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

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