Monday, June 6, 2011

Inflammation & the Other Oil Industry

In about 1980, while I was still a student in chiropractic college, I read an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about a particular type of dietary fat known as partially hydrogenated oil or trans fat.  I found the article quite troubling.  These trans fats were made by taking ordinary grain, seed and bean oils (such as corn, sunflower, soybean, safflower, peanut oils) and chemically altering them in a way that was mainly intended to extend shelf life.  Another perceived benefit of these fats was that they gave baked goods a texture and consistency similar to animal-based fats such as butter and lard.  The trans fats were considered to be a healthier alternative to the saturated animal fat as well as coconut oil, which is also a saturated fat.  For a quick explanation of how oils are partially hydrogenated, read this.

I do not believe there was any evil intent to create an especially unhealthy product when partially hydrogenated oils were invented.  I don’t believe their increased use was intended to cause harm.  However the research article I first read, which is now over 30 years-old, and almost three decades of more of research have proven these to be uniquely unhealthy.  Predictably, commercial food manufacturers and restaurants tried to ignore the damaging effects of these fats and tried to keep the public in the dark.  The edible oil industry (the other oil industry) apparently did not want to lose market share, even with public health at risk.
When these artificially created partially hydrogenated oils are present in your diet they are used like most everything else you eat; production of energy and as building blocks for growth and/or body repair.  In other words, the partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats become us. 

There were early indications that trans fats might raise blood levels of cholesterol to undesirable readings.  My concern, however, was that the trans fats were being incorporated into the cellular walls of virtually every cell in our bodies.  The artificial partially hydrogenated oils are incorporated in a manner that can interfere with important cellular processes, including those related to immune function and cell-to-cell communication.    Trans fats also appear to increase inflammation, including tumor necrosis factor (sTNF-R1, sTNF-R2).  This may be due to their interfering with the body’s production and use of other types of fats that decrease inflammation.

For many years it was difficult to figure out what foods had trans fats in them because they were not listed.  Only by reading the ingredient list could you find reference perhaps to partially hydrogenated soy or some other oil.  As soon as I received my license in 1982 I began advising patients to read food product labels and stay clear of vegetable shortening, margarine, peanut butter that needed no refrigeration and dozens of other commercially prepared products, all because they contained partially hydrogenated oils.

In spite of growing evidence of the health problems caused by partially hydrogenated oils, commercial oil manufacturers continued to promote these products as healthy.  They were particularly fond of saying foods made with partially hydrogenated oils have no cholesterol, a true but misleading statement as cholesterol in food has surprisingly little effect on blood levels of cholesterol.

Finally, over the past few years, use of partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats are being decreased by a combination of consumer pressure and government regulation. 

You can eliminate these inflammation-promoting fats by following some simple cooking and dining guidelines:
Use liquid oils such as olive oil or use naturally occurring saturated fats such as coconut oil or even lard. 

Avoid eating commercially prepared cookies, pies, donuts, snack foods and processed foods.   From the viewpoint of reducing inflammatory foods, cutting these foods out, even if they are made at home, will eliminate many other problem items which I will discuss in a later entry.
To avoid trans fats in restaurants, avoid deep-fried foods (many restaurants still use partially hydrogenated oils in fryers) and desserts.  This probably eliminates most fast-foods, which is another great step to reducing inflammatory foods beyond eliminating hydrogenated oils or trans fats.

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