Fat is probably one of the most diverse dietary macronutrients in regards to its nutritional value, benefits and physiological effects on our bodies. Fat is essential for cognitive health, hormonal balance and to control inflammation. Demonized during the 80's, the “fat-free” craze is thankfully coming to an end and most people nowadays understand the difference between good (unsaturated) and the “ugly” (trans) fats.
In general, we hear that oils derived from animal fat are bad for us due to their elevated levels of saturated fats and cholesterol, while those derived from plants are generally recognized as healthy because of their unsaturated fat content. Although vegetable oils are recognized as healthier compared to animal fats, this is incorrect as vegetable sources are high in Omega 6 and fat from quality animal by-products are rich in Omega 3.
According to the 2015 Dietary Guideline report, most people fail to consume sufficient amounts of Omega 3. This is a concern especially for bariatric patients. First, because Omega 3 is an essential nutrient that depends on the diet and due to the restriction of food -from any kind of weight loss surgery- this makes it even more difficult to meet. Second, because a disproportionate ratio between Omega 6 and Omega 3 may be one of the most powerful yet damaging aspects associated to the Western/SAD diet.
But why should we care so much about Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids and their ratio?
Omega 6 and Omega 3 oils are called polyunsaturated given to the numerous double bonds in their structure (poly=several,many). They are called “essential fatty” acids for a reason. Our body doesn't have the enzymes necessary to synthesize these, therefore, we must get them from our diet. If we don´t get enough from food, we can develop deficiencies and possibly become sick. However, these types of oils have different effects in our bodies.
They don't just serve as an energy source, they are biologically active and carry out an important role in processes like blood clotting, neuronal functioning, arthritis, and preventing other inflammatory diseases. While Omega 6 is pro-inflammatory (facilitate inflammation), Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory. It is important to remember that inflammation is necessary in some special cases for our survival. It helps provide protection to our bodies from infection and injury, but they can also lead to disease when the inflammatory response is inappropriate or excessive. As a matter of fact, an overly aggressive inflammatory response is one of the leading drivers of serious diseases we are dealing with today, such as heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, toxic gut syndrome, Alzheimer´s disease, cancer and many more. When considering a healthy ratio between these two types of fatty acids, a diet higher in Omega 6s and lower in Omega 3s increases inflammation and triggers unwanted inflammatory response.
Western diets tend to be deficient in Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) and have excessive amounts of Omega 6, especially from vegetable oils well distributed among processed products and frankenfood. These excessive amounts of omega 6-polyunsaturated fatty acids, commonly called PUFA, promote many diseases, while omega 3 PUFA suppress these effects.
Several sources of information believe that human beings have evolved from a diet consisting of a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of approximately 1 to 1. Nowadays, the Western diets are made of a ratio of 16 to 1 and some research suggest a ratio as high as 40 to 1. In the prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4 to 1 was associated with a 70% decrease in mortality and disease. In asthma patients a diet with a 5 to 1 ratio experienced fewer symptoms. A ratio consisting of 2.5 to 1 reduced the risk for rectal and colon cancer.
It is also known that the lower the ratio goes, there is a decrease in the risk of breast cancer in women. Evidence indicates that the optimal ratio also depends on the disease in question. This is consistent to the fact that chronic disease is multigenic and multifactorial. However, a vast amount of evidence suggests that lowering by all means this ratio in favor of Omega 3s reduces the risk of many chronic diseases and reduces the progression of cognitive decline and overall aging.
Bottom line: to keep the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio in balance, we first need to reduce Omega 6 intake and increase Omega 3 sources, including fish and fish oil. Let's take a look at some practical ways to bring down those pesky Omega 6 from our diets and increase consumption of Omega 3.
- Change up your cooking oil. Vegetable oil contains excessive amounts of Omega 6 and very low Omega 3s. Top offenders include soybean, corn, canola, sunflower, grapeseed, cottonseed, and safflower. Alternative vegetable oils to consider are olive, macadamia nut, avocado, and coconut oil. From animal fat sources, include pasture-raised butter and lard (yes, they are good for you when obtained from “happy” roam free animals).
- Limit processed foods. These use cheap vegetable oils to mass produce their deadly products. If you choose clean whole foods over processed ones, you can slash a third or more of Omega 6s from your diet. If you must consume processed foods, read food labels like a hawk! Hopefully, there is some Omega 3. The two principal fatty acids known as Omega 3 are: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Choose those that have more EPA than DHA and look at the ingredients in the label. Any vegetable oil will be high in the unwanted Omega 6.
- Take a high-quality Omega 3 supplement. Omega 3 is found mainly in fish oil and is essential to joint, brain, and heart health. Many people don't consume enough fish to get the rewards. When choosing an Omega 3 supplement, this should be high quality. The term “high quality” means the oil is screened for the absence of harmful contaminants like dioxins, heavy metals, mercury, PCB´s, and oxidation values. The process of extracting the oil is just as important to keep the oil's nutritional properties. When choosing fish oil, choose the very best!
- Be careful of salad dressings, butter, margarine, mayonnaise, and spreads. There can be soybean or vegetable oil hidden in these concoctions.
- Avoid fried food. These are basically coated with a thick layer of Omega 6! Also, the high cooking temperatures in fried food may form compounds that have been known to cause cancer.
- Stay away from chemicals. Not only are they harmful in their content, but these Omega 6 rich foods are usually dripping in pesticides since they are mostly made with corn, soy, or/and sunflower, all of which have been known to have high levels of these harmful chemicals.
Steering clear from Omega 6 sources, being wary of chemicals in our foods, and increasing Omega 3 consumption is your best bet to reduce inflammation at cellular level -- which is the root of over 200 common degenerative diseases, including diabetes and cancer. Following these steps will take you closer to a healthier, less disease-prone lifestyle. Remember small changes usually go a long way.
To a long productive, healthy, and happy life
Lucia Chavez, Nutritionist
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