safer alternatives.
Time for an oil change?
Omega-3 fatty acids may be nutritional superstars, but some nutritionists take a dimmer view of their fellow polyunsaturated fats—the omega-6 fatty acids, prominent in corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil. However, they’re not all bad by any means. After all, omega-6s aren’t considered “essential” or nothing—your body needs them for normal development and a strong immune system, among other roles. However, few of us need to worry about getting enough omega-6s, since deficiency of these fats is practically unheard of. Instead, some scientists say, our bodies suffer from oversupply.
Consider this: Our cave-dwelling ancestors consumed a diet that included roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Today, the typical American consumes at least 10 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Some experts, including Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., author of The Omega Diet, believe the ratio is even higher. “Our genes haven’t changed in 10,000 years,” says Dr. Simopoulos. “If you’re on the standard American diet, we know that you’re getting an enormous amount of omega-6 fatty acids.”
In fairness, some nutrition experts don’t believe that the ratio of essential fatty acids we consume is making us sick. Says Harvard’s Dr. Walter Willett, “It’s amazing how strong that myth seems to have become. There’s really no human evidence to support It and quite a bit to suggest that it’s not true. The ratio is really irrelevant.” For instance, population studies indicate that who replace saturated fats with either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat (which includes omega-6s) reduce their risk of heart disease, he notes.
However, other nutritionists feel that cutting back on our high intake of omega-6 may be as important as increasing our woefully low consumption of omega-3s. The imbalance creates problem, explain Dr. Simopoulos, because the human body processes both of these fats with the same enzymes. When omega-6s outnumber omega-3s, there are fewer enzymes around to process omega-3s, robbing the body of an inflammation fighter. What’s more, omega-6s provide the raw materials for the body to produce prostaglandins, which promote inflammation. (And that’s not all: A high intake of omega-6 may increase the risk of blood clots and cause LDL cholesterol to become oxidized, making it more likely to clog arteries.)
The solution? Dr. Simopoulos and other recommend banning corn oil from your kitchen, since it’s brimming with omega-6 fatty acids. Sunflower and safflower oil contain even more. As part of an overall plan to limit inflammation, you may want to consider replacing these cooking oils with olive, canola, peanut, or flaxseed oil.
Trans fats: “Metabolic poison”
If there’s still a debate over corn oil, there is no argument among scientists over the threat posed by another form of cooking oil, which is simply vegetable oil with added hydrogen. This molecular tweaking gives cooking oil a longer shelf life and other properties that make it ideal for use in packaged goods and fast foods. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also produces sinister compounds called trans fatty acids, which raise levels of LDL cholesterol and also seem to lower HDL cholesterol. Gram for gram, trans fat increase the risk of heart disease more than any other food ingredient, according to a review in the New England Journal of Medicine. No wonder Dr. Willett calls them metabolic poisons. Scientist now know that along with wreaking havoc on cholesterol, these fats increase the risk of a number of other diseases, including Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, and gallstones. Eating trans fats may even cause greater weight gain than eating other fats, according to one provocative study.
One reason trans fats have such far-reaching effects on the body appears to be that they ignite inflammation. It’s not clear why, but studies consistently show that eating foods that contain trans fats causes levels of inflammatory chemicals to soar. In one study, women who consumed the most foods containing trans fats had 73 percent more inflammation, as indicated by levels of CRP, than women who ate the least. By one estimate, cutting your intake of trans fats in half could lower inflammation enough to slash your risk of heart disease by 30 percent. Need another reason to curb your enthusiasm for cookies, chips, fast-food french fries, and other empty-calorie treats? You’ve got it, since these foods are the leading sources of trans fats in most diets. Some brands of margarine contain trans fats, too. A number of manufacturers have reduced or eliminated hydrogenated oils in their products, although they are still widely used in restaurants and food processing. Diet guidelines from the USDA recommend reducing your intake of trans fats to less than 1 percent of your daily calories. That means if you eat a typical American diet, you’re getting two or three times what you should.
Fighting inflammation: New reasons to follow old rules
Along with reconsidering which cooking oil you use and steering clear of trans fats, you can snuff out inflammation in your body even further by adhering to some familiar advice. People who keep their weight down, avoid saturated fat, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables live longer for many reasons. One of them, scientists now know, is that these steps help reduce inflammation. Following a bit of newer advice—choosing your carbohydrates wisely—seems to help, too.
Watch your weight
Scientists now know that fat cells do more than simply add flab to your hips and thighs. They constantly churn out proteins that affect your health, including several that promote inflammation. One study of 16,000 adults found that obese males were twice as likely to have elevated levels of inflammation compared to normal-size men. Obese women were six times more likely than slender women to have high CRP levels. Many scientists now believe that inflammation is a key reason people who struggle with weight suffer disproportionately from heart disease and diabetes.
Fortunately, shedding pounds appears to lower inflammation. In one 2006 study, for example, women who lost an average of 13 pounds lowered their CRP levels by an impressive 41 percent.
Give up hamburgers
You already know that the saturated fat in marbled meats and whole milk raises cholesterol, but it also increases inflammation, too. That’s because meat and dairy foods contain arachidonic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid that the body uses to form inflammatory proteins. What’s more, people who eat diets rich in saturated fats tend to pack on pounds in the midsection, giving them an apple-shaped silhouette. Studies in lab animals and humans suggest that this abdominal fat produces the most inflammation.
If you need to lose a few pounds, chalk up yet another reason to eat more fish and flax. Several studies show that circulating levels of chemicals that promote inflammation drop when overweight people consume omega-3 fatty acids.