By Russell H. Greenfield, MD Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UNC Chapel Hill School of Medicine
We have a real health problem in this country – generally speaking, we’re overweight, many of us are obese, and appropriate weight loss is simply not easy. Weight gain is often accompanied by the accumulation of abdominal fat. This becomes extremely problematic when that fat surrounds our organs (so called visceral fat) because it drives the vicious cycle of inflammation, insulin resistance, and further fat deposition. All this places us at great risk for heart disease, stroke and certain forms of cancer.
Considering this backdrop, it’s no wonder that many people got excited when news hit of research suggesting a possible “magic bullet” for losing abdominal fat in the form of readily available safflower oil.
So, should you go out and start taking safflower oil products for weight loss? The answer, for now, is no.
And why not? Because the approach is based primarily on the results of a single small study, a study whose weaknesses are significant.
Keep in mind that good research is very hard to do. The researchers behind these data are applauded and honored for their efforts – they have generated a hypothesis that can (and should) be tested. That is not the same, however, as saying the results imply that anyone interested in losing abdominal fat should begin taking a safflower oil supplement.
In the study, the effects of taking conjugated linoleic acid (CLA, an agent promoted for weight loss) and safflower oil over two 16-week periods were compared. By trial’s end, the researchers found that subjects taking safflower oil experienced a significant loss of abdominal fat compared with those using CLA. Problems with the study begin with the small number of participants (55) and the number who dropped out (20). All the people involved were postmenopausal women with type II diabetes, begging the question of what the effects might be in men or younger women. Adverse effects occurred but were not specified. In addition, safflower oil was compared to CLA, an agent that has been reported to increase insulin resistance – the comparison may thus not be fair from the get-go.
Beyond that, the approach calls into question some very basic assumptions about the types of fat in our diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential to our health, though they have been demonized in some circles due to the relative lack of omega-3 fatty acids in Western-style diets. It is important to get an adequate amount of omega-6s, found primarily in vegetable oils, as well as omega-3s, coming mainly from cold-water fish.
But the truth of the matter is that omega-6s are already ingested in adequate, if not excessive, amounts by the majority of the population, yet we are experiencing an epidemic of excess weight and obesity. Why, then, would increasing omega-6 fat intake reduce our tendency to accumulate abdominal fat? It doesn’t make sense.
Research should make us question long-held assumptions – that’s one of the ways that medicine progresses. The experience that Montel Williams shared with us about his use of safflower oil is compelling and should be respected. In and of itself, however, that experience cannot be generalized to suggest that anyone else would have the same outcome.
The research results that prompted interest in the use of safflower oil to help lessen abdominal fat should raise interest and spur the completion of additional studies that include larger numbers and better comparisons for longer periods of time.
There may be promise here, but it’s way too early to jump on the safflower oil bandwagon and begin using it yourself.