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Another Piece of the Obesity Pie: Seed Oils

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Are seed oils a major driver of the obesity epidemic in the United States?

Obesity is one of the hottest topics of the day. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention has a great moving graph of the US obesity epidemic that shows state obesity trends from 1985-2008. If you haven’t seen it, it is shocking the first time you watch it.

The two biggest factors believed to be causing this obesity epidemic are 1) an increasingly sedentary lifestyle (i.e. not exercising, or, hardly even moving you might say) and 2) the food we eat.

When you get into the food issue, the number one thing health professionals promote is eating more fruits and vegetables (in relation to other foods, that is, not just on top of all the other foods).

Of course, I have seen many articles linking a variety foods or chemicals to the obesity epidemic, from BPA to aspartame to sugar. My personal belief is that it is a combination of several things.

Most recently, I read an article my brother sent me that implies a strong link between increased consumption of industrial seed oils, like corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower and cottonseed oil, and the obesity epidemic. It is a compelling read and has some interesting information in it.

Stephan Guyenet writes:

“In 2006, Drs. Gerard Ailhaud and Philippe Guesnet hypothesized that industrial seed oils such as corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower and cottonseed oil are at least partially responsible for the current obesity epidemic (1). These oils were not a significant part of the human diet until very recently, yet they have been promoted due to their supposed ability to prevent cardiovascular disease. The Western world has been living a massive uncontrolled experiment ever since.”

Stephan goes on to discuss the fact that those in Western nations (but especially Americans) are eating much more linoleic acid and other omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) than ever before (which we are getting from these seed oils), that these fatty acids are accumulating in fat tissue and breast milk, and that when mice are fed an unbalanced amount of omega-6 fatty acids (like we are now eating), they develop adult obesity after three generations (results from a study by Dr. Ingeborg Hanbauer).

A recent study (published at the end of April 2010), β€œA Western-like fat diet is sufficient to induce a gradual enhancement in fat mass over generations”, again by Drs. Gerard Ailhaud and Philippe Guesnent similarly showed that over four generations mice got progressively obese when they lived on a 35% fat diet with an omega-6:3 ratio of 28 (a Western-like fat diet).

Stephan concludes:

“Both studies have serious problems. Nevertheless, together they suggest that PUFA imbalance is capable of causing obesity in mice that worsens over several generations.

If this is true in humans, it would be a straightforward explanation for the obesity epidemic that has plagued the Western world in recent decades. It would explain why the epidemic began in children around 1970, but didn’t show up in adults until about 1980. It would explain why the epidemic is less severe in Europe, and even less so in Asia. And of course, it correlates well with trends in seed oil consumption.”

This is some compelling information. Nearly invisible to most people, but also quite ubiquitous, could these industrial seed oils be a major driver of the obesity epidemic?

Image Credits: Tiberiu Ana via flickr/CC license & ToOb via flickr/CC license

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4 comments
  1. Steve Savage

    Zachary,
    Obesity is increasing in parts of the world that eat different seed oils than we do. Frankly, I think your analysis borders on irresponsibility. Do you think that the volume of food consumed could possibly have something to do with this?!!! Why look for the exterior blame when personal responsibility is the key (exercise, moderation…)

    1. katy

      I’m an editor at a natural health magazine called Natural Solutions, and although I agree that obviously portion control, exercise, and availability of nutritious, fresh food play huge roles in the obesity epidemic, I think Zachary has a point: We need a balance of omega-6s and omega-3s–not to mention -7 and -9–for optimal health. (Most current research I’ve seen says you need a ratio of about 5:1.) Getting too many omega-6s ups inflammation and increases your risk of everything from heart disease to arthritis. Check out this article on why we need a balance of EFAs and PUFAs–and how to get them: http://www.naturalsolutionsmag.com/articles-display/8567/keyword/omega-6/Time-to-Change-Your-Oil

  2. Zach

    Steve,

    They are good points — I am all for focusing on what you can and should change in your life.

    I didn’t do this research but it looks very compelling to me.

    Sharing research on this matter does not strike me as irresponsible, especially with the lead-in looking at the broader context of the issue.

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