With the wealth of information available on food and diet choices it is no surprise that most people are confused about many health topics. Take omega fatty acids, for example. We have been duly instructed that everyone would benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. And the result is that over 10 million American adults are taking omega-3 supplements. But is omega-3 supplementation truly the panacea we are led to believe?
Our bodies are incapable of producing omega-3: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and omega-6: linoleic acid (LA). Hence they are known to be essential fatty acids. Supplementation of omega- 3s is typically seen as a preventive measure against cardiovascular disease. However, the evidence in argument for this practice is tenuous according to recent research. Therefore caution is suggested in assuming that they are the magic bullet that will save us all from heart attacks. Rather, it is more appropriate to view the use of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a greater whole.
Oftentimes, the discussion about the role of fatty acids in the diet is one-sided. While it is true that many people in the U.S. consume too much omega-6 in the form of vegetable oils found in processed foods, which some believe to be a major contributive factor to cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases, high quality LA can be beneficial and is necessary for good health. LA actually is the predominant fatty acid in the body and there is evidence that it plays an important role in maintaining membrane fluidity and can protect against oxidative stress.
The recent surge in heavy supplementation of omega-3s in the form of fish oils and flax seed oils has resulted in a different kind of imbalance, which decreases cell membrane fluidity, increases oxidative stress and could lead to reduced clotting. ALA and LA are inexorably linked and their balance is absolutely crucial in the fluidity of all cell membranes.
So how do we get a healthy balance between omega-3s and omega-6s? We can start by getting a good variety of oils and fats in our diets. High-quality organic, mechanically-pressed sunflower oil mixed 4 to 1 with high-quality flax seed oil makes a lovely base to salad dressing and gives the right ratio of LA to ALA. Getting a good mix of nuts and seeds as well as healthy oils such as walnut, pumpkin seed and avocado oil will provide variety and prevent imbalances.
Eating a diet rich in healthy seafood, grass-fed meats and dairy is also important to maintain a healthy fatty acid balance. All of these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, meat and dairy are rich in saturated fats, which are important for maintaining cell membrane integrity. When saturated fats, cholesterol and polyunsaturated fatty acids such as ALA and LA are in the right proportions then the cell membranes can have just the right balance between fluidity and sturdy structure. Light supplementation with oils that contain EPA, DHA and GLA also may be recommended. And of course, transfats and fried foods can be very damaging to cellular health and should be avoided as much as possible. Balance is key when it comes to fats and oils and our bodies will thank us for seeking it out.
Jill Cruz is a nutrition and health counselor for Body Wise, Food Smart in Rockland County and has a master's of science degree in human nutrition. She specializes in working with women as they move through adult life transitions such as preconception, pregnancy and postpartum. She provides highly individualized nutritional counseling with a functional nutrition approach. For more information, contact jill@bodywisefoodsmart. com or 425-1953 or visit BodyWiseFoodSmart.com.