Food for Thought: Omega-3 and Omega-6

For many years we have heard that fats are bad for us. We have been told since the 1950s that high fat diets contribute to cardiovascular disease and since the average Western diet includes close to 40 percent of calories from fat, the American Heart Association has encouraged us to reduce or restrict fat in our diets. Manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and have given us products touted as being “low fat” or “no fat,” but although we’ve adjusted our diets, we have still gained weight. 

In recent years science has discovered that dietary fats are not all equal, nor are they all bad. In actuality, fats are required in order for the human body to function and maintain health. So today, edible oils and fats are categorized into the oversimplified categories of “bad” and “good” fats. 

The current push is to decrease or eliminate the “bad” fats—especially artificial trans fats that adversely affect our health. Trans fats are now outlawed in several countries as some governments have determined that avoiding “bad” fats and switching to “good” fats is one way to help us take care of our bodies. 

Good” fats are the essential fatty acids that are absolutely required for optimum health; for example, the omega-3 and omega-6 fats that are found in fish, nuts and seeds. Both types of fat are necessary for good health. Consumed in balance, they provide what the body needs to function properly. 

Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should fall between 1:1 and 3:1, but currently, the ratio in a typical Western diet is at least 20:1. 

The imbalance of these “good” fats has occurred concurrent with technological advances that have made it possible to extract soybean oil, corn oil and sunflower oil inexpensively. The market is flooded with these oils, which are largely omega-6. Most food manufacturers’ choice of fat is soybean oil as it is plentiful and inexpensive. It can be found in most prepackaged foods, margarine, baked goods, condiments and fast foods, and composes a substantial percentage of the caloric intake in the Western world. Herein lies the factor that causes the imbalance. 

Scientists, researchers, and health professionals are concerned with this trend. Dr. Michael A. Schmidt, author of Brain-Building Nutrition, explains that the brain is composed of more than 60 percent fat. A balanced consumption of omega-6 and omega-3 fats is critical for proper brain function. These fats aid the nerve cells located in the brain in making connections (synapses) with other nerve cells that send information throughout the body to control important functions. Fatty acids are required in the formation of membranes, or coverings, of the nerves. He stresses, “A balance of essential fatty acids is critical. We don’t want to go overboard on any particular fatty acid.” 

Alan C. Logan, a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School’s Mind-Body Institute, agrees. He states in his book The Brain Diet, “Given that different dietary fats can affect genetic expression within the brain in divergent ways, the influence of fats on brain performance and health cannot be overestimated.” He cautions that “a diet top-heavy in omega-6 oils promotes inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which contribute to brain disorders. Excess saturated fats and any amount of trans fat can promote inflammation and alter the structure of the brain cells.” 

Schmidt echoes Logan’s warning: “The brain’s requirement for highly specific fats, coupled with the poor dietary choices of most people living on modern diets, has us on a collision course with ourselves. We now have powerful evidence that millions of people in all walks of life consume a diet of fats that is not at all conducive to building a complex, superbly functioning brain and nervous system.” 

Schmidt notes that according to some estimates, the level of brain-fats the average person consumes has decreased by 80 percent or more over the last century. 

This may be the common feature that underlies a host of behavioral, learning, memory, and neurological disorders, which, up to now, have been considered unrelated,” Schmidt says. “We are beginning to learn that if you want a brain that functions to its full potential and provides a lifetime of vital service, you must pay close attention to dietary fat.” 

Through reviewing the research of past studies, Schmidt concludes that 50 conditions of the brain show links to inadequate levels of fatty acids. Low levels of omega-3 fats have been associated with depression, aggression, hyperactivity, attention deficit, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and many other health issues. Studies are showing that Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the omega-3 superstar for the brain, may have positive results in treating patients with these conditions. 

According to Schmidt, there are three points critical in our approach to fat: “1) Too much fat in whatever form can lead to disease. 2) Too little fat in whatever form can lead to disease.  3) The kind of fat and the balance of various fats are the critical features that determine how fat contributes to disease.” 

The bottom line, he says, is having a fat-smart diet. It isn’t as difficult as it may seem. To take care of your brain and your body, Schmidt advises small quantities of a variety of natural oils and fats. “Consume fatty acids needed in brain function that may build mental, physical, and emotional intelligence,” he says. “These are fats that influence the intelligent operations of the brain and body. Don’t become fat-phobic, become fat-smart.”