How inflammatory is your diet? Just check your omegas.

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Researchers believe that numerous diseases – from heart disease to Alzheimer’s[1] or cancer[2] – are either caused by chronic inflammation or influenced by it.

How inflammatory is your diet? Just check your omegas - SweetOnion.NetEven though it doesn’t sound that way, that’s good news, because we the people have control over how inflamed we are. It starts with our diet.

There are inflammatory foods – those that contain sugar, trans-fat or high levels of omega 6 fatty acids, and there are other foods that stem inflammation. Among them are foods high in omega 3 fatty acids.

In this post, I’ll give you a tool for determining how rich your diet is in one or the other.

Omega 6 to omega 3: an important ratio

Both omega 3 and omega 6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are essential fatty acids. This means two things. First, we need them, and second, we cannot produce them ourselves but have to ingest them with the food we eat.

Why would we need a substance – omega 6, specifically arachidonic acid – that doctors say make us inflamed? The answer is that inflammation is an integral part of our natural healing process.

Dr. Servan Schreiber, the author of the book Anticancer, describes the body’s inflammatory response:

As soon as a lesion – from shock, cutting, burning, poison, infection – affects a tissue, it is detected by blood platelets. As they gather around the damaged segment, they release a chemical substance – PDGF, or platelet-derived growth factor. PDGF alerts the white cells of the immune system. The white cells in turn produce a series of other transmitter substances. They have odd names and many effects. These cytokines, chemokines, prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes coordinate the repair operations. First, they dilate the vessels surrounding the damaged site to facilitate the influx of other immune cells called in as reinforcements. Next, they seal off the opening by provoking the coagulation of blood around the built-up pile of platelets. Then they render the neighboring tissue permeable so that the immune cells can enter and pursue the intruders wherever they may be. Finally, they trigger growth of the damaged tissue’s cells.[3]

Inflammation is therefore good, as long as it is localized and limited in duration. Problems arise when inflammation becomes chronic, and increasing numbers of researchers tell us that this happens when our ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is out of balance.

What balance is best?

Where exactly that balance should be is a matter of contention.

Supporters of the paleo diet assert that it should be 1:1.[4] Their reasoning is, roughly, that there was a middle-of-the-road “paleo man” who consumed a diet of 1:1 fatty acids. Since our genes are the same as his, we should follow in his nutritional footsteps. But the narrative of the average paleolithic hunter-gatherer has been successfully challenged[5] – it looks like our forebears were a diverse lot whose diet depended on where exactly they lived.

Other guidance comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization, an international organization under the umbrella of the United Nations. In 1994 it recommended an omega-6-to-3 ratio between 5:1 and 10:1. [6]

Kris-Etherton and colleagues, who published the journal article “Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Food Chain in the United States,” recommend a ratio of 2.3:1. They add that the government of Sweden has issued a recommendation for a 5:1 ratio.[7]

The German Society for Nutrition (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung) also recommends a ratio of 5:1 (linked page is in German).

Plant-based-nutrition expert Dr. Joel Fuhrman suggests to keep the proportion between 2:1 and 4:1.

Given that there is much talk about the need for balance but limited advice on what exactly such balance should look like, I come to the personal conclusion that 5:1 is a good ratio to aim for.

Unfortunately, most of us are far removed from that golden mean. According to Artemis Simonopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, people who consume modern Western diets have a ratio of 15:1 or higher.[8]

How can this be explained? Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona attributes out chronic state of inflammation to the highly processed foods we consume. He says that omega 6 fatty acids

are found in seeds and nuts, and the oils extracted from them. Refined vegetable oils, such as soy oil, are used in most of the snack foods, cookies, crackers, and sweets in the American diet as well as in fast food. Soybean oil alone is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods that an astounding 20 percent of the calories in the American diet are estimated to come from this single source.

Indeed, from the journal article by Kris-Etherton and colleagues in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition I computed an omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio for soybean oil of 11.6 (or 11.6:1), and a whopping 234 (or 234:1) ratio for cottonseed oil.[9] That same article states that in 1996, Americans consumed over six billion kilograms of soybean oil.[10] With a population of 270 million, that makes 49 pounds or 102 cups per person,[11] presumably much of it hidden in processed or deep fried foods.

