I spent a lot of time writing this article. Initially, I just wanted to show the interest of omega 3s. And then, while digging, I came across a much deeper problem… This article follows the path of my research: a series of logical reasoning that, once again, got me upside down.
- Chapter 1: Omega 3s are good for you
- The omega 6 / omega 3 ratio explained by a lab
- What about omega 6 then?
- How did we end up there?
- Back to omega 6 and their health consequences
- What to do then?
Many studies show the benefits of omega 3s. Some even conclude that they are more effective than the standard treatments for depression 1. Another study shows their effectiveness against suicidal feelings and social phobias2. And there’s more: this same study managed to observe some changes in the structure of the brain!!! (with a treatment composed of pure omega 3s)
Other studies show the incredible effects of omega 3 for many disorders:
- anorexia3 – out of 7 people: 3 have healed and the other 4 improved
- positive effects on insomnia4, on depressed mood, on guilt, or on the feeling of being useless
- decreased aggressiveness5
- improving bipolar disorder6
Omega 3s play an important role for the neuronal membrane. Their benefits would be due, among other things, to the inhibition of cytokine production. The latter being linked to stress and depression. They also have an anti-inflammatory role. For now, no side effects could be found.
So, that’s it: Omega 3s are great, just get plenty of them!
End of the article? Let’s see where to find them first.
Long story short: there are two main sources of Omega 3.
Long-chain omega 3s: EPA and DHA , found mostly in fish. These are, according to the studies, the most effective.
And the short chain omega 3s: ALA , found in plants such as flax seed and nuts. We can often read that short chain omega 3s ( ALA ) must be converted into long chains ( EPA and DHA ) by the body, but that unfortunately the conversion rate is very low. So for vegetarians, natural supplementation is pretty complicated! Except that, on the other side, other studies made some analyzes on vegetarians7 and didn’t manage to find any particular deficiency on that side – especially in the brain where they play a key role. There are still mysteries that need to be clarified!
In simple: you have to eat fish. Except that, in fish, there’s mercury… Luckily (or not), supplementing with fish oil has been found to be a safer alternative than the fish itself8.
For me, it’s sounds like a weird path towards health… even before the oceans got polluted, our ancestors were not all fishermen… far from it!
What’s wrong then?
Everything is explained in a small paragraph (from 2002) on pubmed. I summarize: the man has evolved, since the beginning, with an omega 6 / omega 3 ratio of 1/1. With our modern food habits, we are now reaching incredibly high levels: around 16: 1.
Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6 / omega-3 ratio, as found in today’s diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (low omega-6 / omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects. In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.
The lower the ratio, the better. Ideal ratio is 2/1.
Lab conclusion: omega 3 dosages should be adjusted according to the severity of the disease.
I think they just forgot what they wrote in the introduction:
Western diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, and excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with the diet on which humans have been evolved and their genetic patterns have been established.
Omega 3 and 6 are known as polyunsaturated fatty acids ( PUFAs ). But I will keep further details on the different types of fat for another dedicated article.
Thus, PUFA are found, as we know, in fish, but also (and especially) in vegetable oils: sunflower, rapeseed / canola, sesame, corn, soybean, grape seed… and in most of these oils, the ratio is messed up: they are full of omega 6! The peanuts also contain too many Omega 6s. What about margarine? It is made from these oils: they have been tortured with chemical compounds and processes in order to get a solid state…
These oils are cheap and therefore everywhere in our food. All processed foods and restaurants overuse them. We even find them in our kitchens, because we were told that they are good for health. In fact, they kill us with their excess omega 6.
So we have: on the one hand a food industry that feeds us with omega 6, and on the other hand labs that pretend to fix that with Omega 3.
Only a few generations ago, people cooked mainly with animal fat. Today, everyone uses vegetable oils, without wondering how that happened.
One of the reasons (transcribed by Alex Fergus in his article on PUFA ) comes from a excess of seed oils: these oils were traditionally used for varnishes and paints. But around the second world war, the paints experienced an industrial revolution with synthetic products and oil derivatives. The vegetable oils were then replaced, and consequently found in excess. What do we do with all these seeds that nobody wants? Give it to the animals! Grain-fed animals, does that ring a bell? What is more, it’s a working great: these seeds are making the animals fatter! (they also get sicker, but nobody seemed to care…)
A new market was born.
