Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Sense of Omega Fatty Acids


Today we hear a lot about Omega Fatty Acids and why they are important, yet there still seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what kind of omegas we should be eating and how much.

Omega 3
Omega 3 fatty acids include EPA, DHA and ALA. EPA and DHA can be found in fish and some algae, while ALA is obtained through plant sources; chia, flax and hemp being some of the more well-known and highest in ALA. Theoretically ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA within the body. In actuality, research shows that our ability to convert the plant source Omega 3's is very inefficient, with most individuals capable of a maximum of 5-20 % conversion. Given this, it is recommended that individuals supplement with or include in their diet a good balance between plant and fish source Omega 3's. Including only flax into your diet, for instance, significantly limits one's EPA and DHA stores and the numerous health benefits they possess. Omega 3 deficiency has been linked to disorders of the nervous system, including Alzheimer's, as well as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and various other inflammatory processes. They are said to be calming and help to support a healthy stress response in the body. While ALA is much easier to get through diet alone, EPA and DHA can be more difficult. In this case, supplementation with a high quality fish oil is recommended. For health maintenance as little as 600 mg of DHA/day is beneficial. Higher amounts may be recommended to treat specific disease states.

Omega 6
Omega 6 fatty acids include linoleic and arachadonic acids and, like Omega 3, are considered essential in that the body cannot make them on its own, and they must be consumed via foods. This is not a problem in today's typical Western diet, which includes an enormous amount of Omega 6 fats, including sunflower, safflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils. Many of the common omega 6 vegetable oils are especially high in processed or ready made foods such as salad dressings, margarines, mayonnaise and other spreads. Some of the less common Omega 6 fats include Evening primrose oil, borage oil and black currant seed oils, often found at your local health food store.

What's so wrong with Omega 6?
The negative health impact of Omega 6 fatty acids is really specific to both the amount of omega 6 fatty acid we take in, IN RELATION to Omega 3 fatty acid intake, as well as what source of omega 6 fats you are using and how you are using them. First, let me explain why balance of omega fatty acids, just as balance in EVERYTHING, makes all the difference. Centuries ago when we were hunters and gatherers and we lived off the land and the animals on it, we ate a healthy ratio of roughly 2:1 omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Today, the average diet is anywhere from 10-30:1 omega 6 to omega 3 fats. This is a problem. Omega 6 fatty acids, as I mentioned before include Linoleic acid and arachadonic acid, both of which have a greater propensity to create inflammatory compounds (as opposed to omega 3's which create anti-inflammatory substances). Inflammation leads to disease. Furthermore, Omega 6 fatty acids and omega 3 fatty acids utilize the same enzymes and transport systems, meaning they compete. If the ratio of omega 6:omega 3 fats is 20:1, there is very little (if any) raw material left for omega 3's to create and exert its anti-inflammatory benefits.

This is not the only factor we need to consider. It's equally important to understand that the way we are using these fats will directly relate to how beneficial or harmful they are. Let's take canola oil, for example. Yes, it is an omega 6 fat. Yes, it can withstand high heat, meaning yes, it has been over processed and over-refined in order to increase its smoking point. This negates and strips away almost all the beneficial aspects of the oil. Borage oil, as another example, we do not cook with, and high quality supplements are not processed or refined like the many vegetable oils you will find in the grocery store. Borage oil has been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects. It has a high GLA content, which actually reduces the inflammatory action of arachadonic acid. It is used effectively to support nerve health, heart health, treat arthritis and various pathologies related to hormone imbalance. We want to be sure to use these oils in moderation, so as not to facilitate a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, but that being said, Omega 6 fatty acids are not inherently 'bad' in and of themselves. They have many have numerous health benefits. Be confident in the source you are using and how you are using it. Avoid processed and deep fried foods, as much as possible. Use organic cold pressed oils when available and do not cook with them. Before we go throwing out all our Omega 6 fats, these are things we have to consider. Look at each of your fats on an individual basis and decide whether incorporating them into your diet is right or wrong for you.

What about Omega 9's?
A discussion of Omega fatty acids would not be complete without mentioning Omega 9. Omega 9 fatty acids are a family of unsaturated fatty acids, including Oleic acid found in Olive oil, Canola oil and Sunflower oil. Unlike Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, Omega 9 fats are not classified as essential, meaning your body can synthesize them from unsaturated fat. They do not need to be taken in via diet alone, although this does not mean that including them in your daily routine cannot be beneficial to your health. Research dedicated to Mediterranean diets, high in olive oil have been shown to help lower LDL (or 'bad') cholesterol, and drastically decrease the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular related deaths.

Take home message
What I would really like you to take home from this article is simply this. Focus on balancing out your fat intake, aiming to get as low as a 1:1 ratio or omega 6 to omega 3 fats in your diet. This will ensure you are supporting an anti-inflammatory environment. Make sure to accomplish this balance by not only increasing your omega 3 intake, but by decreasing potentially unhealthy, processed and refined sources of Omega 6 fats. Consider taking both a fish oil AND a borage oil supplement, for example, as well as incorporating chia and flax into your diet on a daily basis. Don't forget about omega 9's, also a beneficial fat, if used correctly.

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