In today’s post, I take an in-depth look at the topic of omega-3 fatty acids to gain a better understanding of their purpose and their role in human health. With the recent rise in the amount of cardiovascular and auto-immune diseases in this country, we have reached an exigency in terms of our overall well-being. Statistics show that over 50 million Americans suffer from some type of autoimmune disease, with annual health care costs exceeding $100 billion (AARDA, 2014). And while experts point to a number of potential causes, there is a good amount of research that specifically connects these increases with a rise in the omega-6/3 ratios of our modern diet. Coinciding with this, the popularity of omega-3 supplements and discourse has seen a rapid increase both within mainstream culture and health-savvy circles. In fact, a 2009 Nielsen report found that sales of omega-3 products showed a 42% growth from previous years (Nielsen, 2010). Nowadays, it has become damn near impossible to go to the grocery store or vitamin store without seeing some sort of fish oil or flaxseed promotion. Especially during this time in the new year, as people try their best to turn over a new leaf in terms of losing weight and eating healthy, will flock to the store to buy their daily multi’s and fish oil. But while we have been programmed to buy these products, I think many of us are still in the dark as far as understanding their true usefulness. So my goal in writing this post is to create awareness and bring a bigger picture perspective as it relates to our dietary choices. Let’s get it crackin…
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Simply speaking, omega-3s are a type of fat that are found in foods. From a chemical standpoint, omega-3 fats are defined as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) because they have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, also known as a double bond (poly=multiple). There are 2 main types of PUFAs: omega-3s and omega-6s. These fats are considered “essential fatty acids” (EFA’s) because as mammals we cannot produce them and must get them from diet and supplements (Simopoulos, 1991). While omega-6s are inherently bad for us, omega-3s have been shown to elicit many health benefits. In human physiology, there are 2 different types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)/ DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is comprised of short chain fatty acids, and found predominately in plant sources, including: the green leaves of plants, grass, flaxseed, and a number of plant-based oils (i.e. canola, soy). EPA/DHA are comprised of long chain fatty acids, and are found in the fatty layers of cold-water fish and shellfish, marine algae, meat, eggs and various dairy products (Whole 9, 2014).
While both types are essential to human health, ALA omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have less potent anti-inflammatory benefits than EPA and DHA. In addition, research has also found that while the human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion is extremely limited, with less than 5% of ALA getting converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA converted to DHA, making EPA and DHA a superior source of omega-3 (Kresser, 2011). The way the conversion works in the human body is ALA from plants is converted by animals or fish to EPA and DHA. The ALA itself is not actually anti-inflammatory, as fish (and to a much lesser degree, land animals) do the metabolic work to convert the plant-based ALA into concentrated EPA and DHA (Whole 9, 2014). This is why it is so important to get our omega-3s from sources like fish and seafood, and explains why most vegans have low omega-3 intakes and blood levels.
Why are Omega-3s Important in Our Diets?
In recent times, health discourse pertaining to omega-3s has gained a good amount of mainstream attention. The combination of nutrition experts’ collective “thumbs up” regarding the purported heart and cardiovascular benefits, along with a rise in our society’s interest in health have all of us running to the nearest Costco or Vitamin Shoppe to pick up our monthly supply of fish oil. Indeed, recent trends have marked an increase in the amount of omega-3 supplement products (fish oil, krill oil, flaxseed, etc.) in the marketplace. However, this influx raises the larger question of why is there a sudden need for more omega-3 supplementation in our diet? What has changed that we cannot get enough omega-3 from food alone? To get a better understanding, we have to look back and consult our past.
If we trace our history back 200 years ago to before the industrial revolution, our diet was much different. Back then there were no processed foods and things were eaten in their natural state. On top of that, the foods that we consumed were also eating what they were designed to eat. Farmers did not have to delineate grass-fed beef, pastured eggs and wild caught fish from conventional farming methods because that’s all that was around; and as a result foods had a larger abundance of omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, as time has gone on we have not followed the same dietary blueprint. Due to things like poor meat quality, over-consumption of fast foods, processed foods and vegetable oils, most of our modern diets are lacking in these essential fatty acids (and overly rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids) (Whole 9, 2014). As noted by Eaton & Konner (2004), today’s industrialized societies are characterized by 1) an increase in energy intake and decrease in energy expenditure; 2) an increase in saturated fat, omega-6 fatty acids and trans fatty acids, and a decrease in omega-3 fatty acid intake; 3) a decrease in complex carbohydrates and fiber; 4) an increase in cereal grains and a decrease in fruits and vegetables; and 5) a decrease in protein, antioxidants and calcium intake.
