Balancing Act: How to Eat Healthy Fats
For optimum health, you need to have the right ratio of omegas. Here’s how to see where you’re at—and make the small dietary changes that bring big results.
Photograph by: Sam Kaplan
Test Your Omega Balance
Everyone should get a fatty acid lipid test to see your body’s omega levels. “The blood test is like a bathroom scale; it monitors where you’re at,” Lands says. “If you drive a car without a speedometer, you have to guess if you’re exceeding the speed limit. Why would you want to guess where you’re at with your health?”
Doctor’s Data, based in St. Charles, IL, is one of the premier labs for testing fatty acids. The blood test costs $125 and can be ordered from anywhere in North America by a licensed practitioner.
The test is done on red blood cells so that it stays consistent over time and isn’t influenced by what you had at your last meal. If your results show a negative balance, you can make changes to your diet and be retested in three to four months to make sure you are on the right track. Once you achieve the right omega balance you don’t need to get retested. “If you keep eating the same way, your test results are good for life,” says David Quig, Ph.D., vice president, scientific support for Doctor’s Data.
It’s clear that increasing the amount of omega-3 in your diet has outstanding health benefits. What’s less clear is what the ideal ratio should be. “Some people choose a ratio of 50:50 in their diet because it’s easy,” Lands says. “My personal goal is near 35% omega-6, which is similar to the traditional Japanese diet.” Despite high smoking rates and blood pressure, the Japanese have low rates of heart disease, which has been attributed to their diet.
When it comes to looking at your blood test results, 3.0 to 4.0 is a good target ratio for omega-6 (AA) versus omega-3 (EPA) markers. This means that you will have three or four times the amount of AA omega-6 fatty acid versus the EPA omega-3 fatty acid in your blood. “Most North Americans who aren’t taking supplements will have a nasty-looking profile Quig says. “Ballpark average for folks not consuming supplemental fish oil is between 20 and 25 for North Americans,” he says. “It’s not unusual to see flyers at about 45 to 50 due to higher [omega-6 intake] from meat and vegetable oils.” If you had a ratio of 50, that would mean you would have 50 omega-6 (AA) biomarkers for every one omega-3 (EPA), which would result in excessive chronic inflammation.
Dietary Game Changers
The good news is that a fatty-acid profile is relatively easy to change. “If you take a tablespoon of quality fish oil a day, your results should normalize in two or three months,” Quig says.
“You need to make a commitment to nix the six and eat the three,” Lands says. Although supplements can help, you don’t want to gloss over the main issue that you’re eating an imbalanced diet. “You need to focus on decreasing the omega-6 in your food.”
“Start with your oils and spreads first,” Tribole says. Use butter or olive oil spreads instead of margarine; and avoid soybean, corn, cottonseed, and most vegetable blends of oil. Instead, choose olive and flaxseed oils, which have lower levels of omega-6. If you’re going to eat baked goods such as muf- fins or cookies, make your own. Store- bought varieties are almost always high in the wrong types of fat.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also found in high amounts in whole-grain breads, granola, animal products, and nuts. You don’t have to avoid these foods— you still need some omega-6 fatty acid. Just learn to be aware of which foods are high in omega-6 fatty acids, and try to balance them out with more omega-3 fats.
“I encourage people to follow more of a classic Mediterranean pattern of eating,” says Tribole. “It’s high in olive oil; fruits and vegetables; and fish; and has a much healthier omega balance than the way we eat in North America.”
When it comes to getting enough omega-3, you need fish and seafood. “You need at least two servings of fish a week,” says Tribole. More is better. “If you are not willing to eat fish, you need to take a good fish-oil supplement.”