It’s often taken as a matter of faith when natural healers or medical doctors say that diets that contain too much starch, sugar and unhealthy fat causes cancer, heart disease, depression, obesity, fibromyalgia, diabetes and rapid aging. However, while the connections between junk food/comfort food diets and the diseases they cause are numerous and complex, a few can be distilled down into key explanations that provide concrete examples as to how diet actually leads to disease.
Today, I want to talk about one narrow issue of inflammation.
In many parts of the world food is flavored using fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs and spices. In what we view as the healthiest diets, food isn’t only flavored using fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs and spices but those things comprise a good bulk of the dishes. Unfortunately, most of the calories in American cooking instead come from eating meals heavy in refined sugar and starches flavored with fats.
In American cooking, refined-starch foods (white rice, white potatoes, white flour) are usually flavored with omega 6 fatty acid-heavy fat. The fat-based flavorings popular in America include butter, cheese, bacon, mayonnaise and starch-and-fat-based gravies or sugar-and-fat-based icings and syrups. Another favorite American way of flavoring food with fat is to deep fry the food in fat, using fat for both flavor and texture. Thus we have macaroni and cheese, potato salad, macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, french fries, and bread-based fatty combos ranging from grilled cheese sandwiches to burgers.
We keep hearing how this junk food/comfort food diet leads to heart problems, cancer, and so on. Exactly how do they?
One of the many ways a junk food/comfort food meal poisons us is by creating the ideal conditions for inflammation in our bodies. A diet of the above-mentioned foods creates ideal conditions for chronic inflammation, when they are eaten together.
Inflammation and Disease
Inflammation is part of a normal wound-healing and growth process. Under abnormal dietary conditions, though, chronic inflammation destroys tissues in a number of ways, and facilitates the spread of tissue-damaging disorders.
Many diseases like coronary artery disease and cancer can be described as chronic inflammatory diseases because inflammation plays a key role in making the disease possible. In coronary artery disease, the cholesterol-laden plaques deposit on the artery walls as protective coverings over inflammation sites. The more inflammation, the more plaques deposit in an attempt to heal the patch of damaged tissue, and the more cholesterol builds up in that blood vessel. With cancer, inflammation is how cancer is able to disrupt and grow into surrounding healthy tissue (among other things). In both diseases, were it not for inflammation, the progression of the disease is limited, contained or stopped.
It’s not exaggerating to say that chronic inflammation is a factor in many of the lifestyle diseases that are considered epidemic today, and that the rise of these diseases in our society can be linked to the rise of chronic inflammation from diets based on cheap refined starches, fats and cheap factory farmed meats.
How exactly does eating a macaroni-and-cheese dinner lead to inflammation? Using that example, I can explain one pathway of inflammation. A single meal can create the conditions for a bout of unhealthy inflammation, especially meals containing lots of factory farmed animal fats and starch or sugar.
Insulin Spikes Lead to Production of Inflammatory Prostaglandins
Really simplified down, one can say that prostaglandin is a substance our body creates that is part of an inflammation response. Many pain relievers like Aspirin, Vioxx and other so-called “COX-1” and “COX-2” inhibitors, actually interfere with the production of prostaglandin and that’s how they reduce inflammation and pain. Prostaglandins are molecules that are part of one of our inflammation and pain responses.
Where do Prostaglandins come from?
When you eat a lot of sugar or refined starches (high glycemic index foods) your body deals with the resulting spike in your blood sugar from digesting those foods by releasing a lot of insulin to force your cells to absorb the glucose from your blood. In a nutshell, insulin leads to IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factors) and to the production of prostaglandins.
In the case of a junk food/comfort food diet or binge, this process of insulin production is so excessive as to be more than what your body needs. Your body will try producing more inflammation factors than is necessary due to excess insulin, leading to chronic inflammation problems, just as excess insulin leads to type II diabetes.
Prostaglandins Are Made From Omega 6 Fatty Acid
The overproduction of prostaglandins isn’t normally a problem in natural healthy (pre-Industrial era) lifestyles, even if you eat a lot of sweets and have a lot of insulin spikes. It takes another factor to overproduce prostaglandins, and that is excess omega-6 fatty acid.
In our factory farmed food universe today, where animals aren’t grass-fed and free-range, but are fed on cheaply grown grains and other unnatural feed heavy in omega 6 fats, the fats from those animals are in turn deficient in omega 3 fatty acids and heavy in omega 6 fatty acids. Thus, factory farmed dairy, beef, and their derivatives, as well as vegetable oils made from cheaply grown grains, are overloading our diet with omega 6 fatty acids, and we are deficient in omega 3 fatty acids. These factory farmed meats and dairy are considered inflammatory in part because omega 6 fatty acid is used to make inflammation molecules. For example, the prostaglandins that are produced by the body after insulin spikes are made out of omega 6 fatty acid.
When the so-called COX inhibitors like aspirin and Vioxx are inhibiting inflammation and pain, what they are doing is inhibiting cyclooxygenase, which is the enzyme used to convert arachidonic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid) into prostaglandins and other inflammation molecules.
With an unnatural excess of omega 6 fatty acids in our diets, we have more than enough arachidonic acid for our bodies to churn out excessive inflammation-related molecules to support the demand for inflammation molecules that pathologically excessive insulin triggers.
Inflammation on a Plate: Comfort Foods are High Glycemic Index Foods Flavored with Omega 6 Fats
So a diet high in high glycemic index refined starches and sugars combined with heavy use of omega 6 fats like butter, cheese, bacon, fatty meats, vegetable-oil based mayonnaise, is basically inflammation-on-a-plate. Each junk food/comfort food meal that is heavy in refined or dense starches, that are flavored with fats as Americans do when they cook, is an ideal way to feed inflammation as it contains both the insulin triggers for inflammation and the omega 6 fatty acids to make the prostaglandins with.
Inflammation-on-a-plate foods would be: macaroni and cheese, french fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, white bread sandwiches with mayonnaise or other dressings, macaroni salad, potato salad, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, white flour pizzas, fried foods, fried white rice, most foods containing butter and sugar or butter and flour, butter flavored popcorn, buttered corn, nachos and baked desserts. I.e. most American foods.
The above inflammation pathway is only one common way in which comfort food diets can poison us. There are actually many ways to explain the degenerative processes that junk food/comfort foods are associated with, that contribute to heart disease, cancer, aging, osteoporosis and other diseases.
If you have a chronic inflammatory disease, a doctor could prescribe aspirin, Vioxx, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or steroids to control inflammation. The currently popular fad prescription today, statins, are cholesterol lowering drugs thought to derive most of their benefit from an anti-inflammatory effect. However, these anti-inflammatories have serious side effects.
A natural healer or nutritional healer would simply say that to avoid inflammation, one way is to stop eating so much of the omega 6 fatty acid containing foods (i.e. cut out the factory farmed meats and dairy and vegetable oils), switch to healthy oils in a moderate-fat or low-fat diet, and switch to anti-inflammatory fruits, vegetables and spices to flavor your meals with instead of fats.
By moving away from the starches-fat-sugar-salt paradigm underlying bland, heavy comfort food cooking and learning to eat more fruits and vegetables, and learning to flavor your foods with herbs, spices, fresh fruits and veggies instead of fats, you can reduce the toll of chronic inflammation in your life.
Copyright Aspergirl/Andromeda 2009-2010