Smoking and vegetable oils cause disease via exactly the same mechanism. We don’t force our children to smoke, so why are we forcing them to consume vegetable oils?
People who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer from heart disease than non-smokers. So it should not be surprising that researchers have concluded that the significant reduction in smoking over the last 50 years has been a major driver behind the parallel reduction in heart disease rates. Though you might be surprised to discover that until very recently, scientists have had no idea why that might be.
Cancer accounts for less than a third of deaths attributable to smoking whereas heart disease and stroke accounts for almost half. Lung cancer is an obvious consequence of inhaling a cloud of chemicals intentionally. But figuring out how that might be related to ‘clogged arteries’ has been a little tricky. And it hasn’t been made any easier by a fundamental error in our understanding of heart disease.
If your base assumption is that dietary saturated fat clogs up the arteries and causes heart disease, then it’s hard to see how smoking would make the slightest bit of difference. But in the last 15 years that simplistic explanation has been turned on its head. Yes, the immediate cause is blockage, but that blockage is the result of a process of inflammation and immune responses, not because a lump of bacon fat got stuck.
We now know that heart disease is caused by oxidative stress provoking an immune response which starts as damage to the arteries and can ultimately end in heart disease. And thanks to a decade of significant research in the area, we know that chemicals contained in cigarette smoke directly cause exactly the required state of oxidation, inflammation and immune response. Specifically, those chemicals are α,β-unsaturated aldehydes (aldehydes for short).
It turns out that burning tobacco is a really excellent way to produce aldehydes in seriously dangerous quantities. And inhaling the smoke produced is an almost perfect way to get them into our bloodstream. Once aldehydes are in our body, the damage they can cause extends way beyond heart disease. They are powerfully toxic carcinogens as well and likely (via sperm mutation) to play a primary role in the development of childhood cancers.
This is why the US surgeon general found in 2006 that smoking impacts nearly ‘every organ of the body’ and that there is ‘no risk-free level of exposure’ to cigarette smoke (even if you aren’t the one doing the smoking).
But intentionally sucking in aldehydes from burning grass isn’t the only way to come across them, we can also make them ourselves if we have too much omega-6 polyunsaturated fat in our diet. Vegetable oil made from seeds (Canola, Sunflower, Corn, Safflower, Grapeseed, Rice Bran and Soybean for example) -seed oils – are very high in omega-6 fats. When we eat those fats they are incorporated into every cell membrane in our body and create a state of oxidative stress which results in the production of these highly toxic aldehydes.
Ironically, the Heart Foundation’s misguided understanding of how heart disease worked has led them to tell us to consume more of the very substance which we now know causes it and most of the cancers which now afflict us. These seed oils are exactly the substances that the Heart Foundation has been telling us to consume instead of ‘artery clogging’ saturated fats for the last five decades. And we have dutifully done as we are told.
McDonald’s for example switched from frying in Beef Fat to Canola oil in 2004 after incessant pressure from the Heart Foundation. And KFC followed suit in 2012. Seed oils are now the primary source of fat in almost all food on the supermarket shelf, at the local snack bar and served in every restaurant.
While the aldehydes we make ourselves (from consuming too much seed oil) are devastating enough, it is now becoming abundantly clear that we can make them even more dangerous than they already are. All we need to do is heat them before we eat them.
A study released late 2015 found that when oils containing Omega-6 fats are heated at a normal cooking temperature (of 180⁰C), they create significant quantities of aldehydes. And each time the oil was re-used the concentration increased massively. The study showed that by the fifth day of oil re-use it had 5 times the concentration of these chemicals that it had on the first (which was already alarmingly high).
This is why we are now seeing lung cancer (for example) affect large numbers of people who have never smoked but who do cook with seed oils. And it also likely to be the reason why, even though the average smoker now smokes much less than the average smoker in the 1960s, they are much more likely to die from smoking related diseases.
The science has converged on a single unifying truth. Many cancers and heart disease are caused by aldehydes. And whether we encounter them by smoking, inhaling other people’s smoke, inhaling vapours from food frying or by eating the food cooked with those seed oils, the damage is the same and it is devastating.
None of this is speculation. It well established science that is being ignored by those we trust to advise us about our health. They are happy to accept that exposing us to cigarette smoke will cause heart disease and cancer. They are even happy to accept that it is a major risk factor for childhood cancer in children who have never been exposed to smoke. But when science tells us that seed oils work by exactly the same mechanism, they tell us to consume more. They might as well force us and our kids to have a 3 pack a day habit – and offer us a light.