In terms of omega-3 consumption, anthropological research has found that our hunter gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1 (Kresser, 2011). It also indicates that both ancient and modern-hunter gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease which are the leading causes of death today (Simopoulos, 2008). In today’s Western diets, omega-6/3 ratios are way out of whack, skyrocketing up to 25:1 in some cases. According to Kresser (2011), this change is due predominately to both the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock (which in turn altered the fatty acid profile of meat that we consumed).
The reason why these ratios are problematic is that they increase the amount of systemic inflammation in the body. In humans, omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. Diets that are rich in omega-6s will promote chronic inflammation (which can lead to heart disease, cancers, arthritis, etc.), while diets rich in omega-3 will reduce inflammation. Essentially omega-3s have the same effect on the body as OTC and prescription NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) (i.e. aspirin, ibuprofen), although they occur naturally without any of the side effects. Indeed, research has made the connection between a decreased omega-6/3 ratio and a decrease in chronic diseases. Among others, a study by Smith et al. (2006) found that decreasing omega-6/3 ratios by replacing corn oil with olive oil lead to a 70% decrease in total mortality.
Health Benefits of Omega-3s
Along with functioning as a natural anti-inflammatory, there is good evidence that points to a number of other health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. For example, the American Heart Association found evidence from randomized control trials that omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease (Kris-Etherton et al., 2002). In addition, omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA, have shown to lower the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Similar research suggests that EPA and DHA from supplements of food sources can reduce triglyceride levels (NIH, 2014).
In addition to heart health benefits, omega-3 supplementation has recently been popularized as a weight loss aid. Researchers in South Australia found that taking a daily dose of omega-3 enriched fish oil combined with regular exercise provides significantly greater benefits in the fight against obesity than exercise or fish oil alone (UNISA, 2009).The study found that omega-3 fats in fish oil have the ability to switch on enzymes specifically involved in oxidizing or burning of fat, but they need to be fueled by exercise to increase the metabolic rate in order to lower body fat.
Omega-3s also have the potential to help with anxiety and depression. A study by Calabrese et al (1999) found that fish oil could aid in mood stabilization and the treatment of bipolar disorders. Comparably, a study by Nemetz et al. (2002) noted significantly lower levels of omega-3s in the red blood cell membranes of patients with depression. In this same vein, research conducted on prisoners found that those who had been convicted of violent crimes had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than ordinary, healthy subjects, and researchers attributed this to omega-3's ability to foster the growth of neurons in the brain's frontal cortex, the bit of gray matter that controls impulsive behavior (Mihm, 2006).
Furthermore, studies have shown that regular consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3s can boost your immune system to help fight off common diseases like colds, coughs and the flu. A 2013 study in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology found that DHA-rich fish oil enhances white blood cell activity in mice (FASEB, 2013). Other potential benefits to omega-3s are wide-ranging, and include: high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, ADHD, acne, asthma as well as some cancers.
Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In view of the amount of pro-inflammatory omega-6s that have infiltrated our modern diet, luckily there are a number of dietary sources where we can get quality omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA. Along with supplements, there are a number of foods that provide great sources. For the majority of people that keep their diet in check, getting omega-3s in the diet is not actually that big of a challenge. I think the bigger concern for most of us is limiting the amount of omega-6s we consume and keeping that ratio as close to 1:1 as possible. In terms of a daily recommended allowance, there is no standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need, however suggestions range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams (mg) daily (WebMD, 2014).
