I get confused about the Omegas, so I am sure my readers do. The main reason for this confusion is that the names keep changing and the advice is often false. So, let’s clarify the issue.
We’ll start with a quiz:
- The omegas are all ‘essential’.
- They are all polyunsaturated fats.
- The omegas found in flax seed are as valuable as those from fish oil.
- Polyunsaturated vegetable oils are healthy, whereas saturated animal fat is not.
- We should avoid butter, and eat margarine instead.
- It is the animal fat in our diet that is responsible for heart disease.
- It is the trans fat in animal fat that is really bad for us.
How many of these are true?
It may surprise you to know that they are all false, and the ‘experts’ have been lying to us for years. What is true is that it is wise to reduce the overall amount of fat in our diet, and very important to get the right balance of omega-3, -6 and -9.
Omega-3 fats are ‘essential’, meaning that we need them and cannot make them. They are polyunsaturated fats. The term ‘polyunsaturated’ refers to their chemical structure, which has many double bonds. ‘Omega-3’ refers to the position of the final double bond, which is three carbon atoms from the tail end.
The three main types of omega-3 fats are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA (18 carbons) is found in plant oils. EPA (20 carbons) and DHA (22 carbons) are found in marine oils. EPA helps reduce inflammation, whereas DHA is extremely important for normal brain development and function. ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA. This process is not very efficient and tends to deteriorate with age.
The Western diet does not contain enough omega-3s. The WHO recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish per week.
Omega-6 fats are also ‘essential’, and they are also polyunsaturated. Here, the last double bond is six carbons from the tail end.
These fats are primarily used for energy. The most common omega-6 fat, linoleic acid, can be converted into longer omega-6 fats, which are important chemicals in the immune system. However, when too many of them are produced, they increase inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
Although omega-6 fats are essential, the modern Western diet contains far more omega-6 fats than are necessary.
Omega-9 fats are not ‘essential’, because they can be made in the body, and they are not usually polyunsaturated. Most are monounsaturated, the sole double bond being located nine carbons from the tail end.
They are the most common fats in the body.
Although it is wise to reduce the overall amount of fat in our diet, some fat is essential, but it needs to be consumed in healthy proportions.
Throughout the 4-5 million years of our evolution, diets were abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 fats (EPA & DHA), but relatively low in omega-6 seed oils. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1, and they were free of the modern inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today.
In more recent times, there has been a marked shift in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the diet. This change has come about as a result of the burgeoning vegetable oil industry, the propaganda that such oils are healthy, and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock.
Today, estimates of the ratio range from 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some people.
This shows that our intake of omega-6 fats is 10 to 25 times higher than evolutionary norms. This dramatic shift explains much of the chronic degenerative disease to which we are prone.
What can we do?
Let’s start with omega-6. Despite their overwhelming and ubiquitous presence on the supermarket shelves, you should avoid all industrially produced oils, including:
- Grape seed
- Rice bran
Avoid them all.
Jumping to omega-9, it would be healthier to replace omega-6s with omega-9s. Oils rich in omega-9 include:
- Cashew nut
Those of you who are paying attention will note that canola, safflower, soybean and sunflower are in both lists – banned and approved. A small digression is needed to explain this.
Without going into too much detail, the ‘dead’ oils in the omega-6 list are produced by cleaning, grinding, pressing, solvent extraction, refining, degumming, bleaching and deodorising. They are odourless, tasteless, colourless, indigestible and devoid of most nutritional value. Worse, they contain trans fats and other toxic substances. None of these products even existed when your grandmother was a girl.
If you can find cold-pressed canola, safflower, soybean or sunflower oil from a reputable source, go ahead, but there are plenty of other healthy oils to choose from. The simplest solution, which I follow, is to use extra virgin olive oil for salads and peanut oil for frying.
Turning to the omega-3s, the richest sources are:
- Chia seeds
- Cod liver oil
A common misconception, especially amongst vegetarians and vegans, is that our need for EPA and DHA can be met by consuming flax oil and other plant sources of omega-3. Although it is possible for the body to synthesise EPA and DHA from the ALA found in plant foods such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts, research shows that this conversion is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA.
The good news for vegetarians and vegans is that Purslane contains more omega-3 than any other leafy vegetable. It also contains EPA, which is not found in flax seed, and which can usually only be found in oily fish. So, unless vegetarians and vegans are eating Purslane, or supplementing with an algae-derived source of DHA, it is likely that most are omega deficient.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 3:1 or less. This has been shown to have beneficial effects by reducing inflammation in the body.
A hundred years ago, housewives cooked exclusively with lard and butter. Among their many benefits is that, being saturated fats, they do not oxidise when heated. Nor do they form dangerous aldehydes or other toxic oxidation products, and they are solid at room temperature, which is why they make great cooking fats.
Sadly, their demise was brought about by unscrupulous scientists, gullible medics and greedy food industry moguls, who demonised saturated fats. We were taught that polyunsaturated vegetable oils were the healthy alternative. They lied. The elephant in the room was always trans fat, which is found in abundance in all factory-produced vegetable oils, and never in saturated animal fat.
The best fats and oils to use safely for cooking are avocado, butter, cocoa butter (cacao), coconut, duck and goose fat, ghee, lard and macadamia. Palm oil is also good, but is best avoided because its ubiquitous production is destroying the rain forests.