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?
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.”
Lands and his colleagues developed an Omega 3–6 Balance Score that summarizes in a single value the balance among omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids for more than 5,000 foods. Foods with positive Omega 3–6 Balance Scores will increase the percentage of omega-3 in the biomarker; those with negative scores will increase the percentage of omega-6.
The score sheet can be really helpful in improving your omega balance score. The average score for fruits and vegetables is near zero; it is very negative for the fats and oils group, and very positive for the fish and seafood group. But it can also point out some foods that are less obvious. For example, nuts have a tendency to have more omega-6, but some, such as chestnuts and macadamia nuts, are close to 0. While you might assume cashews would have a terrible score, at -14 they are far better than walnuts, which have a score of -50 despite being promoted as being high in omega-3 fatty acids. “Walnuts have worked their way into the public awareness because they contain some omega-3, but they have huge amounts of omega-6,” Lands says. You have to think in terms of the balance.
Every Little Bit Counts
The great thing about omega-3 balance is that any little change you make will improve your health. It’s not all or nothing. “Set your own personal health priority,” Lands says. If you’re not willing to overhaul the entire way you eat, even small steps such as just adding a tablespoon of fish oil a day will go a long way in changing your profile. Even something as small as taking the mayonnaise and margarine out of your fridge will have a huge impact on your omega balance—and your health.