According to Dr Haas, considered one of the fathers of Integrated Medicine, almost all health issues faced in our society today can be at least partly attributed to an imbalance in the essential fatty acids. Personally I think that’s exciting as this is something we can address quite easily by making changes to our diet.
Do you have the right balance of essential fatty acids? Could an imbalance be negatively impacting on your health? Read on to find out more.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
In nutrition, the term ‘essential’ means something that must be obtained from the diet since the body is unable to make it itself. For example, most vitamins are ‘essential’ as we must get them from our food.
Fats, despite the bad press they get, play very important roles in the body. But most types of fat we can make ourselves from other sources of energy, so we don’t need to get an excessive amount from our diet. For example, cholesterol plays a necessary role in the body, but we are perfectly able to make it ourselves so it’s not essential to obtain it from the diet; one of the reasons why many people end up with too much.
When it comes to fats there are just two that are labelled as essential: linoleic acid, from the omega 6 family of fatty acids, and alpha linolenic acid, from the omega 3 family of fatty acids. For our purposes I’ll just refer to these as omega 3 and omega 6 which together are referred to as the essential fatty acids, or EFAs.
What foods contain EFAs?
Omega 6 fatty acids are found in a wide range of foods that we commonly eat. This includes any sort of animal fat (meat, dairy and eggs), nuts and seeds, soybeans and vegetable oil, and many fast foods and cakes.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds especially flax seed, chia seed and walnuts, and some oils like flaxseed oil.
What does the body use EFAs for?
EFAs are very important for lots of body functions including foetal brain development, fluidity of cell membranes and cellular communication. They are also the precursors for the molecules in the body which regulate inflammation: an essential part of our immune system.
Getting the right balance of EFAs
So how much of these essential fatty acids do we need? Well the answer isn’t really about how much but rather about the right balance.
It’s thought that we evolved to take in an equal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. However, a person eating a typical western diet can have up to 20 times the amount of omega 6 compared to omega 3. That’s because a typical western diet tends to be high in animal fats as well as foods fried in oils. It’s also because factory farmed meat is lower in omega 3 than the wild meat our ancestors would have eaten.
If you can aim to eat a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of between 4:1 to 1:1 this will benefit your health. Remember we do need a certain amount of fat from our diet: between 10-30% of our total food intake should be from fat; any less than 7% fat and our bodies will struggle to absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. A maximum of 11% of calories should come from saturated fats; try to aim for the majority of your fat intake coming from beneficial fats found in fish, nuts, seeds and good quality oils.
What is the impact of an imbalance in EFAs?
The main issue with this imbalance in EFAs is to do with their role in moderating inflammation. Molecules derived from omega 6 fatty acids help to create inflammation in the body while molecules from omega 3 help to reduce it. Inflammation is an important part of our immune system: protecting us when part of the body becomes injured. But if we are getting 10 or 20 times the amount of pro-inflammatory omega 6 as we are of inflammatory-reducing omega 3, the body becomes over-inflamed. This prolonged, chronic inflammation can cause all sorts of disease states: arthritis, cancer, atherosclerosis, and even depression, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. An imbalance is also thought to contribute to obesity. And according to this Guardian article, a study into aggressive alcoholics found that anger reduced by a third in violent patients who were given omega-3 supplements. In fact, in his book ‘Staying Healthy with Nutrition’, Dr. Haas states: ‘It is difficult to imagine any health problem that isn’t partly related to the balance between omega-6s and omega-3s’.
How can we ensure we get the right balance of omega 6 and omega 3?
Since most people have too much omega 6 in the diet and not enough omega 3, it makes sense to reduce foods rich in omega 6 and increase our intake of omega 3. In particular, we should aim to reduce the amount of omega 6 from foods that are harmful for us in other ways like processed junk foods, processed meat, high fat dairy and red meat which is high in harmful saturated fat.
The easiest way to increase omega 3 is to include oily fish in the diet, 2-3 times per week. The best sorts of oily fish to include are the smaller species like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring (think ‘SMASH’). Large fish like tuna accumulate mercury and other harmful toxins from the sea which are harmful to our health, so opt for this less often.
If, like me, you don’t eat fish for whatever reason, you can obtain omega 3 from plant-based sources. I recommend having a dessertspoonful each of ground flax seed (otherwise known as linseed) and chia seeds in the diet daily, and using flax seed oil as a dressing. Flax seed oil is the best plant-based source of omega 3 available. It has a delicious flavour perfect for dressings. Use 1-2 teaspoons per day. Remember to store it in the fridge and never use it for cooking since heat can damage it making the fat harmful instead of beneficial.
You can also help your body utilise the omega 3 you take in. The enzyme responsible for the conversion of omega 3 to the molecule which controls inflammation is called delta-5-desaturase. This enzyme is inhibited through a high fat diet (especially high saturated fat and cholesterol), insulin resistance and alcohol. So limiting over all fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and alcohol, will help your body to make use of the omega 3 you consume in your diet.
Is it possible to have too much omega 3?
Yes, although it is much more common to have too much omega 6 compared to omega 3; it is possible to have the scales tipped out of balance the other way; for example, where someone eats a very high amount of oily fish and very little meat. This may lead to adverse effects including impaired immune function and gastrointestinal disturbances (according to this paper).
How can I tell how much omega 3 and 6 I need?
If you are concerned about your ratio of omega 3 and 6 you can take a blood test to find out your levels, or you can make an appointment with me or another nutritional therapist to discuss your personal requirements. I would rarely suggest testing EFA levels. If a client presents with symptoms typically caused by high inflammation and has an inflammatory diet, one of the things I will aim to do is addressing their balance of EFAs through making dietary changes.
Contact me to find out more about how I can help your personal dietary needs.