Are fish oils a genuine superfood, or just another hyped-up fad?
I often hear confusion from my patients about the differences between certain fats and oils, especially omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. We’re told that one’s is good and the other is bad, and yet they’re both called essential fatty acids?
By the end of this article you’ll be crystal clear about this interesting class of fat, what they’re for and what we can do to benefit from their properties.
Understand the Scientific Jargon in 10 Seconds
Let’s take away the mystery surrounding that title “Omega-3 unsaturated fatty acid”.
- An acid has a lot of hydrogen. (Hydrogen is reactive; good for energy).
- “Unsaturated fatty acids” are not saturated with hydrogen. They have gaps in their long chains.
- Omega means the end. (Remember: God is known as the “Alpha and Omega”, the beginning and the end).
- Omega-3 means the first hydrogen-gap is 3 links from the end of the chain.
See? These weird names actually make sense!
Now you can read these technical names, you already know how an omega-6 fatty acid is structured. The nearest hydrogen gap in its chain is 6 links away from the end.
I left something out of the name I gave above. While they are unsaturated fatty acids, you’ll see them called polyunsaturated fatty acids more often. “Poly-” simply means more than one, like a polygon (a shape with more than one side), or a polygamist (someone with more than one spouse). So polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one hydrogen gap in their chains.
You probably notice that although they have many hydrogen gaps in their chain, their names only refer to the one nearest the end (the “omega”). That’s because this one gap determines most their properties.
Immune response and inflammation.
Metabolic function and regulation.
Reducing and regulating inflammation.
Functional integrity of cell membranes.
When we look closely we can see that these two groups are involved in some opposite processes. Omega-6 helps us to react to damage and invasion with immune responses such as inflammation. Omega-3 helps keep inflammation from spiraling out of control, and helps to support and re-sensitize cell membranes. Both sides of the coin are essential, but too much of one might throw the other out of balance.
So if both are so important, why is omega-6 always the bad guy? Why are omega-3s showered with adoration everywhere from magazine articles to supplement commercials?
It’s down to the balance.
We’re drowning in omega-6.
The Right Ratio Could Save Your Life
The more omega-6 we consume, the more omega-3 we need.
Evolutionary history can tell us what dietary materials we had to work with, and research tells us that our ancestors consumed a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that lay somewhere between 1:1 and 3:1.
We ate an abundance of omega-3 rich seafood, and found omega-6 seed oils a little harder to come by. Before the advent of industrial agriculture and intensive production of grains and seeds, it was quite impossible to eat such a large concentration of omega-6 as we can today.
Industrial agriculture did something else to increase our omega-6 intake that’s not so direct. By feeding grains to cows and other livestock kept in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), we changed the qualities of their meat. Not only does the meat of CAFO livestock contain more fat, but much more of that fat is omega-6, and much less is omega-3.
Talking about ratios in nutrition may sound a little anal, but this is one detail and relates to your risk of heart disease, stroke, and a host of other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and asthma.
For some unlucky folk, all this theory turns into real-world hospitalization, or worse. This is a detail worth paying some attention to.
Protect Yourself in 3 Steps
1 – Supplement with Fish Oil
This is the easiest thing to implement, and it’s likely to have rapid results. If you’re currently in a state of omega-6 surplus (and if you haven’t tried to avoid it then you probably are), taking some omega-3 supplements will help to reduce inflammation and improve your blood markers.
Krill oil and cod liver oil are high in omega-3 and can be bought in tablet form. It couldn’t be easier to make it a part of your morning routine.
The big-picture goal, however, is to eventually get everything you need without supplementation.
2 – Reduce Omega-6 PUFAs
Processed vegetable oils are extremely high in omega-6, and although they are often sold as a heart-healthy choice to cook with, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does an abundance of omega-6 promote inflammation, but cooking with any polyunsaturated fat will cause it to oxidize, and when ingested will trigger inflammation even more strongly. All those hydrogen gaps in the chain make these fatty acids unstable.
Here’s the rule of thumb. If it’s an oil, it’s probably best to leave it. The exception is olive oil, which contains a good nutritional profile, contains lower omega-6 and is a little more heat-stable than most veg-oils.
High omega-6 oils are hidden in most processed foods, so limiting your intake of products that have a list of ingredients will go a long way towards lowering your omega-6 back down to heart-healthy levels.
3 – Eat the Finest Quality
Load up on high quality, nutrient dense, organic whole-foods.
Get acquainted with your nearest provider of grass-fed meat, and look for seafood that is wild caught or otherwise ethically sourced. This way, not only will you be mimicking the fatty acid intake of our ancestors, you’ll also be avoiding the artificial hormones used in CAFO feeding lots and the heavy metals present in most intensively farmed fish.
For the body to heal, it needs the best material to work with.
Omega 3 Benefits
We’ve all heard the omega-3 hype, and amazingly, there’s a lot of validity to it.
The reason it’s important, as always, is the state of the food we have marketed to us every day. The fact that you’re researching these topics means you’re ahead of the curve. Keep going, and you’ll most likely avoid the future drug expenses and expansive pants that others are hurtling toward.
For now, consider omega-3 your friend. Omega-6 is just as crucial to bodily function, but we’ve simply seen too much of him recently. Being deficient in omega-6 is almost impossible, so cut down as much as you like, and see the difference it can make.
Receive a free copy of the Ultimate Guide to Fat, by signing up below. In this eBook I go into specific detail about all the fats we have available to us, and lay out advice on the best sources based on up-to-date research and my own clinical experience.