First, some background. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) come mostly from omega-6 and omega-3 sources. Omega-6 and omega-3 are precursors to eicosanoids, a large and poorly understood class of signaling molecules that play a role in basically everything. Eicosanoids are either omega-6-derived or omega-3-derived. Omega-6 and omega-3 compete for the enzymes that convert PUFA into eicosanoids. Therefore, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in tissues (related to the ratio in the diet) determines the ratio of omega-6-derived eicosanoids to omega-3-derived eicosanoids.
Omega-6 eicosanoids are very potent and play a central role in inflammation. They aren't "bad", in fact they're essential, but an excess of them is probably not good. Omega-3 eicosanoids are generally less potent, less inflammatory, and tend to participate in long-term repair processes. So in sum, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet will determine the potency and quality of eicosanoid signaling, which will determine an animal's susceptibility to inflammation-mediated disorders.
One of the key enzymes in the pathway from PUFA to eicosanoids (specifically, a subset of them called prostanoids) is cyclooxygenase (COX). COX-1 is expressed all the time and serves a "housekeeping" function, while COX-2 is induced by cellular stressors and contributes to the the formation of inflammatory eicosanoids. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen inhibit COX enzymes, which is why they are effective against inflammatory problems like pain and fever. They are also used as a preventive measure against cardiovascular disease. Basically, they reduce the excessive inflammatory signaling promoted by a diet with a poor omega-6:3 balance. You wouldn't need to inhibit COX if it were producing the proper balance of eicosanoids to begin with.
Dr. Kuang-Chung Shih's group at the Department of Internal Medicine in Taipei placed rats on five different diets:
- A control diet, eating normal low-fat rat chow.
- A "high-fat diet", in which 45% of calories came from a combination of industrial lard and soybean oil, and 17% of calories came from sucrose*.
- A "high-fat diet" (same as above), plus the COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib (Celebrex).
- A "high-fat diet" (same as above), plus the COX-2 inhibitor mesulid.
- An energy-restricted "high-fat diet".
Rats in group 2 not only gained weight, they also experienced increased fasting glucose, leptin, insulin, triglycerides, blood pressure and a massive decline in insulin sensitivity (seven-fold relative to group 1). Rats in groups 3 and 4 gained weight, but saw much less of a deterioration in insulin and leptin sensitivity, and blood pressure. Group 2 also developed fatty liver, which was attenuated in groups 3 and 4. If you're interested, group 5 (energy restricted high-fat) was similar to groups 3 and 4 on pretty much everything, including insulin sensitivity.
So there you have it folks: direct evidence that insulin resistance, leptin resistance, high blood pressure and fatty liver are mediated by excessive inflammatory eicosanoid signaling. I wrote about something similar before when I reviewed a paper showing that fish oil reverses many of the consequences of a high-vegetable oil, high-sugar diet in rats. I also reviewed two papers showing that in pigs and rats, a high omega-6:3 ratio promotes inflammation (mediated by COX-2) and lipid peroxidation in the heart. Are you going to quench the fire by taking drugs, or by reducing your intake of omega-6 and ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3?
*Of course, they didn't mention the sucrose in the methods section. I had to go digging around for the diet's composition. This is typical of papers on "high-fat diets". They load them up with sugar, and blame everything on the fat. This kind of shenanigans wouldn't fly in a self-respecting field, but it's typical of nutrition-health papers.
**Rats gain fat mass when fed a high-fat diet (even if it's not loaded with sugar), although when the fat is butter or coconut oil, they gain less than if it's vegetable oil. But humans don't gain weight on a high-fat diet (i.e. low-carb diet); to the contrary. What's the difference? It may have to do with the fact that rats eat more calories when they have ad libitum access to high-fat food, while humans don't. In fact, most low-carbohydrate diet trials indicate that participants spontaneously reduce their caloric intake when eating high-fat food.