Omega 3 and Eastern spices both protect health

Dr Paul Clayton 2013

I travel widely for my work. In 2012 I studied and lectured in Finland, Sweden, USA, Australia,
Greece, Turkey, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and India. I always try to eat
local food, and am constantly surprised by the variety of dishes that different cultures have to
offer. Stinky tofu stewed with clotted pigs blood in Taiwan was a high point, a dish so chock-full of highly bioactive polyamines that, like the fermented fish dishes of northern Norway and Sweden (surströmming) it accelerates the healing process (ie Brzozowski et al ’93, Rao et al ’12);
but can also speed tumour growth (ie Soda ’11).

A large part of the ageing process as we experience it today is driven by chronic inflammation, and the major dietary and other factors that either slow or accelerate this process are well characterised. I had often wondered how people manage to live well in such different environments, consuming such different diets.

How can an Indian and an Inuit, for example, both maintain an anti-inflammatory internal environment, and thus both achieve healthy old age? And what implications might this have for
regional health issues as the juggernaut of fast food franchising, which combines empty
calories with pro-inflammatory toxins (Gillis & Gillis ’05, Cordain et al ’05, Bengmark ’12),
rolls over the globe?

Finally, a few months ago, I gained nutritional enlightenment while visiting an IT college in
New Delhi. In South East Asia, and in the tropical and sub-tropical regions in general,
intakes of the essential omega 3 fatty acids are very low. There are no cold water fish, and the
only omega 3s available to the inhabitants of these areas are in plant oils, which are
notoriously poor sources; so they tend to have very poor omega 3 to 6 ratios in their blood
(Amo & Eide ’12). However, they do consume large amounts of spices, in almost every dish
and at every meal, and the spices are excellent sources of flavonoids. In contrast, Northern Europeans eat a diet relatively high in omega 3s but low in spices—Scandinavian food is often very bland!

Flavonoids and omega 3 fatty acids have potent but different anti-inflammatory effects, and it
seems that if you eat enough of at least one of these nutrient groups you gain a reasonable
degree of health protection. For total protection, however, you need both.

Fast foods have had serious public health consequences in the West, but we have a residual degree of protection against chronic inflammation due to our intakes of omega 3 in oily fish, from salmon to sardines. The Asians do not have this protection, and rely on the anti-inflammatory
flavonoids in the spices they eat. The problem is that there is ageneration of IT and office workers
all across Asia who have left their native cuisine behind, and combine a sedentary lifestyle with cigarettes and a diet consisting mainly of burgers, fries, pasta, pizza and soft drinks. They are consuming no omega 3s and hardly any flavonoids, and thus have no anti-inflammatory protection at all.

The impact of this is just starting to emerge. I believe that the surprisingly high frequency of
obesity, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension I saw in the young IT students will soon grow into a tsunami of degenerative disease in urbanised Asians which will overwhelm their healthcare capabilities. Their situation may be made even worse by specific metabolic factors linked to the so-called ‘thrifty gene’ (ie Bhopal & Rafnsson ’09).

Modern medicine can do nothing to prevent or cure these problems, and ‘re-setting healthcare
priorities’, is tantamount to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Nutritional, dietary and lifestyle re-programming is the only way to ensure that India and China do not sink under the burden of bad Western dietary habits and unnecessary disease.


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