When you think of butter, if you’re like most of us, you figure you’ll gain weight just by looking at a big ol’ slab. But as scientists discover more about the wonderful world of fatty acids and doctors sort out that research into real world advice, there are some happy surprises. Read on to discover what foods you should be adding back into your diet if you want to slim.
What are fatty acids?
Fatty acids are nothing more than simple components of fat. They’re characterized by how many molecules of carbon they contain. The fatty acids you’re most likely to have heard of are the short-chain omega 3s, and the medium-chain omega 6s and omega 9s. These are the key building blocks for the fat that keeps all of our cells supple and functioning — and all three play a part in weight loss.
Omega-9 fatty acids
You can find omega-9s in foods like avocados, olive oil, sesame oil and natural peanut butter. Our bodies can also make omega-9 fatty acids and so we don’t rely exclusively on food sources. Omega-9 fatty acids, such as oleic acid, have been associated with improved insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation, and they can promote heart health by helping to reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. The general consensus is that you’ll get plenty of omega-9s if you consume between 1 and 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day.
Essential fatty acids: omega 3 and omega 6
The other two types of fatty acids, however, are in a class all their own. Omega 3s and omega 6s are categorized as “essential” fatty acids. This means they are vital to health, but our body can’t manufacture them, so we must get them from food sources. Internationally renowned nutrition researcher Anthony J. Hulbert, PhD, author of Omega Balance, adds another important fact about these two special polyunsaturated fats: “They cannot substitute for each other.”
In the simplest terms, omega-3 fats come from “leaves” (like spinach, seaweed and Brussel sprouts) and the animals that eat them (like grass-fed cattle and seaweed-munching fish). And omega-6 fats come from seeds, nuts and grains. Notable exceptions include flaxseed and chia seeds, both of which are rich in omega-3s.
It’s the ratio of omega 3: omega 6 fatty acids that’s key
Dr. Hulbert says it’s important not to think about omega-3s and omega-6s independently from one another. He and other experts now believe that striking the right daily balance between these two essential fatty acids is key to optimizing health.
“Getting the right balance of these two omegas is the most important choice related to fats that you make,” contends Dr. Hulbert. After poring over a century’s worth of data, he concluded that people who eat lots of omega-3s in relation to their omega-6 intake are effortlessly slimmer. But unlike daily requirements that work for vitamins and minerals, it’s the balance between these omegas that matters, since they compete for space inside our cells. Think of them like the ends of a seesaw: When one omega goes up, the other inevitably falls down.
Most people aren’t getting enough omega-3s
The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends that around 30% of our daily omega fat intake comes from health-supporting and naturally slimming omega-3s, leaving 70% from omega-6s. Dr. Hulbert aims even higher for himself: at least 35% from omega-3s. And, although omega-9s aren’t part of this critical ratio, it’s good to get a dose of them every day as well.
Sadly, modern diets fall short. “Today, 100% of people in the US aren’t getting enough omega-3s needed for optimal health and weight loss,” estimates Yale-trained Susan Allport, author of Queen of Fats. The reason? Our food supply has become flooded with processed omega-6s, at the expense of omega-3s. Indeed, our intake of omega-3s has dropped 78% since 1910. Forget the 30+% goal — most of us get only 9%. And while the natural omega-6s we score from foods like walnuts are great, we aren’t eating enough of them. Instead, we’re often unknowingly consuming ultra-processed omega-6 vegetable oils that are widely used in packaged foods and restaurant fare.
Why do so many of us have an omega imbalance?
Over the years, our food system has shifted the percentage of slimming omega-3 essential fatty acids we consume each day and replaced them with craving-triggering omega-6s from processed foods. This makes weight loss nearly impossible. How did this unhealthy shift happen? Omega-3s are less shelf-stable, so they were bred out of many plants to extend the expiration date of packaged foods. In addition, modern farming practices became rooted in feeding livestock inexpensive omega-6-rich grains, rather than letting them graze on omega-3-rich grasses. That grain-fed meat becomes more “marbled” with fat. In short: Dr. Hulbert says, “Omega-6s fatten up our body like they do for livestock.”
These shifts happening behind the scenes can mess with our worldview of what healthy nutrition even means. We’ve all heard countless times that salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. But that’s far from true for all grocery store salmon. Remember how the human body can’t make essential omega-3s, it can only obtain them from foods? Well, the same is true for all animals, including fish. Dr. Hulbert cautions, “the fats that animals deliver are only as good as the foods they were fed.”
Consider this: Corn contains only 2% omega-3s, compared to leafy vegetables, which contain up to 80% omega-3s. The result: Farm-raised salmon that are fed corn pellets can’t deliver the omega benefits that we’d get from wild-caught seaweed-eating fish.
What’s more, food labels don’t provide the information we need to know whether a snack is likely to trigger weight gain (from manufactured omega-6s) or loss (from natural omega-3s). Packaged food labels give the “total fat” content, but not the polyunsaturated omega-6 or omega-3 breakdowns. Dr. Hulbert explains, “It is a bit like being given a mood-altering drug that contains both ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’ without being told the individual amounts of either.”
