News reports have been sounding the alarm about the increasing incidence of obesity and its corresponding health risks in America for years. Overweight people tend to live shorter lives than people of average weight. Being obese also increases a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure.
Obesity is defined in part by using Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements. BMI measurements offer guidelines for a healthy weight range given a person’s height, though a health care professional should be involved in determining the healthiest weight for each person individually, as BMI does not directly measure body fat.
According to the CDC, as of 2018 obesity in the USA had increased from 30.5% to 42.4%, and the prevalence of severe obesity had increased from 4.7% to 9.2%. So, more than a third of Americans likely suffer from a weight problem that may negatively affect their health.
Worldwide, obesity is a problem as well. The World Health Organization states that as of 2016, 39% of adults were overweight and 13% were obese. These statistics are rising. We could all benefit from a deeper understanding of obesity, why it’s rising so strikingly, and how to counter it in our diets.
Why People Think a Low-Fat Diet is Healthy
Back in the 1950s, heart disease became a national concern. Scientific studies seemed to show a link between high-fat diets and high cholesterol levels, which in turn seemed to increase risk for heart disease. Some scientists began suggesting a low-fat diet for those at risk of heart disease.
This ideology took off, gaining momentum, until by the 1980s physicians, the government, the food industry and most media were promoting a low-fat, low-calorie diet to maintain a healthy heart and weight. Low-fat yogurt, milk and other processed low-fat foods became the rage. But the percentage of the population who are obese has only grown since then – alarmingly so. And heart disease hasn’t decreased either. Something must be missing.
It turns out, not all fats are created equal. The kind of fat you eat matters. In fact, some fats may actually help you maintain a healthy weight and a healthy heart to boot.
Essential Omega 3 Benefits
Omega 3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s), termed essential because the human body can’t produce them endogenously in large enough quantities to sustain health. In other words, we need to get omega 3 fatty acids from foods.
Three of the most important types of omega 3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA can be found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, avocados, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts, and can also be taken as a supplement. EPA and DHA are found in cold water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, as well as in fish oil, krill oil and algae supplements.
Three of the best known and most important health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids are:
- Protecting heart health.
- Helping to lower chronic inflammation levels.
- Supporting a healthy brain.
These are certainly all compelling benefits, but is there yet another important benefit? Can omega 3 consumption also help with maintaining a healthy weight?
Omega 3 vs. Omega 6 Fatty Acids
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Our diets have changed drastically over the last century. Not only do we eat a whole lot more processed sugar, but the kind of fat we eat has changed as well. This change is less visible, but may contribute just as much to the world’s obesity problem. What’s happened is there’s been a shift in the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats that we consume.
Omega 6 fatty acids are another type of polyunsaturated fat, found in nuts and seeds, as well as vegetable oils such as corn or canola oil. In the past, Americans typically consumed an equal amount of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – a ratio of 1:1. What’s happened over the last 100 years, however, is a sharp increase in our consumption of omega 6 fats. We now consume these fats at a ratio of approximately 16:1. That means we’re getting 16 times more omega 6s than omega 3s!
Animals, such as cows, that used to graze freely are now fed in feedlots, and consume mostly grain – which converts to omega 6 fats in animal tissue. Processed foods such as crackers, breads, and desserts tend to include inexpensive vegetable oils such as corn, safflower or canola oil – also high in omega 6 fats. Anyone eating the standard American diet will most likely be consuming high quantities of omega 6 fats, not necessarily balanced with similar amounts of omega 3s.
Why the Balance of Omega 6 vs. Omega 3 Fats Matters for Weight Control
The journal Open Heart notes in a 2016 editorial that omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease adipose tissue (otherwise known as fat) and lead to weight loss. The editorial also notes that high concentrations of omega 6 fatty acids are associated with the risk of gaining weight. The journal stresses the importance of the two types of fatty acid in ratio as well, stating that higher concentrations of omega 3 fats as compared to omega 6 are associated with decreased risk of obesity.
The same editorial also brings up the effect of omega 6 fatty acids on leptin sensitivity. Leptin is a key hormone involved in appetite and satiety regulation. Someone with appropriate leptin sensitivity knows instinctively when to stop eating. The editorial states that diets high in omega 6 fatty acids can increase the risk of leptin resistance, which can be a contributing factor in obesity.
Looking at the many ways our diets have changed over the last 100 years, it’s clear we could all benefit from a greater awareness of the kinds of fat we eat. Big Food hasn’t done us much good in terms of helping us maintain a healthy weight, despite their myriad choices of low-fat, processed and packaged convenience foods.
Luckily, a diet high in omega 3 fats can be delicious and relatively easy once you make the change. It’s a bit more expensive, but perhaps you save that money in doctor’s bills later. It means buying whole foods, skipping the middle aisles full of processed junk, and cooking more at home.
Making small changes can make a big difference – such as choosing full-fat, grass-fed yogurt rather than that low fat, processed pink stuff with 54 grams of sugar! Choose avocado oil or coconut oil over canola or safflower. Load up on avocados, walnuts and pasture-raised eggs, and bake some cookies with almond flour, coconut sugar and grass-fed butter. Your heart, your waist and even your lifespan may thank you.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Artemis P Simopoulos, James J DiNicolantonio. The importance of a balanced ω-6 to ω-3 ratio in the prevention and management of obesity. Open Heart Journal. 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/openhrt-2015-000385