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August 2002 Issue
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids for Dummies
by Michael Fick
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We've all seen articles on omega 3 and omega 6 oils and how important it is to balance their intake to repair or avert a variety of ailments. But most of those articles wallowed in so much biochemistry that we quickly left the whole omega business to the food accountants ... those people who enjoy eating grams and decimal points and counting their raisins while discussing prostaglandins. The rest of us, for whom food is a treat rather than a homework assignment, glazed over at all this technobabble and reached for a burger and a Twinkie. We thus missed some important information, so let's bypass the math and chemistry lessons and cut to the practical, easy-to-use basics, which can save many of us from some pain, disability, and even early death.

A nutrient is defined as essential if it is

  • a) vital to our health and
  • b) must be consumed because our bodies cannot manufacture it.
Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential, partly due to their strong effects on inflammation. Inflammation is a good thing when it fends off bacterial and viral invasion, and a bad thing when it produces rheumatoid arthritis and heart attacks. Omega 6 promotes inflammation, omega 3 opposes it, and the outcome of their power struggle is determined by their ratio in our diet. Excess 6 suppresses the 3, leaving us over-inflamed and contributing to the incidence and severity of arthritis, heart attacks, schizophrenia, asthma, brain attacks (strokes), Crohn's disease, preeclampsia, several menstruation problems, some kidney diseases, ADHD, lupus, prostate cancer, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, blood clots, migraine headaches, and diabetes. Alzheimer's Disease, dyslexia, allergies and depression are increasingly likely candidates, too. These are not just statistical correlations; in many cases the mechanism of the effect is well understood.

The healthy ratio of 6s to 3s is probably about 4:1, but the American diet surged to as much as ten times that ratio, to as high as 40:1, in just the last century. Why? Because in the early 1900s food manufacturers (isn't that an oxymoron?) started manufacturing more vegetable oils and using them in more junk food (another oxymoron), and most vegetable oils are heavy in omega 6. We began eating even more vegetable oils when we learned in the 1960's that substituting them for animal fats lowered our cholesterol.

This shift to vegetable oils reduced the incidence of heart attacks caused by cholesterol, but comparably increased the incidence of heart attacks from other well-defined causes. Thus not only did we maintain the original overall heart attack rate, we also exacerbated that list of other maladies. Studies have shown that consuming fewer omega 6 and more omega 3 essential fatty acids will help reduce our incidence of all those medical problems, including heart attacks.

Fortunately, it's pretty simple to eat less 6 and more 3. We just stop buying safflower, cottonseed, corn, peanut, soy, and sesame oils and the junk foods made with them (i.e., most junk foods), and start buying more olive and canola oils and the foods made with them (read the labels). Use olive oil on your breads and the canola oil on your salads, use either in most recipes calling for other shortenings, and stir fry with the olive oil (especially extra virgin). Add walnuts to your cereal, salads, breads, cookies, etc, and eat more fish. And keep up your already-increased intake of green leafy vegetables and whole grain cereals and breads.

There. Your diet is significantly improved and your risk of the medical problems caused by too many omega 6 oils will be significantly reduced over the coming months and years, with little effort or sacrifice.

Two other oils are even better, but they have downsides for some people. Walnut oil is very healthy and a great source of omega 3 oils, but has a strong taste many people won't like. Try blending it in increasing proportions with the olive oil you're already eating on your whole-grained breads. Flaxseed oil and freshly ground brown flaxseed are among the best sources of 3s and some other nutrients, but they leave some people spending wayyyy too much time in the bathroom. Try them cautiously ... and close to home.

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