Our diet has changed more in the past 100 years than in the previous 10,000. We’ve gone from eating natural, in-season, local foods that were made without the use of chemicals or added flavors to grocery aisles filled with packaged foods that are high in pesticides, chemicals, and refined sugars.
Experts everywhere are eager to weigh in with a theory regarding the impact of these changes, blaming everything from obesity to cancer on the way we eat. Although it’s obvious that processed sugar and trans fats aren’t good for us, what isn’t always so clear are the ways more subtle dietary changes can impact our health.
We need essential omega fatty acids. They act as important regulators of cell-membrane integrity and impact blood pressure and coagulation, lipid levels, immune response, tumor growth and inhibition, and the inflammatory response to injury and infection. Omega fats are deemed essential because the body cannot make them, so you need to get them from your diet in order to survive.
“Just because something is good for you, however, doesn’t mean that more is better,” says William Lands, Ph.D., author of Fish, Omega-3 and Human Health. The current North American diet has more omega-6 fatty acids than at any time in history. That means relatively we get less omega-3 fatty acids than ever before. In the last century, the ratio of dietary omega-3 to omega-6 fats in our food has gone from 1:3 to 1:20. “For every one gram of omega-3 we eat, we eat 20 grams of omega-6 fat,” Lands says. The health implications are enormous.
The Importance of Balance
Nearly every cell and tissue in our body is affected by omega-3 and omega-6 compounds. “Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes,” says Evelyn Tribole, M.S., R.D., author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet. Most omega-6 hormones are pro-inflammatory. They are essential in helping us bounce back from injury and infection, but you don’t want to be in a pro-inflammatory state when you are healthy.
In addition to their positive effects on brain performance and memory, omega-3 fatty acids act as powerful anti-inflammatories. When the omega-3 and omega-6 hormones are balanced, they work with one another to create enough inflammation to heal us when we’re injured, and reduce inflammation when we’re healthy.
The effect of excess omega-6 fatty acids is a risk of a state of constant inflammation. “A lot of diseases have to do with one process going a little faster than another and not being accommodated properly,” says Lands, who is credited with discovering the impor- tance of balancing omega fats. “Too much too fast constitutes disease.”
Research has shown that the imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 hormones increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and dying of a heart attack. It also increases the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. Chronic inflammation caused by excessive omega-6 hormones increases the risk of every immune-inflammatory illness ranging from atherosclerosis, arthritis, and asthma to type-2 diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. Omega imbalance can even result in bone loss, and increase the rate of cancer growth. So, what can you do to make sure your omegas are in check?