The Perricone Weight Loss ProgramNovember 2005
By Nicholas V. Perricone, MD
When we add omega-3 essential fatty acids to our diets, we begin to “sensitize” our cells to insulin. Insulin receptors are found in the cell’s plasma membrane, which controls the passage of substances in and out of the cell. Essential fatty acids keep this critical and fragile portion of the cell flexible, thereby keeping these receptors intact and sensitive to fluctuations in insulin levels. The correct balance of dietary EFAs enables the receptors to respond to even small amounts of insulin, helping us to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and ensure an adequate uptake of sugar and amino acids into cells to build muscle and minimize fat storage.
I then discovered that the essential fatty acids found in cold-water, high-fat fish and fish oil possess a number of even more astonishing properties. These essential fats, particularly the omega-3s, are extremely important in energy production within the mitochondria. Omega-3 EFAs also inhibit the production of the enzyme fatty acid synthase, which plays a role in the storage of calories as body fat. In addition, the essential fatty acids are responsible for a phenomenon known as “fuel partitioning.”
When fuel partitioning is working efficiently, EFAs direct our bodies to store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, rather than as hard-to-lose body fat. Glycogen is mainly stored in the liver and muscles and releases sugar (glucose) into the blood when needed by cells. It is the chief source of stored fuel in the body, and is the first place the body turns to when it needs quick energy between meals or when energy needs cannot be met by food intake alone, such as during intensive bouts of physical or mental activity. It is the glycogen stored in the muscle that directly affects how hard and how long we can exercise. In short, omega-3s facilitate the temporary storage of calories as glycogen, which is used for immediate energy needs, while encouraging the burning of stored body fat.
The most exciting moment of my quest, however, has to be when I came across a groundbreaking study that held the long-awaited answer I had been searching for—clear evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can increase thermogenesis, thereby dissipating calories in the form of increased body heat, instead of storing them as body fat. Ongoing research suggests that EFAs may be able to directly influence important metabolic genes in our cells—genes that control how we synthesize glycogen and how we store and burn fat. This may be due to a steroid-like substance in our bodies called PPARs (perixosome proliferator-activated receptors), which, when bound to fats like EFAs, can “switch on” key genes involved in burning fat. Further research also suggests that omega-3s switch on a protein called uncoupling protein-3, which plays an important part in energy metabolism. Higher levels of uncoupling proteins result in more energy being dissipated as heat, increasing energy expenditure and decreasing stored fat. This is a critical function because stored body fat is very difficult to lose, as millions of unsuccessful dieters know. Could omega-3s be the uncoupling agent I had been searching for?
Nutritional Factors Hold the Key
Amazingly, it seems that we don’t need some new super-drug as the solution to the weight-loss problem. For the first time, science had proven beyond a doubt that nutritional components of our diet can directly control and influence key metabolic genes in our cells. That means the EFAs we consume can significantly affect the way we store and burn fat. This nutritional aspect was particularly compelling because it meant that the effects would be physiological—that is, they would work with the body, as opposed to against it, the way a drug would. This also meant that the positive, beneficial effects of these essential fatty acids would always have efficacy; unlike a drug, we would not build up a tolerance or resistance to their therapeutic properties. These omega-3 fatty acids would always be on the job, helping us to burn excess fat, while simultaneously decreasing our propensity for fat storage.
Unfortunately, when most of us do consume essential fatty acids, they tend to be omega-6, which is found in grains and vegetable oils such as corn and safflower. In fact, very few of us are getting the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which may account for the growing prevalence of serious health conditions like heart attacks, cancer, asthma, lupus, schizophrenia, depression, accelerated aging, ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), Alzheimer’s disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes in our society.
This imbalance upsets the proverbial fat-metabolizing apple cart. An overabundance of omega-6 is inflammatory and interferes with the body’s ability to use omega-3s—a serious situation because of the positive effects of omega-3s we talked about earlier: they inhibit the calories we consume from being stored as body fat, while promoting the burning of body fat we already have.
