Although Hippocrates uttered these famous words a whopping 2,500 years ago, they seem more relevant than ever as we search the past and present for strategies to address our current health crises. As a dietitian and nutrition expert, I am often asked, "What is the SINGLE most important thing I should be eating or avoiding in my diet?" For over a decade, my response has been to include one of the best silver bullets out there: add more fruits and vegetables to your plate.
However, my tip is about to change.
After hearing the sessions at today's Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People conference in Olympia, Greece (sponsored by Stonyfield), here is my new response:
Eat more healthy fat. Increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake, and decrease your omega-6 fatty acid intake as much as you can.
So here's why: Humans evolved eating a diet which had a 1:1 - 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. As our diet moved away from traditional, whole foods, and become flooded with fast food, modern agricultural practices, and highly processed agribusiness products, the type of fat in our diet has dramatically shifted. Today, western diets have a ratio of 10:1-25:1 omega-6 to omega-3, depending on the country. Even the modern Greek diet has lost its health halo, with a ratio of about 10:1 (US is about 17:1).
Research strongly suggests that bringing this ratio back to where it has been historically will have dramatic health implications, including reduction of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, pro-inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis, irritable bowel disease, asthma and lupus), depression, and could even delay cognitive decline. It has been shown to act against factors that cause obesity, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and even belly fat.
In her talk, Dr. Birgitta Strandvik stressed that in addition to BMI (body mass index), the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is an extremely important thing to look at as an indicator for overall health in children. She cited research that found that obese children had significantly lower intake levels of omega-3 fats than healthy weight children, and in healthy 8 year-olds, high intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) were correlated with lower bone mineral density.
When you look at the long list of ailments above, and consider all of the drugs we currently take to fix them, the question becomes even more powerful-could we let "Food be thy Medicine" as a more cost effective, healthier alternative?
There have been a lot of studies and discussion surrounding the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the diet, but many experts at the conference agreed that for ideal health, humans need to return as close to our original 2:1 ratio as possible, which lowers all biochemical markers for inflammation. What was really news to me was the emphasis on absolutely limiting, as much as possible, your intake of the omega-6 PUFAS (especially one called linoleic acid) as a critical strategy for creating optimal health.
So what's the takeaway message for consumers?
- Minimize consumption of linoleic omega-6 fats, such as corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, margarines, and other food products that contain these fats as ingredients (check the food label).
- Consume at least 2 servings of omega-3 rich fish weekly (such as salmon).
- Walnuts and flaxseed oil can also contribute in a positive way to omega-3 intake.
- Grass-fed cows or grass-fed bison have been shown to have significantly higher omega-3 content than conventional cows/bison.
Of course, since many other sessions today highlighted vegetables and fruits (Mediterranean, Greek, and Okinawa diets), I think I'm still going to tell people to eat those too.
What single tip do YOU think is most important when it comes to using food as medicine? I'd love to hear your thoughts!