The diagram above may look chaotic but it is a truly elegant description of how certain dietary fats or fatty acids, Omega-6 and Omega-3, play a role in the body’s production of inflammation causing and inflammation quieting substances. As explained by David Seaman, D.C., who created this graphic explanation for the text book, Nutritional Considerations in the Treatment of Soft-Tissue Injuries, the standard American diet contains an abundance of Omega-6 fats and relatively fewer Omega3 fats.
Why are we eating so many Omega-6 fats? What are the health consequences of an imbalance in Omega-6 fats compared to Omega-3 fats? If you eat fish oil capsules, flax or hemp seed, can you put these two types of fat in a better balance?
In a prior post I discussed the controversy over the role of saturated fats in cardiovascular disease. This led to the recommendation of replacing saturated fats (butter, lard, coconut and palm oils) with what were considered healthy alternatives, mainly polyunsaturated fats often called vegetable oils (in spite of the fact that most are from seeds [sunflower, safflower], beans [soy and peanut] or grain [corn]). It does appear that replacing saturated fats with these polyunsaturated fats can lower cholesterol levels. These fats are largely composed of Omega-6 fatty acids that are important in the body’s inflammatory response. The diagram illustrates how most Omega-6 fatty acids act as precursors, building blocks if you will, for a variety of inflammatory chemicals. These chemicals are vital to a proper inflammatory reaction, as I described previously.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also important in regulating the body’s inflammatory response. In contrast with Omega-6 fats, which, as I mentioned above promote inflammation, Omega-3s act largely to dampen of reduce inflammation. In a healthy body, fueled with relatively balanced amounts of both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats, the inflammatory response is appropriate and efficient. Researchers and anthropologists studying pre-agricultural diets of humans, those living over 10,000 years ago, suggest that our ancestors ate about equal amounts of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats in their diet. Eating both types of fat in balanced quantities sounds like a simple solution to help keep the body’s inflammatory operating as it was designed.
Omega-3 fats are found in some seeds and nuts (hemp, chia, flax and to a lesser degree nuts such as walnuts and macadamia, for example) and several types of marine animals (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and krill). Most experts agree that the most usable or bio-available substances in Omega-3 fats, known as DHA and EPA, come from animal sources. Unfortunately, the Omega-3 fats found in nuts and seeds are not entirely converted to DHA and EPA so animal sources of Omega 3 fats in the diet are superior. There may be third option, marine algae. In all likelihood, oils from algae act like fish oil since fish actually get their EPA and DHA content by eating algae.
When we get too much Omega-6 relative to Omega-3, we put our body in state of nutritional imbalance that tends to favor inflammation. Too much Omega-6 fats can promote the relative over-production of the inflammatory side of the equation.
One of the primary driving factors in tilting our food supply to Omega-6 fats is the use of polyunsaturated fats which I referred to in the previous post. This was driven, in part, by the fear of saturated fats. Nutritional experts advised us to replace animal fats (lard, butter) and saturated plant fats (coconut and palm) with margarine (typically made from seed oils as well trans- or partially hydrogenated fats). Cooking oils and salad dressings were sold as healthy additions to the diet. Deep fried food cooked in shortening or corn oil? “No saturated fat! No cholesterol!” shouted the advertisements. Regrettably, the Omega -6 content of these products compared to Omega-3 is completely out of whack with our ancestral heritage.
How out of whack? The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats in corn, safflower and sunflower oils is 70 to 1! How about some potato chips (cooked in no cholesterol, no saturated fat vegetable oil according to the label)? It clocks in at about 60 to 1. Soy oil is better but at a 7 to 1 ratio, it is still far from good. Maybe a few handfuls of nuts, roasted in oil? Most will come in around 5 to 1 or worse depending on the oil used. Remember, the appropriate balance is 1 to 1!
So what is the best way to get your intake of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats into something more closely resembling the operating manual for the human body? Eating flax, chia or hemp seeds or supplements isn’t a great option, as I pointed out earlier, because the body doesn’t efficiently convert the Omega-3 fats in them to DHA or EPA, the functionally usable components we need to modulate inflammation. Eating Omega-3 rich fish two to three times per week or more is a good start. Taking fish or krill oil supplements can help as well. However the most effective approach is to cut back drastically on seed oils. This can be done by changing cooking methods (less frying, for instance) and choosing not to buy canned, bagged or otherwise processed foods that have these fats in them. This will require reading labels. When you want a replacement, olive oil and avocado oil are good choices. Coconut oil can be used as well. Maybe even some lard. Hard to believe considering how some of these fats have been demonized for the last half century.
There are other food choices that influence of Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio that I will discuss in an upcoming entry. Until then, consider this: If corn oil has a terrible 70 to 1 ratio, what about corn on the cob (and the many things made of corn)? What is the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega-3 in the meat of animals fed corn and soy?