Your Omega 6-to-3 balance sheet

Curious about the levels of omega 6 in my own, largely unprocessed diet, I came up with a table of 98 healthy, unprocessed or minimally processed food items available in the U.S. market.[12] Below I’ll share that table with you, so that you can evaluate the things you eat.

The 98 food items and the associated data on fatty acids comes from one of my favorite websites, The World’s Healthiest Foods, or whfoods.org. If you wonder from where they obtained their numbers, they come from the Food Processor by ESHA, a company specializing in nutrient analysis.

How should you use this data? Provided that you consume a mostly unprocessed diet – which is the prudent thing to do – you can use this table to estimate your own personal omega balance. Simply count how many cups of different foods you consume and add up their omega values.

If your diet contains a good amount of processed item, the table will give you an idea which unprocessed foods to introduce into your meal plan.

The data

So here’s the lowdown.

Vegetables

View table here

The table confirms what nutrition experts have been telling us all along: Vegetables are great for you. This is especially true for leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables – bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. They all score great at 1.0 or below (an exception is Swiss chard with a ratio of 4.0). This means that leafy greens are an excellent tool for balancing out other food items whose ratio is less favorable. So consume many of them!

The data also gives you a reason  for ditching your corn oil. Corn comes in at 45. Oil concentrates the fatty acids of the plants from which they are derived. So if you regularly use corn oil for sautéing, you increase your inflammatory profile without even noticing.

Fruits

View table here

The table tells us that you can’t go wrong eating fresh fruit. Papaya and cantaloupes have omega-6-to-3 ratios below one. All other listed fruits have good values too, with pears performing the poorest, with a ratio that is above 12.

So the general guideline is simple. As far as your omega-6-to-3 balance is concerned, eat fruits to your heart’s content.

Seafood

View table here

Now we get to animal products. As a plant-based person who only occasionally ventures off course, I do not advocate eating seafood.

But if you love fish or shrimp, you will find your habits confirmed, as the items listed here have great omega ratios. But note that these values apply only to wild-caught fish. Farm-raised fish is higher in omega 6.

Nuts and seeds

View table here

This came as a real surprise to me: Nuts and seeds may have all kinds of good qualities, but they also are inflammatory.

The worst offender is peanuts, with an omega-6-to-3 ratio exceeding 500. Peanuts are followed by almonds and sunflower seeds, both of which are in the 200s.

I am not sure how this jibes with the general message that nuts are great for you. I love nuts, but based on this data, I will cut back a bit and not reach to the peanut butter jar every time my blood sugar drops.

The good news is that walnuts have a balance of only 4, and flaxseed, the clear winner in the group, comes in at 0.3, which puts it in the same league as the leafy green vegetables.

So, if you don’t want to forego nuts, be sure to compensate with flaxseed to restore your omega balance.

Beans and legumes

View table here

Beans and legumes are good (lentil, dried peas, and miso) to very good (kidney, pinto, navy, and lima beans). The two outliers are tempeh, with a ratio of 20.4, and chickpeas, with a ratio of 26. But don’t give up on your hummus quite yet – just eat it with veggies rather than crackers, and you’ll be golden!

Poultry and meats

View table here

Ah, and here we come to the poor, factory-farmed animals that people in this country love to eat. It turns out that in terms of your omega balance, beef and lamb are good for you, but only if they are 100 percent grass-fed (and don’t be misled by labels such as pasture-raised. The label must state “100% grass-fed.” Otherwise, you’ll get beef that has spent the first few months of its life on pasture and the remaining months in a concentrated animal feeding operation). If these animals are raised on a diet of corn rather than grass, their omega balance is far worse than what you see in this table.

Eggs and dairy

View table here

What is true for meat is true for dairy: Milk, cheese, and yogurt must be grass-fed in order to provide a usable omega-6-to-3 balance. And don’t be misled into thinking that just because its omega balance is good, cheese is a health food that can eat in large amounts – it contains cholesterol and saturated fat. There is a reason why whfoods.org uses a portion size of one ounce!

