The Scoop on Omega-3

By Brendan Brazier   |  4Comments|

Recently I saw a generic brand of knock-off Oreo cookies. Not surprisingly, the first ingredient was refined sugar and the second was bleached, white flour. Across the front of the box, larger than the name of the cookies, it said: omega-3. That was the most prominent text! And while omega-3 is vastly important (essential even), the way its suggested usage is being promoted has become somewhat misguided. As with many healthy foods or nutrients grabbed by the mainstream, omega-3 consumption is slightly misunderstood.

An upswing in awareness of omega-3 began to develop soon after a World Health Organization (WHO) report was released. The report suggested that the average North American eats a diet with a vastly out-of-balance ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which was linked to serious health problems. Consumers of the Standard American Diet (SAD) commonly ingest 20 times more omega-6 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, provided both sources of omega-6 and omega-3 are of high quality and in their natural, unrefined form.

Those eating a SAD were consuming five times more omega-6 than the 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 burn body fat effectively, dry skin and even poor memory were all suspected of being a result of this off-kilter ratio. Serious implications indeed.

As a consumer-minded society we immediately concluded that these findings meant we should get more omega-3 in our diet to compensate for the lopsided ratio. Was this a bad approach? Not particularly, but it certainly wasn’t the most logical. Seemingly overnight omega-3 became a buzzword and everyone wanted to increase their omega-3 intake. Of course the next question was, “can I buy omega-3 supplements?” The answer very quickly became yes. This was a good thing, but it was far from optimal.

Another finding that emerged from the same WHO study was not as celebrated. The report also suggested that the problem was not merely created by too much omega-6 but rather by its sources. In addition to a distorted ratio, denatured, refined and highly processed forms of fat containing omega-6 were found to be part of the problem. Essentially eating too many high-temperature fried foods, denatured oils and manufactured fats (commonly used in cheaper baked goods to increase shelf life) was being blamed.

Taking into account the WHO’s findings on the ideal ratio, those of us who eat a diet that does not regularly contain large amounts of high-temperature fried foods, hydrogenated fats (such as those found in some margarines) or trans fats have no reason to use supplements with 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 supplement your diet with omega-3 and think that you’ve solved the problem by balancing your ratio. It’s false hope and nothing more than a bandage that will offer a mild reprieve of symptoms at best. The cause will remain, and the problem will continue to worsen until it is addressed.

There are many highly corrective oil formulas on the market that offer 1:2 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Because of the reasons I’ve stated, I believe the best approach is to eat a healthy, balanced diet of whole foods as opposed to taking a highly corrective formula. A healthy diet includes balanced cold-pressed oils that yield a ratio between 4:1 and 2:1. I often make a salad dressing that combines cold-pressed, organic hemp seed oil (70%), flax seed oil (20%) and pumpkin seed oil (10%). Straight hemp oil is another good choice.

The WHO report concludes the best way to bring the ratio back to a healthy balance is to simply cut back on all processed, denatured and manufactured fats with a goal of complete elimination. Cold-pressed forms of omega-6 are perfectly healthy and essential to optimal health. As long as their quantity does not surpass four parts for every one part of omega-3, optimal health will be obtainable.

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4 responses to The Scoop on Omega-3
  1. Thanks. I have taken a few nutrition classes where we spoke about this very topic. Recently my mother’s doctor told her to take an omega3 fish oil supplement..any brand the cheapest she could find and she is on coumedin. I had to tell her to wait and follow up with her cardiologist on this b/c omega3 fish oil is a blood thinner too and buying the cheapest one on the shelf is a waste of money. So I guided her on how to purchase the fish oil supplements. Most people think thier docs know what they are talking about so it scares me that docs can so casually tell people these things ignorantly b/c you know people are following that advice.

  2. Hi Brendan,
    I found this online.. although most of CSL is vegan, a bit of fish does sound like a good idea, wild caught salmon esp.. my two cents :)
    Salmon, flax seeds and walnuts are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Very good sources of these healthy fats include scallops, cauliflower, cabbage, cloves and mustard seeds. Good sources of these fats include halibut, shrimp, cod, tuna, soybeans, tofu, kale, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts.

    Studies have proven that a relatively small number of omega-3 food sources can have a measurable impact on your blood levels of omega-3s, including those two key omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). For example, two weekly servings of a non-fried, omega-3 containing fish (like wild-caught Pacific salmon) is enough to boost your blood levels of omega-3s.

  3. Hi Brendan, Thanks for the great info! I am a naturopathy student in Australia. Would you have details of the WHO study – I would love to read more, Thanks very much

    I work at a health food store, and we shove fish oil down people’s throats, and i am sooooo tired of the bs of it all. thank you for setting the record straight!