The Mysterious Appeal of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Part of what I studied in nutrition school were nutritional trends, or fads: dietary theories centered around a superfood, or supernutrient, that would make you live longer, look better, feel healthier, improve your IQ, etc. Other times the fad would be for the antidote to an evil food like saturated fat or carbohydrates. Some of our teachers who lectured about the folly of these narrow-minded trends, though, were themselves susceptible to latching on to fads. For a few months it seemed like everyone who came to our school to speak was recommending fish oil, not necessarily as the cure to everything, but something you should take in addition to anything else you were doing. (i. e., “If you’re struggling with such-and-such health concern, then do so-and-so. Oh, and take fish oil.”) The fish oil was being recommended as a healthy way to get people to eat the miracle omega-3 fatty acids.

Now, I have developed my own theory about supernutrient fads. It goes like this: each supernutrient becomes widely known in proportion to the degree to which the foods that contain it are eaten less and less. Support for this theory dates back at least to the discovery of vitamins. Throughout history, sailors who went on long voyages would develop scurvy after their supplies of fruit and vegetables perished, and it was a Scottish surgeon, James Lind, who found that specifically citrus fruit, such as lemons and limes, could cure the disease (the British Royal Navy was quick to adopt his findings, resulting in their sailors being nicknamed as “Limeys.”). This discovery eventually led to the isolation of vitamin C and sparked research into other possible vitamins.

Sometimes when you read health and wellness magazines that advise you to take advantage of the latest antioxidant, you may think that scientists have discovered some new fountain of youth within a particular food – but it’s not so much that the supernutrient cures a particular disease as that we started becoming vulnerable to sickness when we stopped eating the foods that contained the nutrient. Some people then take the nutrient all by itself – as a supplement – without going back to the original, missing food. I always feel a little silly recommending foods based on their nutrients, because there are probably many as-yet undiscovered reasons to eat whole foods (or drink fish oil), and the nutrients we know are just the tip of the iceberg. The reason why I’m writing on omega-3′s is both to give my own perspective on the supernutrient idea while explaining what these fatty acids are (I didn’t want to tell my clients, “Uh, just take them”). So, on to the fats.

According to my theory, there’s such an emphasis on omega-3′s these days because at some point in the past they disappeared from our diet. I think this disappearance can be traced back to the once-popular notion that saturated fat (as contained in lard, butter, meat, milk, cheese and other foods for which there are usually “lean” “low-fat” or “non-dairy’ alternatives) is detrimental to one’s health, specifically in that it clogs your arteries and leads to heart disease (an ailment which still kills twice as many people as all cancers combined). When studies were released demonizing saturated fats in the mid-20 th century, many people turned to the alternatives that manufacturers had provided: polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as Crisco and margarine (a hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oil).

It’s curious that there ever were such reports about saturated fats, because people had been eating them for thousands of years, and benefiting from the practice in many ways. These fats constitute half of our cell membranes, make it possible for calcium to be incorporated into our bones, supply warmth and heat to the body, insulate vital organs, and help assimilate the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. So why did butter get demonized? To answer this question, we’ll have to talk about the science behind the omega-3′s.

The polyunsaturated fats, found in plant life, come in two categories, omega-3 fats and omega-6 (the number refers to the location of the first double-bond in the acid molecule). They are both called “essential” fatty acids because they can’t be synthesized by the human body. Both are needed for human health, but in a very specific ratio: they should be consumed at about a rate of 1:1. For a variety of reasons, over the last century the omega-3 acids practically dropped out of our diet and the consumption of omega-6 increased such that for many people the ratio is around 20:1 or even 50:1.

One of the reasons for this development is that as farms consolidated and grew in size to become factory farms, their livestock were less and less likely to feed on grass and insects and more likely to feed on grains. Milk, meat (especially organ meat such as liver), cheese, butter, and eggs that come from grass-fed animals contain far more omega-3 fatty acids than their grain-fed counterparts. This is because the seeds and grasses and bugs are the original sources of the omega-3 fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), from which the body can make the other important kinds, eicosapentaenoic acid and docohexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA). Flax seed, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts, dark green vegetables such as kale, collards, chard, and parsely, and soybean products such as tofu and tempeh all are sources of ALA. One major reason why our omega-3:omega-6 ratio got all out of whack is clear: not only did we stop eating as many green plants and wild grasses and herbs, but even stopped feeding them to the animals we ate. As we’ll see in a moment, omega-3 acids are very important for counterbalancing the saturated fat in animal foods. Saturated fat is fairly healthful in combination with omega-3′s (and plenty of vegetables), but it isn’t so great all by itself. A saturated fat scare was probably inevitable, and in response we started eating more commercial vegetable oils, which have the omega-6 linoleic acid, as opposed to the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. As you can see, this just made things even worse.

Omega-3 fatty acids have sometimes been compared to antifreeze; they reduce blood viscosity and clotting, lower blood pressure, and generally clean the circulatory system of fat and cholesterol. This makes them very helpful when protecting against strokes and heart attacks, the number one cause of death in America. When we eat grass-fed animal products, the omega-3 fatty acids they contain help regulate the saturated fat content by cleaning the arteries, making these animal products much more balanced, healthier foods than their grain-fed counterparts.

Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA in particular, are also said to be beneficial for the brain, including improving eyesight and attention span, raising serotonin levels, reducing depression and bipolar disorder, and even increasing cognitive skills. This probably has something to do with the fact that omega-3 fatty acids comprise about 8 percent of the human brain, and contribute to both brain structure and brain function. It could be that one reason why we’ve seen so much depression, ADD, and other mental “disorders” in recent times is the ballooning omega-6/omega-3 ratio.

In addition to the above-mentioned sources of ALA (flax seed, greens, soy products, grass-fed eggs, milk, and cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb), there are also foods from which you can obtain EPA and DHA directly. And when I say “foods”, I mean fish. Cold-water fish have high quantities of EPA and DHA because they eat the oceanic version of what land animals eat: algae, plankton, seaweed, or smaller fish that feed on these sea-grasses and sea-insects. Just like in meat, the oil is found most plentifully in the organs; that’s why we used to take cod liver oil! Unfortunately, many species of fish that are high in omega-3s, such as salmon, tuna, herring, anchovies, and sardines, cod, now suffer from some contamination by heavy metals (like mercury), thanks to our water being so polluted. The smaller fish, such as sardines, are lower on the food chain and less likely to have such contaminants. Some people recommend buying purified fish oil in capsules at the health food store. It may be worth trying out for those of you who may be extremely deficient in omega-3s, and suffer from the corresponding symptoms.

All the same, I don’t advocate everyone taking omega-3 supplements the way many of us take other vitamin supplements. I think that eating some of the whole foods I mentioned above, such as greens or grass-fed animal products, and some sardines or wild salmon or cod liver oil, at least a few times a week, while at the same time cutting down on polyunsaturated vegetable oils (hydrogenated or otherwise) is sufficient. As always, the emphasis should be on the whole foods, because there are a lot more valuable things in them besides omega-3′s that we still don’t even know about.

The Challenge of Bulk Food

In my first newsletter, I made some disparaging comments about the shopping habits of the average Whole Foods patron: specifically, their tendency to go for the not-so-healthy prepared and processed foods. As an alternative, I extolled the virtues of the bulk food section (which doesn’t really exist anymore at Whole Foods, unfortunately – at least not at the stores in large metropolitan areas. Instead they have those little plastic cartons of dry foods, which, when you think about it, are antithetical to the meaning of “bulk”). Some people responded to me by saying that the bulk foods in general were a little intimidating –that the clear canisters of grains and beans even had an atmosphere of superiority about them. Is it similar to the air of superiority that you sometimes seem to get when trying to talk to organic-eating, McDonald’s-avoiding, skinny-looking people? I’m not sure. Actually, I think it’s the one that you get when flipping through those gourmet magazines – the ones that have pictures of designer kitchens where there are always a few glass jars against the wall, filled with pasta or rice or cannellini beans. The jars are probably slightly blurry and out of focus in the background while the model in the foreground is making dough for a flaky pastry product of some kind. Well, this is not my approach to bulk food. In fact, using whole grains and beans to make delicious meals from scratch can be one of the most rewarding, satisfying, hands-on cooking experiences you’ll ever have.

I find that the biggest challenge is probably what I’d call the “start-up cost:” a $30 electric steamer (I prefer the Black & Decker HS800 Flavor Scenter Steamer). Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? In truth, even a steamer isn’t really necessary – but it does help cut down on your time in the kitchen. I’ve referred to these foods a lot in various articles – whether it’s eating healthy or eating on a budget. I thought I should help people get over the hurdle of actually preparing them.

Note: when I say “bulk food” I am talking about rice and beans – not granola, textured vegetable protein, chocolate covered raisins, dried fruit, or any of that snack stuff that they toss into the bins.

Making Beans

The major issues with beans are time and digestibility. That’s why people either buy canned beans, or just avoid them like the plague. I prefer not to use canned beans because they are subject to a high-heat, rapid cooking process, and I believe that the best and healthiest way to cook beans is just the opposite – for a long time over a low flame. The following steps are meant to address the two obstacles mentioned above.

1. Shopping First of all, when shopping, I’d recommend that you go organic – the conventional ones that you can find in bags from Goya or other companies are usually sprayed with pesticides and more likely to be broken or split. I usually get a few cups of a given kind of bean at a time. They won’t really go bad, but if they’re three years old they might not be as tasty. So don’t get too much.

2. Preparing You will still get some small stones and withered or broken beans, and if you would like to spend some time really getting in touch with your food, you can sift through them before cooking them and pick out any that you see. Broken beans have less energy and nutrition and little stones really don’t have much at all. This can be a very meditative experience and lead to greater enjoyment of the meal. It will also help if you’re trying to avoid doing your taxes. After sifting the beans, you’ll want to rinse them off and then soak them. Soaking beans beforehand contributes to their digestibility. Unless it’s lentils or split peas, I usually soak my beans all day or overnight. When you’re ready to cook, discard the soaking water and rinse them off again.

3. Cooking. Most of the problems people have with digesting beans are a result of improper cooking. Soaking is the first step in breaking down beans and rendering their digestive enzymes more accessible. When cooking beans, I start by tossing them in a pot of water (cast-iron pots are the best) with a strip or two of kombu, a sea vegetable. In addition to being very nutritious in its own right, kombu helps to further soften the beans and over the course of the cooking it will typically dissolve completely. Bring the beans to a boil and use a shallow, wide spoon to scoop off the foam that gathers at the surface. After a few minutes lower the flame and let the beans cook, stirring every once in a while, until their texture becomes soft. For small beans like lentils this should only take 20-30 minutes, while kidney beans and garbanzo beans are more likely to take over two hours. I usually make beans on a weekend when I have a few hours at home to be near them while they are cooking and stir them occasionally. They cook best when you mostly forget about them while you’re preoccupied doing other things – but make sure the flame is on low and you stir them once in a while, otherwise the ones on the bottom will burn and the ones on the top won’t cook. Finally, don’t add salt until they reach that soft texture. Salt has contracting properties and will counteract the cooking process of the beans.

I also like to throw in a variety of vegetables – carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, turnips, daikon radish, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. The more the better. Beans tend to be a little bland all by themselves and sweet vegetables especially help liven them up. Also, don’t forget to season them! There is a range of possibilities here – from white beans with olive oil, thyme, sage, basil, etc. to lentils with curry, cumin, turmeric, and cardamom, all beans benefit from being seasoned. And I almost always include garlic.

4. Planning As I said before, I usually make beans on the weekend, maybe two cups at a time, with a few cups of the aforementioned vegetables thrown in. This amount of food should last you at least half the week and will only get better with more cooking. The difference between homemade and canned beans is that you do need some advance planning, but you will be much healthier and happier as a result. Beans are extremely nutritious foods, especially for vegetarians, with all their fiber (soluble and insoluble), complex carbs, protein, B vitamins, iron, calcium, and magnesium. They help people who have diabetes because they have their own enzyme for digestion (providing they are cooked properly) and don’t require much insulin to digest. They also help you plan your budget – they’re extremely filling and inexpensive, and can still be considered gourmet (refer back to those glossy magazine photographs). Just remember the garlic.

Making Grains

While there isn’t really a refined, processed, bleached, enriched alternative version of beans (canned was the best I could do), there are definitely two polar opposites when it comes to grain foods: specifically, the whole grains vs. everything else. Figuring out what counts as a “whole grain” can be complicated, primarily because of all the grain products that are flying around claiming to be whole grain this and whole grain that. When I’m really pressed on the subject, though, I have to admit that there is something of a gradation going from whole grains to refined grains. Oats, source of the ever-popular oatmeal, are a good example of the process. Behold the stages of oats:

1. Whole oats. A whole oat is the entire edible grain, plus an inedible outer husk or “hull” which the average consumer cannot easily discard at home. For this reason the least processed oats you can still take home and eat are called…

2. Hulled oats. These have the husk removed, leaving the remaining edible parts: the carbohydrate, the bran, and the germ. Sometimes I also call these “whole oats” because no one really cares about the hull anyway.

3. Steel-cut oats are hulled oats that have been chopped up into two or three pieces by a big blade. They cook faster but are not quite as good for you because some nutrition has been lost.

4. Rolled oats are hulled oats that have been crushed flat. These have less nutrition than steel-cut oats but cook even faster.

5. Quick oats are rolled oats that have been shredded a little, so that they cook in practically no time at all. However, they have the least amount of nutrition. You can see a pattern here.

Despite how processed the oats get, I would still consider them to be whole grains even at the quick oats stage. This is because all the original components of the grain are still present. For a long time, oats have had the reputation of being good for you because of their fiber content and their ability to lower cholesterol. You’ll often see it in the news or proudly reported on the Quaker Oats cylinder. In reality, though, oats share these properties with the other grains – millet, rice, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, spelt, kamut, rye, wheat, etc. However, rice and wheat, the other popular grains, food manufacturers process by stripping away the bran and the germ, leaving only the white, carbohydrate part. Otherwise they’d be just as noticeably healthy as oats! The bran is the part that has all that valuable fiber; the germ, which is the embryo of the future grain plant, the very thing that gives it life, contains all the wonderful nutrients such as Vitamin E, folate (folic acid), phosphorus, thiamin, zinc and magnesium. It also contains what little fat there is in the grain, which is one reason why it’s been removed, leaving us with white rice and white flour: fat eventually goes rancid, and food processors wanted to profit from longer shelf life. A good general rule, however, is that anything that won’t break down on the shelf will have a hard time being broken down by your own body.

But the other benefit of processing grains is their subsequent quick-cooking time. This is why I use a steamer to cook all my grains. It’s very simple: just rinse the grains, put them in the steamer with the requisite amount of water, turn the machine on, and go do something fun for an hour. (Sometimes, in these articles about traditional eating, I may seem to be anti-technology. I’m really not. Maybe I do feel a little bit like I’m cheating when I’m not standing over a hot stove stirring my brown rice all day long – but that’s just me. You should enjoy yourself!).

Boiling grains, however, works quite well: just put the grains in water, bring to a boil, stir, reduce to a simmer, and check occasionally until they are finished. Refer to the table below for cooking times.

1 cup grains water Cooking time
common grains:
brown rice 2 cups 60 minutes
buckwheat (kasha)* 2 cups 20 minutes
Millet 2 cups 30 minutes
oatmeal (rolled oats) 3 cups 20 minutes
Quinoa 2 cups 30 minutes
misc. grains:
Amaranth 2 cups 20 minutes
barley (pearled) 2-3 cups 60 minutes
barley (hulled) 2-3 cups 90 minutes
Bulgur 2 cups 20 minutes
cornmeal (polenta) 3 cups 15 minutes
Couscous 1 cup 5 minutes
Kamut 3 cups 90 minutes
oats (whole groats) 3 cups 90 minutes
rye berries 3 cups 2 hours
Spelt 3 cups 2 hours
wheat berries 3 cups 60 minutes
wild rice 2 cups 60 minutes

One more word on grains and their products: I’m not really talking about pasta, bread, cereal, bagels, pastries, cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, etc., even if you can find these things that say “whole grain.” That means that the flour they are made from still has the germ and the bran in it, which is certainly a good thing; however, even baked goods made from whole wheat are not nutritionally equal to real whole grains. They are also a good bit more expensive. Now, I don’t have brown rice for breakfast every morning (I have toast just as often), but I’ve written what I have because including a few more servings of whole grains into your life can help you both eat inexpensively and healthfully.

Autumn Approaches

It doesn’t feel like it yet – it’s still warm, humid and cloudy here in Virginia – but fall is coming and before my next issue comes out, the weather will have probably turned just cold enough for some people to start getting sick. It’s worth it now to talk a little about why that happens. It will also give us a chance to talk about a very important element of staying healthy: being able to change. Being able to change with the seasons, and with other natural changes that occur in life, is one of the keys to keeping yourself properly nourished. One reason why so many diets fail is because they are rigid. You may need to eat differently if you move, get a new job, enter into a relationship, exercise more, get sick, etc. Many people change their diet and lifestyle if they themselves want to change ( i.e. lose weight or build muscle), but not many do so because of changes forced on them. It’s not as urgent in this world of air conditioning and oil heating, but having the power to adapt is still very important.

Autumn is getting close to the hibernation time, and although we’re not ready to curl up yet, it’s a period where harvesting occurs and projects should be getting near the wrapping-up stage. At the same time it’s a new beginning for things that weren’t feasible in the summer months. It’s a good period for transition towards more “interior” activity like studying, contemplation, and spending time with your friends and family. Daily exercise is also a very good idea for keeping your body warm and your blood flowing. Sometimes the shorter days sneak up on us and catch us still living a summer lifestyle, i.e. leaving the windows open or walking around in shorts. I’d say, don’t try to endure it: it’s only going to get colder. Make some tea and put a sweater on. And, especially, protect your neck. This is the season when the lungs and the large intestine are the organs most susceptible to both healing and to illness. Many people get mucus-y colds and coughs around this time for two reasons: coldness is penetrating the poorly protected body and weakening its immune function, leaving it susceptible to viruses; the large intestine, in its sensitive state, allows more waste to re-enter the system and weaken the body. The latter is more likely in those who are constipated and/or have a “congesting” diet high in fat, dairy products, fried foods, and refined grains – all of which lack fiber and are very hard for the body to eliminate. Eat plenty of root vegetables (there’s a recipe at the bottom), drink hot tea as opposed to anything with milk or sugar, and if you do get sick, try that magical vampire-repellant: garlic. It wasn’t worn around superstitious peoples’ necks for nothing. Garlic is extremely warming and lethal to bacteria. Its beneficial properties come from the essential oil contained within it, which can be extracted and then rubbed on congested chests or the bottom of your feet to help prevent or reduce colds.

To extract garlic oil: peel and chop enough cloves to fill half of a quart jar. Cover with cold-pressed olive oil to about one or two inches above the garlic and place in a sunlit window for five to seven days, shaking once daily. Then strain it well through a cheese cloth, and you have strong smelling garlic oil. The garlic that was soaking can be refrigerated and used in cooking, and the garlic oil will last months and can be used both internally and externally. (This “recipe” comes from Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons).

Some general recommendations: Eat warming foods, cut down on damp, fried dairy foods, play sports, read books, think about things, finish up old projects, start new projects, watch classic movies, eat raw garlic, and drink tea. Keep your feet and neck warm, and try to get more sleep. And spend some time looking at the leaves changing color! More than anything else, it may help you get in touch with the natural cycle of the year.