November 4, 2008

Life and Health

Alphas and Omegas of Essential Fatty Acids

Alice Abler

All the latest health articles tell us we need to watch the ratios of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in our diet. But how do we achieve the proper balance for health and wellness? The short answer is to reduce our intake of omega-6 rich foods and increase our intake of omega-3 rich foods.  

Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acids (ALAs), eicosapentaenoic acids (EPAs) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHAs).  These are all important for the structure and shape of each cell in our brains and in our bodies. ALAs come from plant materials like nuts, seeds and leafy greens. EPAs and DHAs come from animal sources, especially oily cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and halibut. There seems to be more available omega-3 fatty acids in wild fish (as opposed to farm-raised fish), although the amount does vary with the seasons and other factors. The omega-3s in products from grass-fed (pastured) ruminant animals—beef, lamb, bison, milk, cheese, eggs, etc.—can be as much as four times greater than from animals raised in confinement. Our bodies must convert ALA into the more useable EPA and DHA, so it’s more efficient to consume the animal sources of omega-3s. 

The American Heart Association recommends eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (wild is best) at least twice a week for most people to improve or maintain current health. Including seeds (sunflower, freshly ground flax) and raw nuts (especially walnuts) in the diet is helpful as well. It’s better to use small quantities of a variety of natural oils and fats with a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, such as olive, flaxseed or canola oil. The composition of these oils changes when heated, so they’re best when fresh and unheated (for example, in salad dressings, drizzled over pasta or with bread). Even natural butter, especially from grass-fed cows, has a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than many vegetable oils.  

Although we do need omega-6 as well, too much actually competes with the omega-3 fatty acids. Corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed and peanut oils all have high ratios of omega-6. Hidden sources of those oils include mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarine and baby formula as well as many processed foods, pre-prepared foods and baked goods.  

Fish oil supplements do have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, but preliminary research published in current health news articles indicates that EPA and DHA are more easily used by the body when they come from food sources rather than supplements. Undesirable side effects from extreme overuse of supplements may occur, but such dangerous amounts could not be consumed from natural food sources.  

Exact amounts and ratios of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids needed by the body seem to vary with genetics. The research, as reported in current health news articles, is on-going and we have more to learn. In the meantime, the safest recommendation is to eat natural foods high in omega-3 fatty acids while avoiding unhealthy processed foods and oils with high levels of omega-6.