When it comes to your health, inflammation is public enemy number one. The more doctors learn about it, the more they realize just how destructive it really is.
That's the bad news. The good news is you can reduce the inflammation inside your body by getting smart about what you eat.
No matter what type of health problem you're facing, chances are, it began with inflammation. This internal irritation causes our whole body to break down.
What Causes Inflammation?
One of America's leading experts on preventive medicine, Dr. Michael Roizen is the chairman of the world-famous Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute and the author of numerous best-selling books.He is also cofounder of the wildly successful RealAge, Inc.
Roizen said the latest research indicates inflammation is at the root of nearly every medical problem, whether it's mild or severe.
"Whether you have a wrinkle in your skin caused by an artery being inflamed, or a wrinkle in your heart: a heart attack, or impotence, it's really the same process," he explained. "And it's all caused, or at least it starts with, that inflammation in your artery."
Roizen said inflammation is the silent killer that has eluded the medical community for years.
"It's only recently that we've understood that it has a role, and only recently that it has an important or prominent role in causing diseases such as cancer, or causing diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, or of causing the infectious diseases getting out of control that we now have," he said.
Doctors like Roizen are certain that inflammation is the source of many health problems, but that begs the question, "What causes inflammation?"
The answer: mostly an unhealthy diet. An unhealthy, highly inflammatory diet is one that includes sugary drinks, sweet food, and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, and rice.
Hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats, also promotes inflammation. They are found in packaged foods, fast food, margarine, shortening and most peanut butter.
The Omega-6 Culprit
The third highly inflammatory food group is omega-6 fats. Dr. Roizen described what happens when you eat too many omega-6 fats.
"(It) causes your arteries to get inflamed, causes your immune system to get inflamed, and decreases your ability to fight infections, decreases your ability to find cancer cells and get rid of them before they cause cancer, and increases inflammation and atherosclerosis in your arteries, so that's the omega-6s," he said.
Unfortunately, omega-6 fats are everywhere. We cook and bake with them; they're in packaged food, fast food, and restaurant food.
But if you know how to spot them on the store shelves and in the list of ingredients on various products, you can successfully avoid them.
Omega-6 fats are vegetable oils, such as soybean oil and corn oil, but also peanut oil, grape seed oil, cotton seed, safflower and sunflower oils.
So even though a certain food may contain zero dangerous trans fats, it may still be a bad choice because it's loaded with inflammatory omega-6 fats. A good example of this is store-bought salad dressing and mayonnaise.
Countering with Omega-3s
The truth is, eating omega-6 fats is technically okay as long as we eat an equal amount of omega-3 fats. The problem is, most Americans eat 25 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s and that imbalance is highly inflammatory.
Omega-3 fats mostly come from seafood, specifically fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon.
"The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is important, the higher the ratio, the more omega-6, or the less omega-3, the more inflammation," Roizen summed it up.
Unfortunately, there are only a few sources of omega-3 fats. Certain types of fish, or fish oil supplements, are the best. Other less potent sources are walnuts, ground flaxseed, dark green leafy vegetables, and eggs fortified with omega-3s. Grass-fed meat is also higher in omega-3s than grain-fed.
Olive oil is a great way to reduce inflammation, even though it's not technically an omega-3. It is it's cousin, Omega-9.
"0mega-3, omega-7, omega-9, we don't know why that oddness is good, but that oddness decreases inflammation," Roizen said.
But be careful not to get olive oil too hot.
"What happens with all the oils, once you get above their smoke point, is you denature them, " Roizen explained. "That is, you change their character."
"So instead of having an omega-9, they become a different oil, and in fact, they have a different structure that may not be healthy," he continued. "And in the case of olive oil, we don't believe it is healthy. So that's why you don't want to go above the smoke point of any of the oils."
So for optimal health, eat an anti-inflammatory diet, one that's low in sugar and other carbohydrates, trans fats, and omega-6 fats, but high in the odd-numbered fats, like omega-3, found in fish oil, omega-7, which is in macadamia nuts, and omega-9, found in olive oil.
*Original broadcast April 4, 2013.