We could have stopped there, but why not extend this new juicy market to human consumption? We just need to say that cholesterol, from animal fat, is bad for the health (which is wrong, but many people still believe it today). Logically (or not), vegetable oils, which do not contain cholesterol, are therefore better for the health! Many of us still believe it, and they will buy their sunflower oil, making sure that the oil is “extra virgin – cold pressed”… because it’s healthier…
The job works! And, just like animals, humans get fat and fall sick…
I’ll make it short (because the article is already long), here are the consequences of an excess of omega 6 :
- oxidation / inflammation
- cardiovascular diseases
- immune function disorders
Strange coincidence, the excess of omega 6 causes the problems that can be improved by omega 3 supplementation – seen in the first chapter.
The PUFAs are nevertheless “essential” fatty acids. That means the body is not able to produce them (both are essential: omega 6 and omega 3). The problem is that marketing made it seem like the more the better (“essential fatty acids”), while our needs are limited… it is quite impossible to have a essential fatty acid deficiency in a developed country. On the other hand, it is too easy to have an excess of omega 6 and a 6/3 ratio that raises the roof…
The PUFAs are not very stable and they oxidise easily. Oxidation, as you may know, produces free radicals, which cause inflammation. What you need to know is that the heat – from cooking – favors the oxidation of PUFA . They are consequently to be avoided for cooking (you may add them on cold dishes, or after cooking).
When omega-6s were found to inhibit the immune system, they were first used as a treatment for autoimmune diseases, or to prevent transplant rejection. When we realized that this treatment was to cause many cancers (20 times more chances), it was immediately stopped.
So, be careful: if you have immune disorders and you feel better with food containing omega 6 (junk food, industrial food, or even at home with sunflower oil, etc.), do not conclude that it’s because vegetable oils are good for you. In the long run, you may end up with cancer.
Learn to identify the sources of omega 6, and avoid them: vegetable oils (seed-based), used in processed foods and in restaurants, and at home.
Reversing the trend can take several years! There’s no need to panic: it is a long term process. Settle some good habits and be patient!
For most of us, it’s not really possible to never go to a restaurant. In this case, dare to ask which oils are used for cooking or seasoning. (You can even ask that they change to olive oil or coconut, who knows …).
Olive oil and coconut oil have good reputations (and they are not seeds). They both have little PUFA (coconut oil is mainly composed of saturated fatty acids and olive oil of monounsaturated fatty acids). You can also use organic butter, which contains almost no PUFA .
Flaxseed / linseed oil is an exception: it has a good omega 6 / omega 3 ratio (1 / 4 – even if the plant based omega 3 are a bit controversial). And again, it should not be used for cooking!
The rapeseed / canola oil has an omega 6 / omega 3 ration of 2.2 / 1. As long as you don’t heat it, it is ok if it stays occasional.
For omnivores, using animal fat may also be a good alternative. Excessive meat consumption is currently controversial. But if you choose quality meat (ie not full of omega 6 and antibiotics) and with if you consume it with moderation, there should be no problem. But I’m not going to expand much further because there might be a lot to debate about …
For short term, a bit of fish oil could help. If we look at the studies from the first paragraph, it is even very beneficial! Just don’t take it and think it allows you to consume omega 6. It doesn’t work like that.
Omega 6s oxidize easily (and thus release free radicals that cause inflammation). Antioxidants are therefore highly recommended.
Once again, the lobby is threatening our health… This time, it is not sugar but omega 6. To fix this issue, it seems essential to remove vegetable oils (seeds) and favor olive oil, coconut oil, butter and animal fat (meat and fish). This implies to avoid processed food (or to read the labels carefully), and to remain very careful in restaurants.
It is only in a second step, once that the source of the problem is identified and taken care of, that omega 3 supplementation can make sense in the short or medium term (especially if your ratio 6/3 is dangerously high). Don’t get me wrong, I do not criticize omega 3 as such, but once again the misinformation that we are the victims of.
Also, beware of the bad deductions: fats are a fundamental part of our diet9. Do not eliminate them but rather pick the good ones!
So what food do you have to stop eating because of my article? For me it’s the chips and peanut butter… Leave me a message in the comments!
- A dose-ranging study of the effects of ethyl-eicosapentaenoate in patients with adequate treatment with standard drugs.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid in treatment-resistant depression associated with symptom remission, structural brain changes and reduced neuronal phospholipid turnover.
- A pilot open case series of ethyl-EPA supplementation in the treatment of anorexia nervosa.
- Addition of omega-3 fatty acid to maintenance medication treatment for recurrent unipolar depressive disorder.
- omega-3 Fatty acid treatment of women with borderline disorder disorder: double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study.
- Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
- Comparison of bolus versus fractionated oral applications of [13C] -linoleic acid in humans.
- Measurement of mercury levels in Concentrated over-the-counter fish oil fish oil healthier than fish?
- Higher fat intake = Lower death rate