Health & Fitness

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.

We could get out scales, a calculator, trifocals, and our green eye shades, and spend hours a week balancing our omega oil intake, but

  • a) that level of effort will drive most people to donuts,
  • b) that time is better spent in exercise, and
  • c) most of us will benefit significantly just by diligently pursuing the improvements suggested here.

You can find reliable online medical data on this topic by searching on various terms such as "omega oils" or "essential fatty acids" at sites listed in the June 2001 Health & Fitness column. The best book on the topic seems to be The Omega Diet, by Simopoulos and Robinson (1999); Harper Collins. There's plenty more information available in Google searches on omega oils, but much of it is a commercially biased sales pitch for fish and omega oil capsules.

Omega 3 oils are available in various oil capsules, but clinical tests of their safety and efficacy are inconsistent and the labels often misrepresent their omega oils content. The only use of fish oil capsules supported by the American Heart Association is to help reduce extremely high blood triglyceride levels if they don't respond to prescribed medication. Getting omega 3s from natural food sources should always be the first option, most readily achieved with two meals of salmon, herring, sardines, or tuna each week providing optimal protection. Salmon generally has the highest omega-3 content. Pregnant women may need three servings of these fish each week for optimal fetal nervous system development and reduced incidence of premature birth, according to recent studies.

Some outspoken physicians believe that a healthy diet - the usual whole grains, beans, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds we all should eat plenty of - provides plenty of omega 3s, rendering fish unnecessary, but the balance of evidence seems to favor fish. (Mercury is a threat to fetuses and children from some fish, but not in the fish listed here.)

The most efficient improvement in our intake of the good omegas would be almost daily intake of an ounce or two of one of the foods high on the omega 3 list, but the idea of stinking up our kitchens by cooking fish a few times a week stinks to high heaven. Who's got the time, stomach, nose, or money to do that AND call in a HazMat team to erase all traces of the stink from their sink, counter, trash can, grille or oven or microwave, utensils, and cat every other day, let alone the stomach to base a meal on any one food two or three days a week?

So how do we eat more fish without the hassle? What works for me is keeping cans of salmon in the pantry and a covered container of it in the refrigerator. Every day I make a point of eating a few bites of it as a snack, or put some on a salad, in an omelet, in a casserole, in macaroni and cheese, or in a sandwich spread such as egg salad. I plan to access some of the healthy diet websites listed in the May 2001 Health & Fitness column to look for salmon recipes. But in the meantime, and with much less effort, I look forward each day to my few bites of cold salmon with any meal or by itself. There are many kinds of wild and farm-grown salmon, and their levels of omega 3 oils differ significantly and unpredictably. Go for a variety to cover your bases and vary its taste.

To avoid getting too much protein (we need little of it, and store the excess as fat) from all this salmon, we'll need to cut back even further on the meat we eat with our other meals. The salmon tastes better than Tums, so our extra calcium can now come from the salmon bones instead of a tablet. And the salmon also adds still more micronutrient variety to our diets.

Of course, if you're calorically challenged already, remember that Calories Rule. If you add calories to your diet in any form, including nuts and fish and fish oils, you must subtract something else from your diet and/or add more exercise to your life to avoid adding weight. And remember that improving your diet in one way is no excuse to abuse it in another; sardine-flavored Twinkies are still not cool.

Thank goodness!