Fighting Inflammation with Diet

If you have done any reading about essential fatty acids, you have probably come across the principle that the human body turns omega-6 essential fatty acids into the hormones that cause inflammation, and it turns omega-3 essential fatty acids into the hormones that regulate inflammation.

The common descriptor of both kinds of fatty acids is "essential." We have to have hormones that cause inflammation to get rid of infection-causing microbes and diseased or dead tissue, and we have to have hormones that keep the inflammatory hormones from doing more than their job. The problem is balance.

Also if you have done any reading about essential fatty acids, you have undoubtedly read that an ideal ratio of omega-6's to omega-3's in the diet is 1 to 1, that is, it is best to consume approximately equal amounts of both. The problem is that the modern diet is heavy on corn oil and soybean oil, and these fats are high in omega-6 fat with little or no omega-3 fat.

Because of the government subsidies on corn and soybeans in the United States, however, food manufacturers use enormous amounts of corn oil and soybean oil in every conceivable food product. This means that especially in the United States the modern diet can provide up to 30 times more omega-6 fat than omega-3 fat.

This makes every cell in the body churn out far more inflammatory hormones than anti-inflammatory hormones. It is not the entire or only reason that allergies, arthritis, atherosclerosis, asthma, gum disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and a plethora of other inflammatory diseases are so common in the modern world, especially in the parts of the world dominated by the United States, but it is a major reason for all those conditions.

And the answer, we are told, is to take our omega-3 supplements to begin to bring that 30 to 1 ratio closer to 1 to 1.

If you continue eating the same old foods, however, you are going to have to take an enormous amount of fish oil or microalgae DHA or krill oil to get your essential fatty acids back in balance. And essential fatty acids are just part of the problem.

The Cause of Inflammation the Experts Overlook

The frequently overlooked dietary cause of inflammation is sugar. Unless you consume your omega-6's and omega-3's in perfect balance, excess sugar can always tip the balance of hormone production in favor of inflammation. Sugar accelerates the creation of inflammatory hormones from omega-6 essential fatty acids and arachidonic acid, the fatty acid that is abundant in ham, sausage, bacon (do you remember a question about those foods in this article?), egg yolks, processed lunch meats, and margarine.

Sugar and Inflammation

Scientists estimate that before the year 1800, the average person consumed just 22 teaspoons of sugar per year. Now food industry experts tell us that the average person in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, or New Zealand consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.

Moreover, in North America, nearly 2/3 of all sugar calories come from high-fructose corn syrup. Food manufacturers like to use corn syrup because it is cheap (again, because of subsidies that encouraged turning much of North America into a giant seasonal forest of corn), and they like to use high-fructose corn syrup because fructose is sweeter than sugar and it keeps products moister while they sit on the shelf.

Heat and light destroy the antioxidant content of manufactured foods, but the fructose in the product keeps it from drying out so it tastes and feels fresh even if much of the nutritional value is quickly lost.

What Should You Eat Instead of Sugar?

Anyone can tell you to eat less sugar. But the one food that helps the most people overcome inflammation is an old standard that Americans simply don't have many chances to eat, rye.

It's not unusual for Americans to travel to Europe and report that they feel wonderful when they eat the food. For many, the dietary change is one they hardly notice, from eating lots of wheat to eating lots of rye. The anti-inflammatory effects of eating rye instead of wheat are so profound that a research team even organized a clinical study.

Rye, Wheat and Blood Sugar Levels

Scientists have known for a long time that wheat bread and wheat flour products raise blood sugar levels, and rye bread and rye flour products raise blood sugar levels, too. The difference between wheat and rye is that while both grains contain carbohydrates that become sugars, rye doesn't require as much additional insulin. The hormone insulin is highly inflammatory, so maybe eating rye instead of wheat would reduce inflammation. Scientists at the University of Kuopio in Finland decided to find out.

The Finnish research team recruited two groups of volunteers for a 12-week dietary intervention. Both groups were given food to take home with exactly the same amounts of protein, fat, essential fatty acids, carbohydrate, sugar, and fiber. One group got its carbs from wheat and potatoes, and the other got its carbs from rye.

At the beginning of the study, volunteers were asked to submit to a needle biopsy of their fat cells, which was repeated at the end of the twelve weeks.

The scientists then did genetic testing to see if changes in diet resulted in activation, or deactivation, of genes. The researchers found that replacing wheat and potatoes with rye bread and rye pasta resulted in changes to 71 genes that decreased the production of insulin and other inflammatory hormones.

They also found that eating just wheat and potatoes (most Finns eat at least some rye bread and rye pasta on a regular basis) resulted in changes to 62 genes that increased the production of insulin and other inflammatory hormones.

Even when calories were the same, essential fatty acids were the same, and sugars, protein, and fiber were the same, there was something highly inflammatory about wheat and potatoes and something highly anti-inflammatory about rye.

The group that had eaten rye for 12 weeks had smaller fat cells, and lower levels of an enzyme called hormone-sensitive lipase. This is the hormone that controls how insulin works in the body, and it also controls cholesterol production.

Just by replacing wheat and potatoes with rye, the rye eaters got many of the same benefits—and more—as people who take omega-3 essential fatty acid supplements and antioxidants or who go on reduced-calorie diets.

The Result of the Study

The point of this study is not that you should stop taking your omega-3's or antioxidants. The point of this study is that you may feel even better if you cut out wheat and potatoes. If you have not been able to stop eating fatty meats, and you just can't stop eating sweets, why not trying replacing wheat and potatoes with rye to see if that doesn't help? You might even discover you feel so good you don't need to feed your meat and sweets addictions and you will then feel even better.

A Special Note for Diabetics and Prediabetics

The Finnish study also found that oatmeal causes problems for people who are prediabetic. There is something about oats, wheat, and potatoes that activates the genes associated with stress. Stress hormones create a demand for stored sugar to be released by the liver that keeps the pancreas busy churning out insulin until eventually cells "burn out."

(Actually, these cells don't diet, they just start making a different hormone that raises blood sugar levels instead of lowering them.) If you know you have a "blood sugar problem" try cutting out wheat, potatoes, and oats and oatmeal to see if you don't improve.

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