FAT AND INFLAMMATION, HOW IT ALL WORKS
This post is for all the science lovers and knowledge seekers as we pick up where we left off, and dive deeper into fat.
If you need a quick refresher, read below. Otherwise, skip ahead!
There are two essential fats that can only be obtained from our diet: omega-6 and omega-3 (both polyunsaturated fats, PUFAs).
The Average American consumes excess omega-6 and saturated fat. This contributes to inflammation and increased risk for chronic illnesses such as Cardiovascular Disease, Hypertension, Diabetes, and Alzheimer's Disease.
For a review on categories and sources, click here.
And now, let's jump right in!
Ever heard of the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio? This ratio reveals a lot about the body's inflammatory status. Put simply, omega-6 fats activate inflammatory pathways in the body, whereas omega-3 fats (specifically EPA and DHA) activate anti-inflammatory pathways. Both are equally necessary for the function of health. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats should be between 2:1 to 4:1. What do you think it is for the average American? Approximately 15:1. Yikes! (Note: Researchers have proposed that this imbalanced ratio is a contributing factor to the rise in autoimmune disease diagnoses such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Crohn's Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc. The inflammatory response from the immune system is in overdrive.)
Why is it so high? As mentioned in my last post, rich sources of omega-6 fats are found in oils such as corn, cottonseed, and soybean as well as in meat, dairy, and eggs. (Note: The form found in oils is Linoleic Acid, LA. The form found in animal products is Arachidonic Acid, AA. LA gets converted to AA once consumed; AA is what directly activates inflammatory processes). Although essential, we get an abundance of omega-6 fats because they are found in most packaged foods. You'll often find one of those oils listed in the ingredient list. Additionally, with the protein craze going on (often overconsumed beyond needs), there is an increase in consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, further raising the omega-6 content in our diet.
While not accounted for in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, excess saturated fat exacerbates inflammation because it raises LDL levels. (Note: I didn't clarify this in my last post, but here's a quick breakdown of HDL and LDL. HDL and LDL are both "vehicles" of cholesterol. HDL removes cholesterol from the body, whereas LDL deposits cholesterol in areas of body for specific functions.) Elevated LDL levels leads to a buildup of cholesterol in your blood vessels where they shouldn't be. This leads to a cascade of events that result in inflammation and the production of free radicals that damage membranes in the body.
Thankfully, there are ways to manage excess inflammation. Below are some suggestions on ways to improve inflammatory status:
To combat the elevated ratio, you can do one of two things: 1) reduce omega-6 content in diet OR 2) consume more omega-3 fat (OR both).
Incorporate fresh foods when possible to reduce omega-6 intake from packaged foods.
Choose food sources rich in EPA/DHA (e.g. fish, seaweed, and algae) since EPA/DHA directly activate anti-inflammatory pathways. Plant sources of omega-3 (e.g. chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts), also known as ALA, are converted to EPA/DHA once in the body. However, the conversion is low. This is why vegetarians are recommended to take an algae extract supplement to ensure sufficient amounts of EPA/DHA.
Incorporate plant-based sources of protein such as soy, beans, lentils, and other legumes to reduce omega-6 content from animal sources of protein.
Choose meat and eggs that are grass-fed and pasture-raised. Their diet is different from corn-fed animals in two ways: 1) lower in omega-6 and 2) higher in omega-3. Since their diet is rich in omega-3s, we increase our own omega-3 content.
Consume a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and help to combat inflammation.
Now you understand how fat contributes to both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes. By being mindful of your fat sources, you can maintain a healthy balance. This is in no way meant to make you fearful of fat, but simply provide you with a better understanding of its roles. Again, each individual is different, and there isn't a one size fits all approach. The above recommendations are options for ways you can improve inflammatory status. Apply what works for you, and leave the rest!
Additional sources of info: