Inflammation is a cause as well as a result of many health issues, from joint pain to fatigue to even heart disease and cancer. This is why it is of utmost importance to do everything possible to keep inflammation at bay. In this article I am going to discuss two of the most common dietary mistakes by which you can cause more inflammation and wreak havoc on your body. Not only are they very common, but they are also relatively easy to change.
It is now common knowledge that you should “watch” your trans fats intake, but the problem here is that the danger is being downplayed. Trans fats are made when an oil, usually vegetable, soy, or cottonseed, is heated up with a metal catalyst which changes its chemical structure. Extra hydrogen atoms are bubbled into hot oil to make it more stable for food preservation. Although very economical, it is not at all healthy. Trans fats do not exist in nature’s food oils. (Well, they do exist naturally in very, very, small amounts in dairy.) Saturated fats, which are chemically similar to hydrogenated fats do exist in nature. The human body has evolved through the centuries in an environment of saturated fats while processed hydrogenated fats and their unnatural “trans” form have only been introduced during the last century.
Trans fats look chemically similar to their natural fat counterparts, and this similarity confuses the body leading to very different outcomes. While the similar looking “cis fat,” such as flax oil or sesame oil will fight inflammation, a trans fat will cause and provoke inflammation.
Trans fats block receptors intended for cis fats, as well as inhibit important enzyme reactions from occurring. Interestingly, one of the ways many well known poisons work is also by blocking enzyme reactions. Call it a poison, or call it what you like, but the key is that this stuff really causes problems that even today are being underestimated by groups from doctors and nutritionists to the food industry. Just ten or so years ago, these groups were saying that trans fats were fine, citing their fabricated link to lowering cholesterol and heart disease. Recently they have realized that those findings are untrue, but rather than go from one extreme to the other and admit that they have no place in an individual’s diet, they state that moderation of the fats is fine. They realized their mistake, but are still reluctant to throw in the towel and state just how bad these fats are for you. Unfortunately they look at a balance between health and economics and it is just not economical to totally ban trans fats from foods.
Today people are being told to “limit” the amount of hydrogenated fats and that having some here and there in your PB & J sandwich or in the cookie snack is fine as long as you don’t go overboard. Although there is a wide gray area from limit to excess. But what people are not being told is that hydrogenated fats build up in your body as the half-life is a whopping 51 days! That means that 50% of the “little bit” of hydrogenated soy oil you ate in your cookie today is going to still be causing problems 51 days from now. 102 days from now, you will still be dealing with 25% of the trans fats. This stuff doesn’t just go away. You can see why eating a little bit here and there, even if it is just once or twice a week, can seriously affect you. After all, it’s still going to be breaking down over one year from the day you ate it. So moderation is not the key – elimination is!
Prostaglandins are fat-derived hormones that regulate and modify many body functions including inflammation. Hydrogenated fats block the ever so important anti-inflammatory effects of fats (found in flax and fish and nuts, seeds, veggies) from forming their respective anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Hydrogenated (trans) fats do not block the production of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins formed by the pro-inflammatory fats found in red meat, dairy, and shellfish. Therefore, combining any amount of hydrogenated fats with these pro-inflammatory fats leads to an inflammatory disaster as the pro-inflammatory fats are left unopposed by the anti-inflammatory fats.
Once inflammation is left out of control, one tends to turn to their ever favorite anti-inflammatory drug. These NSAIDs work by blocking both the pro-inflammatory as well as the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. This is very important to understand. When you take one of these drugs you block the production of both the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, as well as the pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Inflammation is reduced because of the high level of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Therefore, it is understandable to see that a diet containing trans fats provokes the inflammation which NSAIDs reduce. The NSAIDs also reduce the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, but usually due to the trans fat intake, these levels are already very low, regardless of an individual’s intake of certain healthy fats from flax, vegetables, or nuts and seeds.
Thus the double edged sword. After provoking inflammation by consuming even minute amounts of trans fats and trying to fight that inflammation with your favorite NSAID, further problems from the NSAID can arise. And these problems are more than the digestive problems you may have read about or heard from your local physician. Add to the list vitamin deficiencies, joint problems, and the fact that NSAIDs can cause more inflammation, which they many times do.
If you have a pain or discomfort that is relieved by a NSAID, from an aspirin to a “heavy hitter” drug available by prescription only, then consider yourself to have a fatty acid imbalance. Daily nagging symptoms, such as a headache, back pain, joint or muscle pain when running, and PMS, whose relief is sought from the swallowing of a pill, can many times be alleviated by adjusting the diet to provide the proper amounts of omega 3 and 6 fats and ridding the diet of hydrogenated fats. Maybe you have tried this with no success. If so, think back and ask yourself if you really stopped eating all trans fats for at least a couple months. Probably not. Due to the long half-life, you can’t expect results from eliminating trans fats for a week or two. And you almost surely will not see results if you just cut back on the hydrogenated fats to once or twice a week. It needs to be 100% elimination. The common saying I hear is, “It’s in everything.” To which I reply, “No, it’s in everything YOU eat.” There are plenty of substitutions to your favorite trans fat containing cookie or bread.
Hi, just wanted to say thanks for this helpful article. I have recently developed psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. I have started a paleo elimination diet (AIP) to try to eliminate the inflammation, but I’m not seeing any results yet (it’s only been two weeks) and am in pain, worrying about joint damage and whether I’m being stupid by not taking NSAIDs to mitigate. I found your information about the half-life of the trans fats I was consuming, and the damage done by NSAIDS, very reassuring.
Thank you! I work in a famous grocery store where there is a plethora of little snacks I never would buy laying around. I wear good shoes but have a couple of inflammation issues. Now I get it!
Hi Dr. Gangemi,
I wanted to ask your thoughts on saturated vs unsaturated fats. Obviously trans fats are bad, but I’ve also heard saturated fats are bad and unsaturated fats are good. Is this true? What’s the difference?
Dr. Stephen Gangemi says
That’s an old myth about saturated fats. They’re very stable in the body and fats like palmitic and stearic acid are very beneficial for the immune and hormonal systems – so are MCTs like lauric acid found in coconut oils. Of course you want to get these fats from a health source – particularly the animal fats (C16 and C18 as mentioned) – so grass fed, not grain fed meats and dairy sources.