Why correcting an omega imbalance is so important
Research shows that inflammatory omega-6s “contribute to the development and proliferation of fat tissue.” They also affect the body’s endocannabinoid system, changing taste and smell receptors in the brain, increasing our appetite for carbs. In contrast, omega-3s prevent the growth of fat tissue. Columbia University-trained weight-loss doctor Fred Pescatore, MD, adds, “You will never be able to lose weight or be healthy if your diet is tipped too far in the direction of pro-inflammatory omega-6s.” He says, “Getting more omega-3s back into your diet is the cornerstone of reducing inflammation.”
In a 10-year study at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, folks who consumed the highest ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s gained 63% more weight and increased their odds of becoming obese by 58%. In another study in the International Journal of Obesity, when certain cooking oils were replaced with slimming omega-3 fish oil, participants lost 193% more body fat! How? Dr. Hulbert explains, over time, as omega 3s replace omega-6s in fat cell membranes of the body, those cells make less fat, so pounds fall off.
How can we ensure we’re getting the right omegas?
Thankfully, it’s not complicated to achieve optimal omega balancing. In fact, you don’t have to track grams or percentages to move the needle in the right direction. Simply reach for more omega-3-rich whole foods and reduce your intake of fried or processed packaged foods that harbor omega-6s.
Allport’s advice: “Before each meal, scan your plate and make sure you always have a source of omega 3s — like from wild fish, enriched eggs or grass-fed meat or butter.” She loves sprinkling omega-3-rich ground flaxseed in everything: pancakes, soups, stews and sauces to add a subtle texture and nutty flavor.
“If you tweak your meals to make sure you’re getting more omega-3s than before, you’ll quickly lose a significant amount of weight,” assures Allport. She has seen folks drop 70 pounds by supplementing their diet with omega-3-rich foods. No counting portions or restricting fat intake necessary.
Losing weight is just one of the health benefits you might notice. People eating the right mix of healthy fats report dramatically less joint pain, improved sleep, greater mental clarity, younger-looking skin, reduced blood pressure and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. One nurse we spoke with lost 138 pounds and got off her blood pressure and arthritis medications. And Leslie Fink, 58, lost 102 pounds and no longer needs a cane. She can walk around easily and pain free, and now, she inspires women on Tiktok @FitLifeWithFink.
Easy tweaks to restore omega balance and lose weight
To experience the health changes in your life, Dr. Hulbert advises shifting the omega balance back in your favor by adding omega-3-rich foods to every meal and snack and making sure the omega-6s you do eat come from clean sources. In his 4-week plan, he advises reaching for whole foods and avoiding ultra-refined cooking oils, plus deep-fried or processed foods. Here, the best ways to restore omega balance:
Opt for these protein sources
When possible, choose omega-3-rich grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish over grain-fed poultry or pork. “Don’t worry about total fat intake,” Dr. Hulbert says. “Think beyond individual food sources and consider the balance of your whole meal or whole day.”
According to Dr. Hulbert’s research, you can make some healthy swaps including trading farm-raised poultry with just 6% of omega-3s, for grass-fed beef with 24% omega 3s.
Upgrade salads by swapping out chickpeas with just 4% omega-3s, for red kidney beans with 61%. Or ditch oil-fried potatoes with just 2%, for healthier microwaved potatoes with 24%.
It’s true, little changes can lead to big health benefits. Tuna canned in water contains 90% omega-3s, compared to tuna packed in omega-6 vegetable oil, which has been diminished to having just 16% omega-3s.
Choose the right cooking oils
Ultra-processed cooking oils contain an overwhelming amount of inflammation-triggering omega-6 fatty acids — up to a ratio of 1:100 omega-3s to omega-6s. (The ideal ratio is believed to be around 1:4 and 1:7.) Allport says, “If you sauté a piece of omega-3 fish in omega-6 cooking oil, there’s not a chance those healthy fats from the fish are going to get into your tissues.” And while olive oil and coconut oil are healthy for other reasons, they aren’t great sources of omega-3s.
Try flaxseed oil with 79% omega-3s, grass-fed butter with 32% omega-3s, hempseed oil with 23% or walnut oil with 16%. On the flip side, limit oils made from omega-6-laden corn, sunflower, peanut or safflower.
Start your day with the perfect omega boost
It’s not always easy to assemble a perfectly balance home-cooked plate. So Allport developed a line of breakfast cookies that contain a healthy dose of slimming and satisfying omega-3s. Check them out at SusieSmartCookie.com.
What about omega-3 supplements?
We’ve all heard about the health benefits of taking omega-3-rich fish oil pills. But you’re better off getting your omegas from food: a Purdue University study found that 70% of commercial supplements don’t contain the amount of omega-3 listed on the packaging. “Fish oils ain’t the oil they used to be,” says Dr. Hulbert, who explains most capsules don’t state whether they came from wild or farmed fish, an important distinction for their health-promoting potential. It’s more effective (and less expensive) to get your omega-3s from food, says Dr. Hulbert, who increased his omega-3 intake by 1,450% by adding foods like wild fish, healthy oils, and more plants to his diet — a move he estimates would have required taking 58 fish oil capsules a day in supplement form.
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This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.