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You're Probably Not Eating Enough: Omega-3s

Posted Mar 08 2010 11:05am

It’s certainly no secret that omega-3 fatty acids are powerful little fats. They’re essential fatty acids we can’t produce on our own. They’ve been shown to reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease, arthritis, and cancer, fight wrinkles, and block fat-cell formation.

But even though we know the facts, Americans are still deficient. No surprises there. According to this informative article by Susan Allport, a Harvard MD found that omega-3 deficiency could be responsible for up to 96,000 premature deaths in the U.S. alone.

On the flip side, we get far too many omega-6 fatty acids. Though we require both, the ratio of omega 6s to 3s should be more like 1:2, rather than what we get (anywhere from 15-30:1!). Since doubling our omega-6 ratio about a hundred years ago, heart disease has increased proportionally (as well as other neurological disorders). From the article:

We are now eating a diet that is supposed to fatten us up for winter, when weather is harsh and calories are scarce. But today food is never scarce for the average American. The base of our food supply has shifted from leaves to seeds, and this simple change means our bodies are storing more fat, leading to obesity and all its associated diseases.

[…]

It is no coincidence that as America shifted its diet—from one based on green leaves to one based on seeds—we became fatter and fatter and sicker and sicker. Our hibernation diet is exposing us to epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and brain disorders. Even infants, according to the Child and Family Research Institute of the University of British Columbia, are getting fatter—long before they could ever be accused of overeating—when they are fed formulas high in omega-6s. Sure, America’s seed-based foods are remarkably cheap, but we spend the lowest percentage of our income on food and more on health care than any other country in the world.

So, what are some omega-3-loving people to do? Allport suggests three ways to get more 3s:

1. Eat More Greens
Leafy greens, legumes, and potatoes have a better balance of omega-3s to omega- 6s than most seeds and grains. Omega-3s live in leaves as the omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Animals (like us) convert ALA into even more dynamic omega-3s: EPA and DHA. This conversion is somewhat inefficient, however, and that’s why the next steps are so important.

2. Eat Healthier Meats
Cows raised on grass produce meat, milk, and cheese with many more omega-3s than their corn-and soy-fed counterparts. Chickens fed a diet rich in flax and greens produce eggs that are as high in EPA and DHA as many species of fish. Some would argue that grass-fed meats are more expensive than grain-fed, but the former come without the very steep medical price tag of a diet high in omega-6s (emphasis mine).

3. Eat Fish
Fish can also be a sustainable part of our new diet, as moderate fish consumption will be more effective when our diet has fewer omega-6s. Try to eat at least two meals of fish per week. Fish oil supplements can also help, as toddler Lisa’s mother found, though they’re not a long-term solution to this widespread nutritional deficiency.

I’d say the second suggestion is particularly important for us non-vegetarians. Suck it up and pay for the grass-fed meat, guys! I recently started taking a fish oil supplement (and you all know how anti-supplement I am!) because I know how difficult it is to get the nutrient. Oh, and ladies, one more perk to getting more omega-3s? Wayyy less cramping during periods! I noticed this right away. It’s great.

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