Omega Fats, a Healthy Balance

Articles
November 03, 2010

Omega Fats, a Healthy Balance

For over two decades, health and nutrition researchers have discussed and debated the role of dietary fats; most of the debates have failed to stress the benefits of certain classes of fats- and have mainly focused on the negative aspects.

For over two decades, health and nutrition researchers have discussed and debated the role of dietary fats; most of the debates have failed to stress the benefits of certain classes of fats- and have mainly focused on the negative aspects.  Until recently, virtually all of these discussions were based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences during the ‘80s, when it was initially suggested to reduce total dietary fat to 30 percent, (the average was 35-37 percent) in order to maintain or reach a healthy weight. Following this suggestion, 30 percent became the benchmark definition of a low fat diet; saturated fat was seen as the bad guy, but little attention was given to the many benefits associated with other fats.

The public health recommendations resulting from the National Academy of Sciences suggestion, sparked the creation of low-fat alternatives in packaged goods, steering consumers and public health officials towards foods whose nutrition information was readily available; and so consumers could more readily control their fat and caloric intake. In reality, Americans started eating more and thus the amount of fat consumed increased - the low fat message did not have the intended effect and the incidence of obesity actually increased, a statistic that continues to rise. Today Americans are slowly adopting the mindset that there are certain types of fats that are more healthful than others. 

The importance of the omega-3 to 6 balance
One of the most important things to understand about fats is that our bodies need certain types of fats to function. The essential fatty acids – which include omega-3 and omega-6 - so named because our bodies can not manufacture them on our own, must be obtained through dietary sources or supplements. Today on average we consume far too many omega-6 fats as compared to omega-3s; a ratio that estimates show was about 2 to 1, 100 years ago and today the food supply provides these fats in a ratio estimated at 10 to 1.

The overload of omega-6s comes from the refined nut and seed oils used in fast foods, and some snack foods like cookies, crackers, and sweets.  Omega-3s are plentiful in diets consisting of seeds and nuts, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, and grass-fed meat.

Why is the ratio so important?
Omega-3 fats benefit many systems in the body; but most importantly they reduce inflammation. Omega-6 fats, if consumed in excess, tend to increase inflammation. Many health professionals believe that this imbalance (as well as the misunderstanding of fats mentioned above) has led to chronic inflammation in the body, which is a commonality shared between health problems like asthma, coronary heart disease, and various forms of cancer, as well as autoimmune diseases.

What to look for in the supermarket to regain omega-3 to 6 balance?
Choose oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and black cod. In the meat department, look for pastured, grass-fed, and free-range whenever possible- butter with these claims is also a good choice. Use extra-virgin olive oil for dressing salads and decrease other omega-6 rich cooking oils such as soybean, cottonseed, vegetable, safflower and sunflower. Snack on nuts and seeds, which are great sources of monounsaturated fats.  Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, and quinoa, over refined and processed grains.

Want to know more about Omega-3s? Click here

Please consult your physician before making any changes to your diet, as well as if you are considering supplementing with omega-3.

Sources for this story include: “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” Gary Taubes

Dr. Barry Sears, author of “The Anti-Inflammation Zone: Reversing the Silent Epidemic That's Destroying Our Health”

University of Maryland, omega-6