Finding Balance with Fats in Food
By Jolie Root
What was the greatest dietary mistake of the 20th century? Eating too much saturated fat? Too many eggs? Too much meat? No, the biggest problem in the modern-day diet is a massive imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 consumption. Today, people are eating way too many omega-6 fatty acids, mostly from corn and soybeans, used to make the dominant oils in the Western diet. Coincidentally, consumption of animal foods high in omega-3 is the lowest it has ever been. To make matters worse, the animals we eat are fattened up with omega-6 loaded corn and soybeans instead of grass, rich in omega-3s.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential components of the human diet. The body doesn't have the ability to manufacture them, so we must get them from the foods we eat. Without omega- 3s and omega-6s, we would develop a deficiency and become sick, thus the name "essential" fatty acids.
Essential fats are not simply used for energy or stored in tissue; they are biologically active and play starring roles in major events like blood clotting, inflammation, brain cell communication, and regulation of heart rhythm. Omega- 6s and omega-3s don't have the same effects on our cellular and metabolic processes. Omega-6s are proinflammatory, while omega-3s have and anti-inflammatory effect. Omega-6s promote unhealthy clotting and narrowing of blood vessels while omega-3s have the opposite effect.
Before we call out the food police and start banning omega-6 entirely, understand that these fats are not all bad. Inflammation has an important role; it helps the body fight infection and recover from trauma. However, unresolved, excessive, or chronic inflammation can cause severe damage and sets the biochemical stage for the development of the most challenging diseases we face today, including heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, asthma, and many other conditions. A high omega-6 intake is also associated with violence and depression, while omega-3s improve mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Put simply, a diet that is high in omega-6 but low in omega-3, increases the likelihood of illness, while a diet that includes balanced amounts of these fats promotes health.
As proof, consider the diet of our forefathers, the hunter-gatherers, who lived on mostly deer, elk, and other wild animals. They enjoyed a very healthy omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1 to 4:1. Even better were the Inuit, who mainly ate omega-3 rich seafood, and had a most enviable ratio of 1:4. Huntergatherers who ate very simple diets enjoyed good health and did not suffer from the global epidemic of chronic diseases we face today.
History teaches us that the ratio of omega fats human beings evolved with is closer to 1:1, while the ratio today is around 22:1 or worse, meaning we get 22 times more omega-6 than what we are genetically programmed to handle. We cannot continue eating huge amounts of omega-6 and simply add omega-3. We need a small, balanced amount of both.
The amount of omega-6 fatty acids found in body fat stores has increased by more than 200% in the past 50 years alone. There have been several controlled trials where people were directed to replace saturated fats like butter, with omega-6 rich vegetable oils and margarines. Instead of having healthier hearts, the dietary advice backfired and we saw a significantly increased risk of heart disease.
The single most important thing you can do to reduce your omega-6 intake is to avoid processed seed and vegetable oils high in omega-6, as well as the processed foods that contain them. Cook with olive oil—it is mostly omega-9 and does not disrupt the omega-6/omega-3 balance significantly. Olive oil is between 55 and 83% omega-9 (monounsaturated), and between 3.5 and 21% omega-6.
Unfortunately for vegetarians, omega-3 from plant oils is virtually non-existent. There are some plant sources of omega-3, like flax and chia seeds. However, these contain an omega-3 known as ALA. ALA does not confer the heart, eye, and brain benefits of its longer cousins EPA and DHA. Animal foods are the best sources of the preformed omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, found in fish, grass-fed beef, and pork. Also use pastured or omega-3 eggs, which are much healthier than eggs from hens that were fed grain-based feeds.
By far the best and healthiest way to increase your omega-3 intake is to eat seafood at least twice per week or ideally, even more often. Fatty fish like salmon is a particularly good source. Sardines, mackerel, herring, and tuna are good choices too. Wild-caught fish is best, but eating farmed fish is much better than eating no fish at all. If you are concerned about toxins in fish, then eat it less often and use a purified fish oil. Be sure to take a supplement that provides EPA and DHA. Adults need between 1000 and 4000 mg EPA/DHA daily and children under the age of 10 need 200-1,000 mg EPA/DHA daily for best results. Teenagers should be dosed as adults.