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But wait, before you put on your running shoes and begin another diet plan, you might want to hear some very interesting news. There are certain cultures around world whose diets contain just as much fat and carbohydrate (if not more) as in American diet. Yet they are slimmer, and have much fewer occurrences of heart disease and cancer than their American counterparts.
Recent studies have shown that people in certain Mediterranean regions and in France manage to stay healthier and are less obese than those in other western countries. Let’s look at French first.
In a study by Adam Drewnowski of University of Michigan, scientists examined eating habits of 1,637 men and 1,576 women in America and compared them to those of 5,000 French adults. They studied their overall diets based on diversity (foods from 5 major food groups), variety (total number of foods consumed daily) and moderation (according to USDA dietary guidelines). (2)
The results were quite surprising. They found that French ate more foods that were higher in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than their American counterparts. The study also showed that French diet complied with very few of USDA dietary recommendations for eating healthy. In addition, findings showed that 99% of French women’s diets had saturated fat contents in excess of 10% of total daily calories. What’s shocking is that, on average, French are thinner and have fewer occurrences of heart disease than Americans.
The possible harmful effects of high fat content in French diet, however, were offset by diet diversity and variety. Drewnowski pointed out that “the low fat approach is very good but not if it comes at expense of dietary variety.”
The USDA recommends that diets should consist of a variety of foods. According to American part of study, just one in ten men and one in sixteen women consumed food from all five food groups (Meat, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and grains). The other thing is that French have more active lifestyles than Americans do. Americans typically drive more, walk less and participate in more sedentary type of leisure activities.
Similarly, a Mediterranean diet study also showed that diet was high in fat, more diverse and had greater variety than American diet. According to research, certain Mediterranean people, particularly from Greek island of Crete, had fewer cases of heart disease and were thinner than Americans.
The difference in this study, however, was a crucial finding that suggested food variety and diversity created a certain dietary ratio. This was a ratio between 2 types of fatty acids present in Mediterranean diet. These fatty acids are found in plant sources and fall into 2 groups: The omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You have probably heard of multiple health benefits of these essential fatty acids many times before. They are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) because body cannot produce them – they can only be obtained from food sources.
Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential to diet, omega-3 group has more significant therapeutic properties. Omega-3s contain powerful antioxidants that are known to fight against heart disease, lower blood pressure, strengthen immune system, improve mood disorders to name a few.
The other benefit of omega-3s according to research is that they also have an amazing ability to control body fat. Omega-3s control quantity of adipose (fat) tissue by regulating amount of fat that goes into fat cells and amount that is burned up for energy. (3, 4) Omega-3s have also been shown to increase fat oxidation in body - process by which fat is broken down and used as fuel for energy. (4) This further promotes a reduction in body weight that consists of fat mass.
According to scientists key factor in diet composition is that French diet and more so Mediterranean diet consist of higher intakes of foods containing omega-3s than American diet. In other words their diets contain a better (lower) omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than American diet. And that’s key. One of main reasons Americans have lower intakes of omega-3s is because of their high intake of processed food. Food processing is largely responsible for removing a lot of omega-3 content from food.
On other hand French and Mediterranean diets are more abundant in whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables. And so their intake of omega-3s is considerably higher. In addition, people of Crete eat 10 times more fish (rich source of omega-3s) than Americans do. Other important sources of omega-3s in Mediterranean diet were: fish, purslane (wild plant high in omega-3 content), walnuts, figs and various other unrefined carbohydrates. By way, most abundant source of omega-3s is found right here in North America, and that’s flax seed oil.
As we can see, two different cultures manage to stay healthier and slimmer than North Americans while eating foods that contain high fat, carbohydrate and protein contents. The key differences are that their diets contain more unrefined foods; they consist of foods from all food groups and have more variety. As a result they have higher intakes of omega-3s (lower omega-6: omega-3 ratio) than other Western cultures. In addition, both these groups of people are more physically active than Americans.
Now, you can put on those sneakers and walk (or jog) to supermarket for a new supply of fresh wholesome food.
1. http://www.jacn.org, “Postprandial Thermogenesis Is Increased 100% on a High-Protein, Low-Fat Diet versus a High-Carbohydrate, Low-Fat Diet in Healthy, Young Women, retrieved 10 June 2005 from 2. http://www.sciencedaily.com, “Healthy diets need fat, according to new study”, retrieved 22 June 2005 from 3. Parrish et al. "Dietary fish oils limit adipose tissue hypertrophy in rats." Metabolism, Mar 1990, 39(3):217-9 4. Parrish et al. "Dietary fish oils modify adipocyte structure and function." J Cell Physiology, Sep 1991, 148(3) 5. Baillie RA, et al. "Coordinate induction of peroxisomal acyl-CoA oxidase and UCP-3 by dietary fish oil: a mechanism for decreased body fat deposition." Prostaglandins Leukot Essential Fatty Acids, May 1999, 60(5-6)
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