Today Americans consume a diet that on average contains 17 grams of omega-6 for every one gram of omega-3 fatty acids. In Japan, residents consume a diet that is 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. This is the goal for the US and Canada.
What happened over the past 10,000 years to cause such disparity in our omega fat ratios? Well, convenience, which is forever a blessing and a curse, has caused an imbalance. An increase in consumption of “manufactured” food, instead of food as nature intended, has become more of a hindrance than a help.
So now we are trying to figure out the best way to correct our long-term mistakes. As with most of our food foibles, it’s up to scientists and researchers to conduct numerous experiments and give us some recommendations. (So we think!)
Initially, only omega-6 fatty acids (a subclass of polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFA’s) were considered essential when researchers found that sources of the omega-6 fat, Linoleic acid, made the dry skin of rats soft and supple again. From that point on, omega-6 fats were considered essential and food manufacturers were given the green light to use PUFA’s in place of those dreadful saturated fats.
Years later, we learned that omega-3 fats are also essential after observing their effect on brain development in infants. Today we are trying to correct a long-term imbalance that has been blamed for causing everything from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia.
Not to say it’s not true, but who’s really to blame here—the fats that occur in nature or the people who tried to manipulate their natural existence?
It’s going to take another article to really delve into the cause and effect of adding and subtracting fats but suffice it to say that we need to cut down on omega-6 fats while increasing omega-3 fats. To do this, simply reduce processed foods and increase fresh whole foods.
Eat more seafood. All seafood is a source of omega-3 fats because fish live on a diet rich in microalgae which is naturally rich in the omega-3 fat Docosahaexanoic acid (DHA). Eat more leafy greens that thrive in harsh climates. For example, purslane, which grows in the cracks of sidewalks, is a source of omega-3 fats. If you’re embarrassed to pick weeds and eat ‘em, buy them from your local organic green farmer. Spinach, romaine lettuce and collard greens also provide some omega-3 fats although their overall fat content is low.
The best sources of omega-3 fats include seafood, flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, tofu and microalgae abundant in the ocean or available in supplement form.
There are three different types of omega-3 fats which receive the most attention and research. They are Alpha-Linolenic-Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). Until recently it was thought that you had to find sources of all three in order to reap the full benefits, but one study found that people who consume 2.4 to 3.6 grams of flax oil per day saw significant improvement in all three types of omega-3 fats in their blood.
One teaspoon of flax oil (3 grams) provides 2.1 grams of omega-3 fats while two tablespoons of ground flax seeds provides 2.2 grams of omega-3 fats.
I am a proponent of flax seeds because not only do they help to correct our life-long imbalance by providing omega-3 fats, they also serve multiple functions in the diet. Aside from furnishing our diets with omega-3 fats, by consuming the seeds of flax, you get 2.3 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbs and 3.5 grams of fiber, mostly cholesterol lowering soluble fiber. You also get B-6, folate, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus in addition to lignans—a pre-biotic, found in seeds, grains and legumes that is converted by beneficial gut bacteria into hormone-like substances which may protect against certain cancers. Flax oil and fish don’t offer the same benefits but they do have benefits of their own.
For now, please try to add ground flax seed to foods to reap the most long-term benefits.
Buy flax seeds whole. Their hard protective shell means that they can be stored anywhere but once you grind them, they must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer and used within three months. A coffee grinder works well for making these seeds edible and digestible. Add flax to your diet gradually to decrease gastric distress.
Because ground flax seeds are rich in fat and protein, they make a great egg replacer when you need an egg for binding ingredients but not to replace eggs as a leavening agent. Mix two tablespoons ground flax seed plus two tablespoon water to replace one egg.