By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the craze over fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids. With nutritional fads coming and going at the rate of a frenzied game of angry frisbee, it’s natural to feel skeptical.
Separating the wheat from the chaff (haha) in terms of nutritional advice is proving more and more difficult nowadays. It’s healthy to question because a lot of it is bunk.
The emerging wisdom about essential fatty acids is anything but bunk, however, and should be taken quite seriously. There are a couple of things you might not know about omega fatty acids, and it’s really, really important that you know them.
What Are Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids?
Yes, this section is all about chemistry, feel free to skip it. Sometimes, though, demystifying the things you eat can be quite helpful in making choices.
Most of the fat we eat is composed of triglycerides, which are broken down into fatty acids by enzymes in our bodies. Fatty acids are made out of elements that anyone will recognize:
Oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon.
Think of that cluster with the oxygen as the head, and the rest of the molecule as the tail.
look at this cute little guy!
The carbons here in this fatty acid chain can be bound to each other in two important ways. They can either share a pair of electrons, while their other electrons are attached to hydrogen, or they can share two pairs of electrons and thus not have hydrogen atoms at that particular spot.
This is called a double-bond, and it can occur in either one spot or multiple spots along a fatty acid chain.
When all the carbon bonds are single and there’s hydrogen in every available electron, that fatty acid is said to be saturated with hydrogen–that’s where that term comes from.
If there’s one spot where the carbon atoms have a double-bond, that fatty acid is monounsaturated. If there are multiple, it’s polyunsaturated.
Omega-3 and 6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega (ω) is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, so that letter is used to refer to the last carbon in the tail.
Thus, when the first double bond is, say, 3 spaces from the tail… boom. Omega-3.
There you have it, mystery solved.
Somewhat. I hope.
Why are they important?
Fat is a big deal in our bodies. Without fatty acids:
- You wouldn’t have any cushioning or protection for your vital organs.
- Your cells wouldn’t be able to communicate. Or exist, for that matter.
Lonely AND nonexistent.
- You wouldn’t be able to have a brain. The majority of the brain that isn’t water is lipid.
You could say the importance of fat is a “no brainer” ha hahaha… What?
These are some of many functions fatty acids fill in the body, and we require many different types of fatty acids to, you know, stay alive. Fortunately, our body can make all the types we need de novo–meaning from raw materials–from the food we eat.
Except two. Can you guess them?
Yes, congratulations. It’s omega 3 and omega 6. If you take nothing else away from reading this, take the reason these fatty acids are called “essential:”
- The human body cannot make either of these from other types of fats or anything else. You must obtain them in the diet.
- They are absolutely necessary for the human body to function. These fatty acids in particular play very important roles in the body.
Why don’t I see Omega-6 pills, then?
Because we tend to get more than enough omega-6 in our diets already, and this is causing problems in the modern diet. While omega-3 fatty acids tend to be anti-inflammatory, omega-6s are the inflammation side of the fatty acid coin.
Inflammation is a necessary thing in our bodies–we need it for our immune system to function, for example.
However, you can have too much of a good thing, and when inflammation goes out of control, all sorts of unpleasantness could occur. Think acne, allergies, skin problems, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
Our modern diets have increased in omega-6 fatty acids significantly, due to a couple of major factors:
- Industrially raised animals are fed diets devoid of fresh greens, which greatly upsets the balance between omega 6 and 3. For example, cattle are fed diets of corn and grain, which contain mostly 6.
- Processed vegetable oils, like soybean, canola, and corn, contain mostly omega-6 fatty acids. The production and consumption of these oils have gone up radically since we started being able to extract oil in great quantities using modern machinery and chemicals. They’re in almost every processed food you can point out. And they are not healthy in great quantities.
Modern industrial diets have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that far outstrips any of of our ancestors. Every source I go to cites it somewhere around 15:1.
Why is this bad?
Well, remember that Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory?
Without a proper balance (think more like 4:1) between those fatty acids, there are too many pro-inflammatory signals for your beleaguered body to ignore. High levels of omega-6 versus omega-3 have been linked to mental disorders, heart disease, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.
The takeaway? Don’t scoff at the people asking for grass-fed beef.
Unless they’re being tools about it.
So I should just consume a butt-ton of omega-3’s now, right?
No, no-no-no. You’d think so, but don’t rush out to buy all the fish oil capsules ever.
Unless you’re pregnant, lactating, or have certain medical conditions (in which case you might need more omega-3s), the amount of these essential fatty acids you really need are not that high.
What’s more, polyunsaturated fatty acids are terribly prone to degradation from heat, light, or oxygen. They’ll become rancid very quickly, and will cause adverse health effects when they do so.
So What should I Do?
It’s pretty simple. Keep your omega-6 fatty acid intake down by:
- Avoiding or limiting processed food
- Cooking with fats like olive oil, butter, lard, or coconut oil instead of vegetable oil
Consume a bit more omega-3 by:
- Eating fatty fish once a week or taking a supplement (I take this one for the fat-soluble vitamins, but I’ve heard this one is good as well)
- Eating the meat from pastured animals
- Eating leafy green vegetables (always eat more vegetables)
As usual, please hit me up with any questions.