News reports have alarmed the rising incidence of obesity and associated health risks in America for years. Obese people tend to live shorter lives than people of average weight. Obesity also increases a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Obesity is defined in part using body mass index (BMI) measurements. BMI measurements provide guidelines for a healthy weight range for a given person’s height, although a healthcare professional should be involved in determining the healthiest weight for each person as BMI does not measure body fat directly.
According to the CDC, obesity in the US had increased from 30.5% to 42.4% as of 2018, and the prevalence of severe obesity had increased from 4.7% to 9.2%. More than a third of Americans are likely to have a weight problem that can adversely affect their health.
Obesity is also a problem worldwide. The World Health Organization states that by 2016, 39% of adults were overweight and 13% were obese. These statistics are increasing. We could all benefit from a deeper understanding of obesity, why it is rising so noticeably, and how we can combat it in our diet.
Why people think a low-fat diet is healthy
In the 1950s, heart disease became a national problem. Scientific studies appeared to show a link between high-fat diets and high cholesterol, which in turn appeared to increase the risk of heart disease. Some scientists suggested a low-fat diet for those at risk for heart disease.
This ideology took off and gained momentum until in the 1980s doctors, the government, the food industry, and most of the media promoted low-fat, low-calorie diets to maintain a healthy heart and weight. Low-fat yogurt, milk, and other processed low-fat foods became the trend. But the percentage of the overweight population has only grown since then – alarmingly. Heart disease has not decreased either. Something must be missing.
It turns out that not all fats are created equal. The type of fat you eat is important. In fact, some fats can actually help you maintain a healthy weight and heart.
Essential Omega-3 Benefits
Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are called essential because the human body cannot produce them endogenously in sufficient amounts to maintain good health. In other words, we need to get omega-3s from food.
Three of the main types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA is found in foods like green leafy vegetables, avocados, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts and can also be taken as a supplement. EPA and DHA are found in fatty cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardine, as well as in fish oil, krill oil and algae additives.
Three of the most famous and important health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Heart health protection.
- Helps in lowering chronic inflammation.
- Support a healthy brain.
These are all compelling benefits, but is there another important benefit? Can Consuming Omega-3 Fatty Acids Also Help Maintain a Healthy Weight?
Omega 3 vs. Omega 6 fatty acids
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Our diet has changed dramatically in the last century. Not only do we eat a lot more processed sugar, but the type of fat we eat has changed too. This change is less noticeable, but it can just as much contribute to the global obesity problem. What happened is that the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fats that we consume has shifted.
Omega-6 fatty acids are another type of polyunsaturated fatty acid found in nuts and seeds, as well as in vegetable oils like corn or canola oil. In the past, Americans typically consumed the same amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids – a ratio of 1: 1. However, what has happened over the past 100 years is a sharp increase in our consumption of omega-6 fats . We are now consuming these fats in a ratio of around 16: 1. That means we are getting 16 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids!
Animals like cows that used to graze freely are now fed in feeding places and mainly consume grain – which is converted into omega-6 fats in animal tissues. Processed foods like crackers, bread and desserts usually contain inexpensive vegetable oils like corn, thistle or canola oil – also rich in omega-6 fats. Anyone who eats the standard American diet will most likely consume high amounts of omega-6 fats that are not necessarily balanced with similar amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Why the balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fats is important for weight management
Open Heart magazine noted in a 2016 editorial that omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce adipose tissue (also known as fat) and lead to weight loss. The editorial also notes that high levels of omega-6 fatty acids are linked to the risk of weight gain. The journal also emphasizes the relative importance of the two types of fatty acids, noting that higher concentrations of omega-3 fats compared to omega-6 fatty acids are associated with a decreased risk of obesity.
The same editorial also shows the effect of omega-6 fatty acids on leptin sensitivity. Leptin is a key hormone involved in regulating appetite and the feeling of satiety. Someone with reasonable leptin sensitivity instinctively knows when to stop eating. The editorial states that diets high in omega-6 fatty acids can increase the risk of leptin resistance, which can contribute to obesity.
Given the many ways our diets have changed over the past 100 years, it is clear that we can all benefit from greater awareness of the types of fat we eat. Big food hasn’t done us much good to maintain a healthy weight, despite the myriad of choices of low-fat, processed, and packaged ready meals.
Fortunately, once you’ve made the change, a diet high in omega-3 fats can be delicious and relatively easy. It’s a bit more expensive, but you might save the money on medical bills later. It means buying whole groceries, skipping the aisles with processed garbage, and cooking more at home.
Small changes can make a big difference – like choosing full-fat, grass-fed yogurt instead of low-fat, processed pink stuff with 54 grams of sugar! Choose avocado oil or coconut oil over canola or thistle. Load up avocados, walnuts, and eggs in the pasture, and bake some cookies with almond flour, coconut sugar, and grass-fed butter. Your heart, your waistline, and even your lifespan can thank you.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the Hasti Pilates studio and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork, and exercise practices to cure Lyme disease, chronic diseases, and pain.
Artemis P. Simopoulos, James J. DiNicolantonio. The importance of a balanced ω-6 to ω-3 ratio in the prevention and treatment of obesity. Open Heart Journal. 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2015-000385
Ann F. La Berge. How the Low Fat Ideology Conquered America. Oxford Academic Journal for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. February 23, 2008. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrn001