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.