Until recently, heart disease was attributed to elevated blood cholesterol, which resulted in the recommendation to eat a low fat diet. Dr. Dwight Lundell, in the June issue of Prevent Disease, refutes this conventional wisdom. Lundell, who has performed over 5,000 open heart surgeries, points to the gathering body of evidence that heart disease is the direct result of inflammation in the artery wall. Without inflammation, cholesterol does not accumulate along the blood vessel walls, and would instead pass freely through the body. So the problem is not the presence of cholesterol, but the effect of inflammation that causes cholesterol to accumulate.
Dr. Lundell says that in every surgery he has conducted, the inner lining of the arteries of the heart were inflamed and irritated by the patient’s diet.
He makes the following analogy: “Take a moment to visualize rubbing a stiff brush repeatedly over soft skin until it becomes quite red and nearly bleeding. You kept this up several times a day, every day for five years. If you could tolerate this painful brushing, you would have a bleeding, swollen infected area that became worse with each repeated injury. This is a good way to visualize the inflammatory process that could be going on in your body right now.”
It’s not that inflammation in itself is a bad thing. It is the body’s natural reaction to foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, or other irritants including poisons or toxic substances. However, if the body is continuously exposed to irritants, chronic inflammation becomes debilitating.
What causes this irritation? The primary source is the food we eat. Our bodies are not designed to consume and digest many contemporary foods, especially diets high in processed carbohydrates such as sugar, corn syrup and flour, or overloaded in omega-6 oils like corn, sunflower and soybean oils. We think of these as our normal foods: breakfast cereal, bagels, potato chips, muffins, crackers, cookies, soft drinks and bread. Most of us have eaten these foods for our entire lives.
Eating sugars and flours causes blood sugar to rise precipitously. Our bodies are designed to constrain blood sugar within a very tight range. When our blood sugar spikes up, the pancreas release insulin to drive the sugar into our cells to be stored as energy. Once the cells are full, the extra sugars begin a process of conversion into fat. However, in the bodies effort to immediately regulate the amount of sugar in the blood, the body also binds many of the extra sugars to a number of proteins that act as sandpaper abrading the inside of the blood vessel walls. The overloaded fat cells also dump inflammatory chemicals into the bloodstream. So, if you eat sugar and flour several times a day, as is the norm in most people’s diets, your blood vessels are continuously irritated and inflamed.
Exacerbating the impact of refined carbohydrates, most of us are also eating an excess of omega-6 oils. These oils are used in processed and prepared foods because they have a more stable shelf life. However, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in modern diet typically runs from 15:1 or 30:1, whereas optimal is considered 3:1. Both of these oils are essential to the body, but when the ration is out of balance the cell membranes produce cytokines, another chemical that causes inflammation. In Dr. Lundell’s words, “The human body cannot process, nor was it designed to consume, foods packed with sugars and soaked in omega-6 oils.”
Gary Taubes, a fellow at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and author of “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” (Knopf; 257 pages; $24.95), supports this point of view. He followed the medically recommended diet of low fat and high carbohydrate consumption, and despite exercising an hour a day kept gaining weight. When he switched to a diet rich in animal fats but few carbohydrates, he lost 20 pounds in six weeks. He argues that it is not merely the number of calories eaten, but the type of calories that cause us to gain weight and develop heart disease. He claims, “It’s the most important issue in medicine today… It has done incalculable harm…Not only is this thinking at least partly responsible for the ever-growing numbers of obese and overweight people in the world – while directing attention away from the real reasons we get fat – but it has served to reinforce the perception that those who are fat have no one to blame but themselves.” He cites research that the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid (which suggests minimizing fats and emphasizing carbohydrates) is a dietary recommendation that does not reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
So what can you do to reduce chronic inflammation and weight gain? The answer is to eat a diet more closely approximating the foods eaten by our Pleistocene primate ancestors. In another book “Vital Man: Natural Health Care for Men at Midlife” Stephen Harrod Buhner makes the claim that, “Over the million years of our evolutionary history, human beings lived as a part of their forest and savanna homes. Normally human beings ate several hundred to several thousand plants each year as a regular part of their diet. Our human bodies have been used to that kind of food intake for at least a million years–they expect it and need it…[However,] in the industrialized nations we now eat from five to twelve vegetables per year.”
In hunting and gathering environments, our bodies craved fats and sugars because they were rare and nutrient dense. We needed as much of them as we could find. People that craved these foods tended to better survive hard times. However, with the advent of industrialized agriculture, we are awash in more highly refined oils and concentrated sugars than we are able to digest. In just a few generations we are facing burgeoning obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses resulting from the foods we eat.
I am reminded of the quote circulating on Facebook, “Our food system ignores our health, and our health system ignores our food.” We have deep genetic and cultural programming that have developed preferences and our food consumption habits into quite rigid and inflexible practices. Altering one’s diet is one of the most difficult changes a person can make in his or her life. However, improving our way of eating is often the single most important change we can make for feeling more alive and staying healthy.
Humastery has more information about eating well, and is forming a support group for people who are motivated to eat their way into greater health. To learn more about how you can find support for your dietary resolutions, CLICK HERE.