Most nutrition topics are controversial. Fats are no exception. There is controversy over what kinds of fats are healthy, how much of them should be eaten, when they should be eaten, and so forth. If one starts to read a lot of nutrition books and articles, eating can start to seem less like an enjoyable activity and more like a stress-inducing one. My hope is that this article will help eliminate some of the confusion around the different omega-fats by giving an overview of the main types and some of their health benefits.
Where are omegas found?
Omega-9 fats, according to Udo Erasmus, PhD, in his book Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, are “found in large quantities in olive, almond, avocado, peanut, pecan, cashew, filbert, and macadamia oils. Land animal fats and butter are other sources of Oleic Acid (omega-9).” Erasmus also notes that omega-9 is produced in our bodies.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in safflower, sunflower, hemp, soybean, walnut, pumpkin, sesame, flax and animal products, as well as many other foods. A special type of omega-6 fatty acid called Gamma-linolenic Acid is sometimes used to address certain health conditions. Erasmus writes, “GLA provides benefit for arthritis and premenstrual syndrome. As much as 10-25% of affluent populations could benefit from its use. Under certain conditions of illness and dietary deficiency, our body may be unable to make GLA from LA (omega-6) and Evening Primrose Oil can compensate for this inability.” Borage seed oil and black currant seed oil are two other commonly sold GLA-containing oils. Skin conditions such as eczema often respond positively to GLA supplementation as well.
Omega-3s are found in dark green leafy vegetables, walnuts (5% of its oil is composed of omega-3 fatty acids), chia seeds (30%), flax seeds (53%), hempseeds (20%), pumpkin seeds (0-15%), fish, cereal grasses (wheat and barley), and grass-fed meat and dairy. According to Paul Pitchford in his book Healing with Whole Foods, “Plants that grow in cold climates are relatively more concentrated in omega-3s, these include hard red winter wheat and cold-climate nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. Omega-3 fatty acids are sometimes compared with antifreeze, since they keep the blood relatively thin and circulating well in cold weather, yet a number of clinical trials indicate omega-3s never cause or provoke hemorrhage.”
Why supplement with omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient in the typical western diet. Pitchford writes that, “It is estimated that the quantity of omega-3 oils consumed by modern Westerners is one-fifth the level found in traditional diets.” Processed foods in particular tend to be high in omega-6 because they are more shelf-stable, especially if the oil has been refined. But even among whole, unprocessed nuts and oils, omega-6 is predominant. There is disagreement over the ideal ratio of omega oils that one should consume, and besides, the healthy native peoples of yore did not sit around calculating whether they ate the proper fat ratio for the day. Therefore, it is probably best to focus on making omega-3 rich foods a larger part of the daily diet, and greatly reducing or eliminating any processed oils in the diet. Oils which are not health-promoting include overheated oils, nearly all refined oils, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, cottonseed oil, and of course, rancid (oxidized) oils. If you need oil for cooking, the best fats to use would be butter, ghee, grape seed oil or unrefined tropical oils with a high saturated fat content.
The health benefits of omega-3s have been well documented. According to Michael Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D., in their book Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, “ Population studies have demonstrated that people who consume a diet rich in omega-3 oils from either fish or vegetable sources have a significantly reduced risk of developing heart disease. Furthermore, results from autopsy studies have shown that the highest degree of coronary artery disease is found in individuals with the lowest concentration of omega-3 oils in their fat tissues. Conversely, individuals with the lowest degree of coronary artery disease had the highest concentration of omega-3 oils.” Murray and Pizzorno go on to state that, “Omega-3 fatty acids lower levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, inhibit excessive platelet aggregation, lower fibrinogen levels, and lower blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure.” In addition, Pitchford writes that they are useful in treating “ osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis…kidney disease, ulcerative colitis, depression, bronchial asthma, hives, psoriasis, enlarged prostate, and migraine.” The numerous benefits of omega-3 fats are obviously beyond the scope of this article.
Is fish oil a superior source of Omega-3s?
I am often asked whether flax oil (or other vegetal-source omega-3s) is as beneficial as fish oil. They both contain omega-3 fatty acids, but fish oil contains two special types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are normal constituents of our cells. These special types of fatty acids are uncommon in the plant kingdom. Moderate amounts of DHA (and very small amounts of EPA) are found in certain brown and red algaes eaten by fish; an oil made from this algae can be purchased in capsules, and the Co-op also offers flax oil supplemented with this oil. EPA and DHA have a number of unique health benefits. Two of their main benefits are to help keep our arteries clean and our platelets less sticky, according to Erasmus. He goes on to state that, “EPA is the starting material for making series 3 prostaglandins, which have beneficial effects on blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, kidney function, inflammatory response, and immune response.” EPA and DHA have also been found to be beneficial in many cases for anxiety, depression, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Be sure to consult your health care professional before embarking on a program of treatment for a health condition. Also be sure to consult your physician before taking omega-3 supplements if you are using blood thinners or anticipate surgery.
Humans can convert the omega-3s found in plant foods into EPA and DHA, but there is debate over how well this conversion occurs. Erasmus writes that, “The rate at which the average human body can convert LNA [plant source omega-3s] to EPA has been measured in one study to be 2.7% per day of the LNA administered.” However, “degenerative conditions may impair our body’s ability to make EPA and DHA.” The number of factors affecting the body’s ability to make this conversion seem to be numerous, so I would highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic read chapter 55 of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill.
We crave fats because they are such a concentrated source of energy. We also need a certain amount of high quality fat in order to stay healthy and vital. I hope this article has been helpful to you and cleared up some questions you may have had about omega-3, 6, and 9 fats.