Some good sources of foods containing omega-3s include: grass-fed beef, wild rice, walnuts, flaxseed, wild-caught fish and seafood and pasture raised eggs. To give a context, you can find more than 500 mg in a can of tuna or a few ounces of salmon. Also check food labels because some fortified foods offer 100 mg or more (but be careful because many packaged foods are highly processed, resulting in the omega-3 content being neutralized). As far as supplements, there are a number of products currently on the market, including: fish oil, krill oil, calamari oil, flaxseed oil and kiwifruit seed oil. Just remember, as mentioned earlier, omega-3s obtained from meat and dairy sources are superior to plant sources. Particularly as it relates to EPA and DHA, it’s best to look for omega-3 sources that are meat (or seafood) based.
Ambiguity in Omega-3 Food Labeling Claims/ FDA Ruling
As the popularity of omega-3 products continues to grow, they are becoming more sought after in the marketplace. As consumers continue to make a conscious effort to include omega-3s in their diet, they are actively seeking and willing to spend more on these products. However, as demand increases, so does competition among food companies to get our discretionary dollars. In an attempt to entice us to buy their products, food companies come up with clever ways to market the purported health benefits of their foods. Particularly in terms of labeling, claims of omega-3 content and benefits in products can be highly ambiguous and misleading. In fact, many of the foods making claims have little or no omega-3s, and reading labels can become dicey when trying to figure out how much or which omega-3 fat the foods contain. For proof of this, look no further than your local grocery store, where nowadays everything from bread to mayonnaise to eggs make claims of quality omega-3 content. Because of this, institutions such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) demand consumers to adopt a critical eye and be wary of these claims. They point to a number of examples in which the labels were misleading:
In addition, there is the issue of fortified foods. To begin, the majority of fortified foods, such as bread and cereal are infused with ALA, which as mentioned earlier does not offer the same heart health benefits as EPA and DHA. Also, because they are packaged, they are highly processed and contain high amounts of omega-6 to begin with, so any fortified omega-3 is negligible. It has gotten to the point where you almost need a nutrition degree to go shopping!
But luckily for us, the FDA has stepped in enforced guidelines in terms of omega-3 content regulation. Their “final rule” prohibits certain nutrient content claims for foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. According to the FDA (2014), the final rule prohibits statements on the labels of food products, including dietary supplements, that claim the products are “high in” DHA or EPA, and synonyms such as “rich in” and “excellent source of.” The final rule similarly prohibits some such claims for ALA. Under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, nutrient content claims such as “high in” are allowed only for nutrients for which a reference level to which the claim refers has been set. While the FDA does not have currently established nutrient levels that can serve as the basis for nutrient content claims for DHA, EPA, or ALA, they allow authoritative statements published by certain types of scientific bodies, such as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM). This “final rule” for foods and supplements takes effect January 1, 2016, and food companies will be given up to a year to update all applicable labels.
Wow, I know that was a lot! How do you think I felt writing it all? All joking aside, I think this topic is extremely relevant today and important to talk about. Especially now, with the rise in nutrition-related diseases and illnesses, there is a lot to uncover as a consumer. What’s scarier is if you look at the way the modern food industry is set up, unless you are making an extremely diligent effort to keep your omega 6/3 ratios in check, it’s almost impossible to do so. On top of that, the conflicts of interest that persist between our health and big business have us set up to fail. With everything ranging from corporate giant’s emphasis on cheaper farming methods to the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, our ratios are more out of whack than ever before.
So what can we do? I think collectively we have to be more aggressive in terms of researching our own health. We have to assume the worst when it comes to what we are being told by big pharma and the government, and find out things for ourselves. I think a good start would be to eat foods in their natural state. The closer to nature our food is grown and prepared, the less inflammatory it will be on our system. In terms of supplementation, there really is no magic number when it comes to omega-3s because everyone’s body and diet is different. However, based on my personal research and experiences, I always say it’s never a bad idea to supplement with fish oil. A good rule of thumb is to take up to 3000mg per day until you have established balanced ratios in your body. But what is important to note here is when we talk about mg, we are not looking for absolute totals, we are looking for the total sum of EPA/DHA. So for example, if you buy a fish oil supp with 400mg of EPA and 300mg of DHA, the net total will be 700mg, not what it says on the bottle.
I hope this post fostered some new insights and takeaways! Feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on Facebook. Let’s start the dialogue!
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