Contributing Monkie Brendan Brazier
Published on August 20, 2009
Omega-3 has moved to the upper level of awareness, even for the average consumer. In fact, it’s become “mainstream”. Recently I saw a generic brand of knock-off Oreos. Not surprisingly, their first ingredient was refined sugar and the second was bleached white flour. However, across the front of the box in a font larger than the name of the cookies it said “Omega-3!” If there were any doubt that Omega-3 was hot, this should lay it to rest. And while Omega-3 is vastly important — essential even — its usage and the way in which it’s being promoted has become somewhat misguided. As with many healthy foods or nutrients — once grabbed by the mainstream, they tend to be slightly misunderstood.
An upswing in awareness of Omega-3 consumption began to develop soon after a World Health Organization (WHO) report was released that suggested the average North American eats a vastly out-of-balance ration of Omega-6 to Omega-3. And that this was linked to serious health problems. Consumers of the Standard American Diet (SAD) commonly ingest a ratio that is in the realm of 20:1, the report states. That means that 20 times more Omega-6 is being consumed than Omega-3.
This was of great concern since the WHO determined in their extensive study that the ideal ratio for optimal health is 4:1. This was assuming, of course, that both Omega-6 and Omega-3 sources were of high quality and in their natural, unrefined form. But, of course this finding suggested that those who subsisted on a SAD were consuming 5 times more Omega-6 than what was ideal. A significantly out-of-balance ratio such as this was being blamed for a broad spectrum of ailments. Inflammation, contributing to joint pain, was one of the chief concerns, but the list was long and varied. Difficulty sleeping, general mental and physical fatigue, sugar cravings, the inability to effectively burn body fat, dry skin and even poor memory were all suspected of being a result of this off-kilter ratio. Serious implications indeed.
However, since the ratio and quality is what’s most important here (not the total amount), could these results also be interpreted to suggest that the average North American consumes 5 times too little Omega-3? Yes, and they were. As a consumer-minded society, we immediately concluded that these findings meant we needed more Omega-3 in our diet to compensate for the lopsided ratio. While not a bad approach, this certainly wasn’t the most logical solution. However, seemingly overnight, Omega-3 became a buzzword and people were eager to “up their Omega-3 intake”. And the natural next question was “can I buy Omega-3 supplements?” The answer is yes — even though this is far from optimal.
Another finding immerged from the same WHO study — only this one was not as celebrated. The report suggested that the problem was not merely created by too much Omega-6, but rather that its sources were chiefly to blame. In addition to a skewed ratio, the problem was determined to be the denatured, refined and highly-processed forms of fat containing Omega-6. Blame was placed on eating too many high-temperature fried foods, denatured oils and manufactured fats commonly used to increase the shelf life of cheaper baked goods.
The fact that we should be eating less “bad” fat is hardly newsworthy at this point. However, the notion that more Omega-3 will solve all your health problems had the makings of a story with mainstream appeal. It’s “saleable”, as they say in the biz. And it sold.
Taking into account the WHO’s ideal ratio findings, those of us who eat a diet that does not regularly contain high amounts of high-temperature fried foods, hydrogenated fats such as those found in some margarines or trans fats have no reason to “take” oils or capsules that have a greater ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6. It’s just not necessary.
If, however, a large part of your diet consists of denatured fats, fried foods, and manufactured oils…stop eating them! Don’t just add Omega-3 and think you’ve solved the problem by balancing your ratio. It’s false hope, and it’s nothing more than patch work, which will offer a mild reprieve of symptoms at best. The cause will, however, remain intact and worsen until it is addressed.
The WHO report and several that have be conducted since conclude that the best way to bring the ratio back to a healthy balance is to simply cut back — with a goal of compete elimination — on all processed, denatured and manufactured fats. Healthy cold pressed forms of Omega-6 are perfectly healthy and, in fact, essential to optimal health. As long as their quantity does not surpass four parts for every one part of Omega-3, top health will be obtainable.
While there are many highly corrective oil formulas on the market that offer a 1:2 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3, I believe the best approach is to eat a healthy, balanced, whole food diet as opposed to an oil or a pill. After all, a healthy diet is the goal. And a healthy diet includes balanced cold-pressed oils that yield between a 4:1 ratio and a 2:1 ratio.
Here’s a suggestion: try making a salad dressing that combines cold-pressed, organic, hemp seed oil (70%), flax seed oil (20%) and pumpkin seed oil (10%).
Brendan Brazier is a professional Ironman triathlete, two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion and bestselling author on performance nutrition. He is also the creator of the award-winning VEGA line of whole food products.
Brendan’s latest book, The Thrive Diet (Penguin, 2007), includes 100 balanced, plant-based, whole food recipes.