That Sounds Fishy
A recent conversation with some of my family members made me realize that the general public is quite confused about oils, fats, and fatty acids. What’s good for you? What should you be avoiding? Why? What’s with that trans and saturated stuff?
Since the subject of fats is way too broad to cover in entirety here, I will focus on a small, but still complex, portion of it: omega-3 fatty acids.
When I was a child my mom regularly required me and my siblings to take cod liver oil. I didn’t exactly enjoy this routine but, since I wasn’t given a choice, I forced this nasty, supposedly healthful, substance down the hatch. It has taken a couple decades for the masses to grasp what my mom already understood back in those days: fish oil, high in omega-3 fatty acids, is good for you and perhaps worthy of forced feeding. Although the public has finally accepted the healthfulness of omega-3s, they still don’t seem to grasp the why and how much, those details continue to baffle. With the recent interest in fish oil there appears to be a lot of conflicting information out there regarding this substance, even among the experts, so it’s no surprise that consumers remain a bit mystified about omega-3s.
Although the jury is still out regarding many of the possible benefits of omega-3s, I will divulge here what everyone does agree on.
Let’s start with the basics. Lipids are a broad class of chemical compounds. Put most simply, lipids do not readily dissolve in water. Fatty acids are the most common form of lipids; they are found extensively in our bodies and in our food. “Fat” is a term often used incorrectly to encompass a wide range of lipids, but for the simplicity of this discussion I will use it here synonymously with fatty acids.
Fat has gained an undeserved bad reputation in the recent past. We associate it erroneously with obesity and heart disease. While the consumption of some types of fat certainly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, eating other types actually lessens that risk. Besides, no matter how fats alter the risk of this or that, we should be mindful of the fact that we really do need them. That’s right- in order to be healthy we require certain fats in our diet.
So before you decide to live off carrots and fat free cookies consider this: our bodies lack the ability to produce certain types of fatty acids. These fatty acids are needed for immune response, vision, blood clotting, stomach secretions, and blood pressure regulation. Since we can’t make them, we must obtain them from our diet; hence they are called “essential” fatty acids.
There are two different essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. Chances are, if you’ve heard anything about either of those, omega-3 is the one you’ve heard about. So why, if we need both, does omega-3 get the spotlight while omega-6 is forced into the background like an ugly stepchild?
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in many plant oils so they are in a lot of the foods Americans commonly consume, such as mayonnaise and salad dressing. This means that deficiencies of this fatty acid are rare. Omega-3s, on the other hand, are found in foods not eaten as frequently by westerners. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and fish of course. What, you didn’t have a salmon burger today? Or drizzle canola oil over your pancakes this morning? Shame on you! In all seriousness though, Americans tend to not get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet, especially those that don’t regularly consume fish.
So why should you care? I guess you shouldn’t if you don’t value your heart, skin, mental wellbeing, or the brain development of your unborn children. If having blood the consistency of toothpaste doesn’t bother you then you needn’t worry about getting enough omega-3s. An inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids has detrimental effects on many systems in your body and, in pregnant women, even on the body of your baby.
Why are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids so vital for optimal health? Our bodies use these essential fatty acids to synthesize hormone like compounds called eicosanoids. Although eicosanoids resemble hormones, unlike hormones they remain at their production site, instead of traveling via the bloodstream to a place of action. Eicosanoids are involved in regulating everything from childbirth to inflammatory responses.
So, if both essential fatty acids form eicosanoids, can’t we just eat a lot of omega-6s and call it good? No. Different starting materials result in distinct eicosanoids. Omega-6 fatty acids form different eicosanoids than omega-3s. For example: eicosanoids made from omega-6s increase blood clotting while those made from omega-3s decrease it.
Therefore, if your intake ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is out of whack, due to you avoiding fish like it was your mother-in-law, then your eicosanoids will also be out of whack.
Many studies have been done on omega-3s and their treatment of all sorts of conditions from depression to rheumatoid arthritis, and everything in between. While most of these studies have been conflicting and less than conclusive, some things are certain:
You need omega-3s and you probably aren’t getting enough, most Americans consume less than 50% of the RDA. Omega-3s are good for your heart. They can decrease your blood pressure, improve your triglyceride status, and slow the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque- especially in those that already have heart disease.
So does that mean you should start popping omega-3 pills from a PEZ dispenser? No, unless of course you fancy your blood being about as thin as the hair on your head. Remember, as with anything diet related, balance is the key here. There can be too much of a good thing. How much isn’t too much then?
While the optimal intake level of omega-3s is still in debate, here are some basic guidelines: If you eat fish, two servings a week should be adequate. If you don’t eat fish, and would rather swallow your own vomit than ingest some salmon, you may want to consider omega-3 supplementation; fish oil capsules are the most common form. I wouldn’t recommend taking more than 1 gram of fish oil a day though, unless you have been instructed to do so by your doctor, since there isn’t a consensus yet on the most advantageous amount.
So there you have it folks, a brief overview of omega-3 fatty acids and all their fabulousness. Now go eat some delicious healthy fish! It will make your heart happy.