It’s important to realize that the processes described here do not happen overnight. As soon as you begin taking in omega-3s (from foods and/or supplements), they start exerting their anti-inflammatory effects. It does take time, however, for EFAs to influence your thermogenesis and fuel partitioning, which is why I recommend that you do not delay introducing omega-3s into your diet. The reason that traditional low-calorie diets fail is that they lack omega-3s, which are essential for healthy metabolism. If you follow the anti-inflammatory diet and ensure the intake of plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, you will successfully lose weight. The powerful anti-inflammatory properties of the omega-3 essential fatty acids hold the key to the weight-control puzzle.
Stress, Stress-Related Weight Gain, and Obesity
Stress is highly destructive—not just emotionally, but also physically. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we all experience significant amounts of stress, and it does not appear to be going away anytime soon.
Many circumstances create stress in our daily lives. Arguing with family, friends, or colleagues, not getting enough sleep, worrying about everything from our family to our finances, constant pressure to keep up with the home and office demands; even playing too hard can all create stress. Weekend warriors, making up for a week of inactivity by spending hours engaged in strenuous activity, are also setting themselves up for a stress response.
Cortisol, the Stress/Death Hormone
When we are under stress, our adrenal glands produce hormones. These include the fight-or-flight hormones, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), as well as cortisol.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, one of a group of steroid hormones that include cortisone. Cortisol is involved in carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism, and has anti-inflammatory properties. As we age, the “youth” hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and human growth hormone decline. Cortisol, however, increases as we age and too much cortisol can also become pro-inflammatory.
When we experience stress (whether from fear, anxiety, physical or emotional trauma, or overexertion), the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine will return to normal levels as the stress subsides. In a young person, cortisol levels will also return to normal within a few hours. Because cortisol levels continue to rise with age, the older person’s cortisol levels will remain elevated for long periods of time. This has earned cortisol the dubious distinction of being known as a “death” hormone, because high levels of cortisol exert a catabolic or muscle-wasting, deteriorating action on the body. Simply put, it breaks down tissue.
How Stress Promotes Weight Gain
Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy (the fight-or-flight response), thereby stimulating insulin release to keep pace with the rising blood sugar levels. This results in an increase in our appetite. If we experience chronic stress, with chronically high levels of cortisol, we may end up hungry all the time, causing us to overeat.
Cortisol also influences where that weight will be deposited. A fascinating study on the effects of the release of cortisol during acute and chronic stress in non-overweight women was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2001. The study clearly demonstrated that this excess cortisol contributes to the deposition of visceral fat, particularly in the abdominal region. As we know, there are two types of fat: subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (found in the abdomen and surrounding our vital organs).
Central obesity sets the stage for a host of health concerns such as heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. Because of its serious threat to health, this has also been referred to as “toxic fat.” Traditionally, women worried about the size of their hips. However, when it comes to overall weight gain, it is preferable to have it on the hips as opposed to the stomach area—if not from an aesthetic point of view, then from a health point of view. Studies indicate that women (and men) who store their weight in the abdominal area have higher cortisol levels and higher stress levels than those whose weight is stored on the hips.
The Cholesterol Component
In addition, visceral fat is metabolized by the liver, which turns it into cholesterol that circulates in the blood. This is the so-called “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, which collects in the arteries forming plaque (deposits of fats, inflammatory cells, proteins, and calcium material along the lining of arteries). The plaque builds up and narrows the artery, resulting in atherosclerosis. Researchers have also found that consuming a lot of saturated fats such as butter and the fats found in red meats can lead to the accumulation of visceral fat. The high omega-3 content found in wild Alaskan salmon, anchovies, sardines, and other cold-water fish, along with fish oil capsules, will help you to get rid of this deadly form of fat because the essential fatty acids found in these foods can decrease cortisol levels.
To sum up, elevated cortisol levels produce a host of negative effects that include: