Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #22: Too Much Omega 6; Too Little Omega 3

If you haven’t heard about fish oil supplements, like the caveman in the Geico commercial, you’ve been living under a rock. Fish oil, especially cold water fish oil, contains a high concentration of Omega 3 fatty acids. Together with Omega 6 fatty acids, these two acids, which are derived from linoleic acid (n=6) and linolenic acid (n=3), are known at the Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s). That means that the body can’t make them (efficiently) and we therefore have to get them through our diet. And since most people don’t eat a lot of cold water fish, supplementation is an easy way to get our Omega 3’s. And Omega 3 supplementation is probably a good thing to do. I do it: 2 grams a day, every day. Each gram contains compounds called EPA and DHA in a 3 to 2 ratio that together give me a combined EPA/DHA total of 1 gram.

There is also solid evidence that when combined with a low-carbohydrate diet, fish oil supplementation will significantly lower serum triglycerides, an important blood lipid marker. The effect is dose dependent and additive if you are taking a statin. I was once on a statin, and for about a year took 4 grams of fish oil daily and very dramatically lowered my triglycerides to about 50, where they remain today. If I were to do it again, today I wouldn’t take more than 3 grams a day, and I wouldn’t do it for more than a year.

But getting enough Omega 3’s, and even lowering serum triglycerides, is easy. Fish oil capsules are big, but cheap. The real problem is that we are getting too many Omega 6’s. Way, way too many. Ten and twenty, even twenty-five times too many. And they are hidden and omnipresent in our modern diet. They are the main component in polyunsaturated fat in the vegetable oils (soy bean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower seed oil, and cotton seed oil) that are ubiquitous in the fried foods and baked goods that most people eat every day. Don’t believe me? Check out the label on the packaging, if there is a label. It’s there. Soy bean oil and corn oil are the primary cooking oils. More than 70% today.

Again, citing Enig and Fallon’s “The Skinny of Fats,” “Problems associated with an excess of polyunsaturates are exacerbated by the fact that most polyunsaturates in commercial vegetable oils are in the form of double unsaturated omega-6 linoleic acid, with very little of vital triple unsaturated omega-3 linolenic acid. Recent research has revealed that too much omega-6 in the diet creates an imbalance that can interfere with production of important prostaglandins. (34) This disruption can result in increased tendency to form blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain. (35)” The footnotes are cited in the article, which can be viewed at

Improving your Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio will not be easy. You really don’t want to swallow more than two grams of fish oil a day. And by raising the denominator in the fraction, it will only slightly improve the ratio (while hopefully lowering your serum triglycerides). So, to make a real difference you will need to find and eliminate the Omega 6’s you are eating. That means changing your diet. Eating less fried food, and eating fewer processed foods made with any vegetable oil.

Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “Food Rules” would be good guides here. The first part of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” makes a frightening case for the omnipresence of corn in our industrialized food industry. The second part makes a good case for ways to avoid industrialized food, as do his later two books cited above.

Dr. Kurt Harris’s Archevore blog ( is another guide to eating in a way to avoid the Neolithic Agents of Disease (NAD), as he calls them: wheat, excess fructose, and excess linoleic acid (Omega 6 fatty acids).

This past winter I went to a Mets Spring Training game and the folks next to me were eating fried dough sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. I looked at it and said (to myself): all three Neolithic agents of Disease (wheat, sugar which is 50% fructose, and vegetable oil for frying). I said this while I drank a beer (wheat) and ate peanuts. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.
© Dan Brown 7/31/11

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #21: The Dangers of Polyunsaturated Fats

For the last fifty years we have been told to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol and to exercise more, and we (collectively, as a population) have complied; yet, we (again, as a population) have been getting fatter and sicker. “The Nutrition Debate” is about why this has happened. If you’ve been following the column, you already know that I suggest an alternative approach is worth considering. If you haven’t read them, the previous columns are archived at

One of my favorite “alternative” organizations for nutritional information is The Weston A. Price Foundation. President Sally Fallon and Board Member Emeritus Mary Enig, PhD, collaborated in 2000 to produce a paper “The Skinny on Fats” as a chapter in their book “Nourishing Traditions.” If you have any interest in the subject of this mini-series, “Know Your Fats,” you will want to go to their site,, or just google “The Skinny on Fats” and read this article. Here, however, I will just reproduce an excerpt on “The Dangers of Polyunsaturates,” from a chapter in the book. The footnotes are all provided in the reference cited:

“The public has been fed a great deal of misinformation about the relative virtues of saturated fats versus polyun-saturated oils. Politically correct dietary gurus tell us that the polyunsaturated oils are good for us and that the saturated fats cause cancer and heart disease. The result is that fundamental changes have occurred in the Western diet.

At the turn of the century, most of the fatty acids in the diet were either saturated or monounsaturated, primarily from butter, lard, tallows, coconut oil and small amounts of olive oil. Today most of the fats in the diet are polyunsaturated from vegetable oils derived mostly from soy, as well as from corn, safflower and canola.

Modern diets can contain as much as 30% of calories as polyunsaturated oils, but scientific research indicates that this amount is far too high. The best evidence indicates that our intake of polyunsaturates should not be much greater than 4% of the caloric total, in approximate proportions of 2 % omega-3 linolenic acid and 2 % omega-6 linoleic acid. (30)

EFA [essential fatty acid, i.e. omega 3 and omega 6] consumption in this range is found in native populations in temperate and tropical regions whose intake of polyunsaturated oils comes from the small amounts found in legumes, grains, nuts, green vegetables, fish, olive oil and animal fats but not from commercial vegetable oils.

Excess consumption of polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of disease conditions including increased cancer and heart disease; immune system dysfunction; damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs; digestive disorders; depressed learning ability; impaired growth; and weight gain. (31)

One reason the polyunsaturates cause so many health problems is that they tend to become oxidized or rancid when subjected to heat, oxygen and moisture as in cooking and processing. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals-- that is, single atoms or clusters with an unpaired electron. These compounds are extremely reactive chemically.

They have been characterized as "marauders" in the body for they attack cell membranes and red blood cells and cause damage in DNA/RNA strands, thus triggering mutations in tissue, blood vessels and skin. Free radical damage to the skin causes wrinkles and premature aging; free radical damage to the tissues and organs sets the stage for tumors; free radical damage in the blood vessels initiates the buildup of plaque.

Is it any wonder that tests and studies have repeatedly shown a high correlation between cancer and heart disease with the consumption of polyunsaturates? (32) New evidence links exposure to free radicals with premature aging, with auto-immune diseases such as arthritis and with Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's and cataracts. (33)”

When I first read this article, I went to the kitchen cabinets and (with permission) threw out virtually all the mostly polyunsaturated vegetable oils. I then went to The Weston A. Price Foundation website, bought the cookbook and started cooking only with saturated and monounsaturated fats.

The next column will get delve into detail on Omega 6’s and Omega 3’s, and how to correct this really important ratio.
© Dan Brown 5/22/11