Grains

View table here
Rye and barley have decent omega balances. The other grains have higher values in the teens to lower twenties. So have your whole-wheat bread, but make it one slice rather than two, and eat legumes for your next meal – they give you just as many carbohydrates at a fraction of omega 6.

 

What does all this mean?

If you eat a healthy balance of foods that consists of mostly fruits and vegetables, you are in good shape.

I asked myself “How would a person fare who ate her way through the food items listed in this table, one by one?” and answered it by adding up the omega 6 values and the omega 3 values and then computing the ratio. It came down to a healthy 4.8. That is what you would get if you made each of the 98 food items one percent of your diet.

Next, I asked, “How would a person fare who ate her way through all the plant-based options listed in this table, one by one?” The ratio I got was 6.1. It is higher than the ratio for the omnivorous option, but not by far. And if you nix both pumpkin seeds and peanuts from your menu, the ratio drops to 5.2.

But most of us don’t eat that varied a diet. I for one love peanuts and peanut butter, and I have been gorging on it more than I should have. Chances are that your eating habits are similarly skewed. So what should you do?

If you come down too high on omega 6, consider lowering your consumption of a particular “culprit” food item and replacing it with another from the same food group. Or, alternatively, increase your consumption of foods high in omega 3.

And keep in mind that even though a food item may be high in omega 6, it offers other benefits that cause whfoods.org to consider it a healthy food. The goal should therefore not be to eliminate food groups from your diet entirely (unless – and that’s my personal view – they are animal-based), but to consume a rich and varied diet that is balanced in its fatty acids.

Eating vegetables is challenging, I know. This is especially true if you have grown up among meat eaters. But the data is clear on this question: The more veggies you eat, the better off you’ll be. And upping your fruit consumption is beneficial, too.

And lastly: Remember to eat your flaxseed!

Works cited and notes

[1] Wyss-Coray, Tony, and Joseph Rogers. “Inflammation in Alzheimer disease—a brief review of the basic science and clinical literature.” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine 2, no. 1 (2012): 1-23. Find article here.

[2] Rakoff-Nahoum, Seth. “Cancer Issue: Why Cancer and Inflammation?.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 79, no. 3-4 (2006): 123-130. Find article here.

[3] Servan-Schreiber, David. Anticancer: A New Way of Life. New York, NY: Viking (Penguin Group) (2009). Kindle edition, Loc. 861.

[4] Simopoulos, Artemis P. “The Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids.” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56, no. 8 (2002): 365-379. Find article here.

[5] Jabr, Ferris. “How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked,” Scientific American, June 3, 2013. Find article here.

[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and World Health Organization. 1994. Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition: Report of a Joint Expert Consultation, Rome, 19-26 October 1993. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (Pages 6-7) Find source here.

[7] Kris-Etherton, Penny M., Denise Shaffer Taylor, Shaomei Yu-Poth, Peter Huth, Kristin Moriarty, Valerie Fishell, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Guixiang Zhao, and Terry D. Etherton. “Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Food Chain in the United States.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, no. 1 (2000): 179S-188S. (Page 184 S) Find source here.

[8] Simopoulos, Artemis P. “The Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids.” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 56, no. 8 (2002): 365-379. Find article here.

[9] Kris-Etherton, Penny M., Denise Shaffer Taylor, Shaomei Yu-Poth, Peter Huth, Kristin Moriarty, Valerie Fishell, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Guixiang Zhao, and Terry D. Etherton. “Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Food Chain in the United States.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, no. 1 (2000): 179S-188S. (Ratio computed from table 6) Find source here

[10] Kris-Etherton, Penny M., Denise Shaffer Taylor, Shaomei Yu-Poth, Peter Huth, Kristin Moriarty, Valerie Fishell, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Guixiang Zhao, and Terry D. Etherton. “Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Food Chain in the United States.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, no. 1 (2000): 179S-188S. (Table 7) Find source here

[11] I used this computer to convert pounds to cups: http://convert-to.com/565/soy-bean-oil-nutrition-info-and-amounts-conversion.html

[12] I omitted cremini mushrooms, fennel, and sea vegetables because omega data for these items were not listed, as well as seventeen listed herbs and spices.

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