Yup’ik Get Less Diabetes When they Eat MORE Fish Oil

April 04, 2011

Fish Oil and and Overweight Eskimos 

 SourceMakhoul et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition,  March 23rd, 2011 

 Afraid you get too much fish oil?  I’m going to argue that you aren’t getting near enough.  At least according this recent fascinating research.  Here is the story.  Consider the Yup’ik Eskimos who are just as overweight and obese as the rest of the American population.  Being overweight is a problem because it changes the balance of inflammation in your body.  Worst of all is being overweight around your tummy.  The fat in our abdomen is just reeking with inflammation.  And you do remember from prior columns that our fat tissue is not just a passive storage unit, right?  

Correct.  Our fat tissue spews out inflammatory eicosanoids.  Eicosanoids are signaling messengers in our bodies that direct our cells to respond to the world around them.  They are made and consumed in milliseconds, so their impact and importance to our overall metabolism hasn’t been appreciated as fully as perhaps they should.  When you put out inflammatory eicosanoids, you trigger inflammation and it’s inflammation that starts the journey towards cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.  Diabetes fits right there in the middle.  More diabetes, more inflammation, more fat tissue around the tummy.  Being overweight is risky. 

 Our overweight friends to the north have a curious difference.  Their rate of diabetes is less than half of the general American population (3.3% vs 7.7%).  Half the diabetes!  Same obesity.  Just as chubby as us.  Not near the inflammation.  What’s the difference?  When tracking the dietary habits of the Yup’ik, the researchers were able to show that they ate about 20 times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that we eat in a typical American diet.   In fact, in the Yup’ik who tended to eat more “Western food” (flour and sugar and packaged goods) and less fish and blubber, their lower levels of serum DHA and EPA (the two most important omega-3 fatty acids) correlated strongly with higher levels of CRP (C-reactive protein, a clear marker of inflammation).  

Many Yup’ik are abandoning traditional food, so there was a clear range of comparison and a clear range of risk profiles and disease outcomes to compare. Long-time readers will remember the story of Christenson and Jorgenson, the Danish explorers who spent 8 years with the Eskimos, eating not one fruit or vegetable for 8 years and returning healthy and vibrant.  In the 1920s, the Eskimos were eating only fish and blubber all winter.  And then they had no heart disease that we knew of.  

Now, with good research, we can still find traces of that aboriginal diet and apply good science to it.  And the results can now be published in good peer-reviewed literature. Our diets have dropped the amount of omega-3 fats we get from our food dramatically. Probably as much as 80% in the last 100 years.  Our brains are about 40% DHA and EPA, so having enough is more than just a matter of inflammation.  And the very least and modest increase in fatty fish in our diet, eating two servings a week of fatty fish (American Heart Association recommendation) has been shown to reduce sudden death 40%.  So, it’s heart health, brain health and now we can add diabetes. 

 WWW: What Will Work for Me.  There is a hidden implication in this.  My body mass index is 26 still.  A tiny bit overweight.  And I have ever so slightly an elevated blood sugar.  I am at risk for diabetes.  Just like 60% of Americans.  We are all in this.  If I follow the logic backward of this study, I might be able to protect myself from the ravages of diabetes by eating more fish oil than I have been.  This study changed me.  I have started buying liquid fish oil that is lemon-flavored and taking a tablespoon a day which is 3 grams of DHA and EPA.   That’s triple what I used to do, a gram a day. To get to 3 grams with pills takes 9 big honker capsules, and I can’t do that.  But whatever you choose to do, don’t ever stop your fish oil.  And if you can find a way to take two grams a day, the Yup’ik suggest it will do you well.  Now, just pronounce Yup’ik for me.  You do that, and I’m going to try and get that 26 down to 25.

This column was written by Dr John E Whitcomb, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI