Sherri Meyer, MG Registered Dietitian
A recent MG conference call about essential fatty acids got me thinking. How many people actually know what essential fats are? More specifically how many people know the difference between omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids? The consumer information is confusing and often misleading. We are told to choose unsaturated fats over saturated fats and eliminate trans fat, simple, right?! Well actually it’s more complex then that.
There are specific types of unsaturated fats that are essential…meaning we cannot make them on our own and must ingest them through our diet. Two essential polyunsaturated fats are omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for health. We need omega-3 fatty acids for normal body functions such as controlling blood clotting. Omega-3 fatty acids are also associated with benefits like protection against heart disease and possibly stroke. Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to reduce inflammation, which is thought to contribute to various diseases such as heart disease & cancer. More recently, omega 3 fatty acids have been associated with decreased rates of depression.
The three most nutritionally important omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) & alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Omega-3 fatty acids come mainly from the fat of cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish. Cold-water fish contain the two critically important omega-3 fatty acids, (EPA and or DHA). There are vegetarian sources that contain the omega 3 fatty acid ALA. These sources include walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds & some green vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach & salad, which contain a precursor omega-3 (ALA) that the body partially converts to EPA and DHA. It is recommended that we consume one omega 3 fatty acid source per day. If you do not consume any fish products, you may want to speak with your doctor about essential fatty acid supplementation. Omega 6 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for health. Omega 6 fatty acids are abundant in the Western diet; common sources include safflower, corn, cottonseed & soybeans oils. These oils, specifically soybean oil are often used in processed foods such as cookies, cakes & snack crackers. Research has suggested that we are consuming too much omega 6 & not enough omega 3 fatty acids. This dietary imbalance may explain the rise of such diseases that stem from inflammation such a coronary artery disease & various cancers. Too much omega 6 is thought to promote inflammation, but there is some evidence to suggest otherwise. There are benefits to omega 6 fatty acids such as lowering LDL (“lousy”) cholesterol, hence providing protection against heart disease. So there is benefit to consumption of omega 6 fatty acids, but we have clearly been consuming too much in the form of processed foods. For now the solution is quite simple: increase your intake of the healthy omega 3 fatty acids (consume more fish & vegetables) and reduce your consumption of processed foods.