Last summer, I attended a Greek food festival hosted at a large Greek Orthodox church. In between the dancing and baklava gorging, I took a guided tour of their place of worship. It was absolutely stunning. Orthodox Christians tend to be quite elaborate in their decoration of the house of the Lord. The architecture was dramatic, the statues were gold plated, and intricate murals covered the walls and ceilings.
In fact, a world renowned artist with expertise in the traditional Orthodox paintings had been commissioned from Greece to do the work. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and fielded all sorts of deep theological questions from fellow tour mates. I knew my question was ridiculous, but I needed to satisfy my curiosity. I was struck by the fact that in all the topless depictions of Jesus, he had a full six pack – in fact, he was kind of a stud. This is a very conservative and traditional branch of Christianity, and I was surprised to see Jesus portrayed as a rather attractive man. Clearly, there was a lot of reverence and tradition behind these paintings, so it must have been intentional. Gingerly, I raised my hand, “Why was Jesus drawn with a six pack?” Our guide thought for a bit amongst the group’s snickers, and eventually answered, “Well, I suppose that is just how he looked. I guess he was in great shape.” Jesus was a carpenter by trade, and many of his disciples were fishermen and day laborers, so it is natural to assume they were quite strong. But if you ask any weightlifter or body builder, being strong and having chiseled abdominals do not always go hand in hand. Diet plays a huge role. So, I started thinking about the major components of Christ’s diet. The geographical location in which his life unfolded and the profession of several of his disciples suggest that fish constituted a major part of his food intake. Which led to my next question: will eating more fish help ME to get a six pack?
I. Crash course on fats
There are 4 major types of fat: saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and trans fatty acids. Fat is not the enemy. In fact, fats are quite awesome. We cannot function without them as fats are a vital part of every cell in our body. When eaten properly, they can help to reduce body fat and improve hormonal balance. But not all fats are created equal. Trans fatty acids are the worst and should be consumed under no circumstances. Saturated fatty acids should be limited in the diet (aim for less than 15% of fat intake). However, the situation is complex as short chain saturated fatty acids are excellent additions to healthy diets (just to clarify, this refers to fats from coconut and avocados, not French fries and chicken nuggets). Monounsaturated fats represent a relatively good choice. The most popular of this kind is olive oil.
II. What makes fish special?
Fish are set apart from other plant and animal foods because of their unique fatty acid content. Fats are vital to our health as they provide the raw material for a variety of hormones and signaling proteins, in addition to being a necessary component of every cell in our body. But not all fats are created equal. Humans are unable to synthesize long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) of the omega-3 and omega-6 series, thus we must obtain them from our diet. Fish are one of the richest sources of omega-3, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) due to the large role phytoplankton play in the marine food chain. Emerging research confirms that it is not just about absolute value of omega-3 and omega-6 you ingest; the ratio in which they are consumed is what matters most. The metabolism of omega-3 and omega-6 LC-PUFA are intimately linked. While they both give rise to different end products, the enzymes involved in their metabolism are shared. In essence, omega-3 and omega-6 are in constant competition. This is important because the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the modern diet of fast, convenient food has greatly increased compared to the time of Jesus, who ate lots of fish. This is of concern to those desiring a six pack as research shows that high omega-3 intake, and a low ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is associated with a reduction in body fat.
III. I wish my fat would just melt away……could it actually be that simple?
It is important to differentiate between the two different types of fat in the body: brown adipose tissue (BAT) and white adipose tissue (WAT). The role of BAT is to maintain body temperature through non-shivering thermogenesis. Basically, they are energy consuming cells that utilize our fat stores to create heat. On the other hand, WAT (the stuff that gathers on our stomachs and thighs), only uses the energy from its fat stores when there is a metabolic need (ie. when we are working out). I am going to use an analogy to illustrate just how incredible this is: if BAT and WAT were both mustangs, and their fat stores were gasoline, BAT depletes its fuel by simply revving its engine. It doesn’t actually do any work, just creates some heat. On the other hand, the only way for WAT to use its fuel is to put it to work by driving around town. In essence, BAT melts itself away.
WAT is not a dormant storage tissue. Rather, it is an active hormonal participant and it is centrally involved in the regulation of energy balance. It decides whether to store fat, or to use it as fuel. There are major differences between the WAT in obese people, and WAT in lean people.
1) The physical structure of the fat cells look different under microscope. For example, the fat cells in lean people are loaded with mitochondria whereas the fat cells of obese people have very few
2) Fat cells communicate with the body through secretions. The secretory profile of WAT from lean people is different from the secretory profile of obese people.
3) At a molecular level, different cell signaling pathways are activated in the WAT of lean people versus obese people.
In summary, the WAT of lean people acts more like BAT, the fat storages that tend to melt themselves away.
We all have that annoying pal who is forever lean. The good news is that our fate is not automatically predetermined by our genes . Current research shows that by eating certain foods, we can start transforming our WAT to look and behave more like BAT. This can be accomplished by increasing our intake of omega 3 fats, specifically DHA and EPA. Keeping in mind that the majority of the research to date has been done on mice, the most effective way to improve your six pack with fish oils is to look for a supplement with a high concentration of DHA, along with EPA, and to consume an amount equivalent to 0.7mg DHA/day.