I have been reading and reporting on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish oil, for many years now. Recent advances and information has caused me to rethink my approach to supplementing with omega-3 and other essential fatty acids; I wanted to share some of these new findings with you.
First, I want to talk about the two most fundamental forms of essential fatty acids.
Parent Essential Fats (PEFs) – These are primarily vegetarian sources and are made up of the true essential fatty acids that cannot be made by the body. Examples of PEFs are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid from flax, chia and other nuts and seeds. Another example would be linoleic acid which is an omega-6 fatty acid from nuts and seeds. Neither can be made by the body and thus must be consumed. They are primarily used as building blocks for the second fundamental form of essential fatty acids—Essential Fatty Acid Metabolites (EFAMs).
Essential Fatty Acid Metabolites (EFAMs) —EFAMs are the fatty acid metabolites that are made from the parent essential fatty acids. These are commonly found in animal sources such as meat and eggs because the animal has converted the PEFs into the active metabolites. The two most famous omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA from fish, shrimp and wild game. These two are the most abundant essential fatty acid metabolites but are not the only important EFAMs.
These can be made in the body and thus are not considered true essential fatty acids; however, if the body cannot produce sufficient amounts then these fatty acid metabolites become conditionally essential and thus must be consumed. There are a number of reasons why these fats may become conditionally essential.
One big change in paradigm for me has been how we look at these EFAMs. We would often talk about how fish oil was the only omega-3 fatty acid supplement you needed because the fish has converted the PEFs for you; however, perhaps the body wants the ability to make the EPA, DHA and any other metabolites as it sees fit. As you will see, the new approach focuses on providing the body with higher levels of PEFs and smaller, supportive doses of the EFAMs such as the EPA and DHA found in fish oil. This will prevent an excess of active metabolites while allowing the body to decide how much EPA, DHA, and other metabolites it wants depending on need.
Why Can’t Some People Make Enough EFAMs?
There are a number of reasons why some people have difficulty converting the parent essential fatty acids into active essential fatty acid metabolites.
Genetics – Some people’s bodies just do not produce the necessary enzymes to convert the parent essential fats into the active metabolites. These people must include the EFAMs in their diet.
Trans fat consumption—I don’t need to preach the evils of trans fats, let me sum up the topic of trans fats by just saying this, “Trans fats are the devil.” They poison the system by occupying the membrane of the cell, crowding out healthy fats and inactivating the enzymes needed for proper conversion of PEFs. They have been linked to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and other diseases.
Too little saturated fat intake—That’s right, you may not be getting enough saturated fat in the diet from clean sources. I am not talking about hydrogenated oils, I am talking about natural saturated fats from such sources as organic butter and coconut oil. It turns out that saturated fats are essential in the conversion of PEFs into EFAMs.
Certain metabolic health problems—Diabetes and Syndrome X cause a deficiency of certain enzymes needed for the conversion of PEFs into EFAMs. Other conditions and medications may also effect the ability to convert PEFs, especially omega-3 fatty acids, into the active metabolites. If you consider yourself to be in bad health then it is recommended that you take special care to get the EFAMs from omega-3 fatty acid sources such as fish oil, free-range egg and fish.
The omega-3 fatty acids are still considered one of the most important nutritional supplements that one can take. There are four reasons why this supplement is so high on our list of priorities:
Our diets are dangerously deficient in healthy, undamaged omega-3 fatty acids.
The way that we cook and process foods destroy the healthy qualities of the omega-3 fatty acids
We consume far too many omega-6 fatty acid containing foods
Our diets and lifestyles contribute to an inability to convert precursor essential fatty acids into active fatty acid metabolites. More on this later…
In a nutshell, there are many different fatty acids that are important to our health. Although we have a tendency to focus on the EPA and DHA, two fatty acids found in fish oil, it is important to note that there are many different types of fatty acid metabolites that are also important to the body. This is why we were never big fans of fish oil supplements that claim to “concentrate the omega-3 fatty acids and throw away the rest.”
When we evaluate the work of researchers who study the diets of our hunter/gatherer ancestors we find some pretty interesting stuff.
Our bodies appear to be built to function on a diet that contains an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of between 6:1 and 1:1. This means for every 1-6 grams of omega-6 fatty acids we should be getting 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids.
The primary source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, in our ancestors’ diets, was from plant sources. Wild game was more of a treat and thus the PEFs were likely the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids with small doses of the EFAM omega-3 fatty acids when available.
Our body is very efficient in absorption of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids and appears to have no system for controlling essential fatty acid uptake into the cell. This means that the concentration of PEFs and EFAMs in the cell are proportional to the intake. This likely stems from a relative scarcity of PEFs in the diet and a relative importance to health as we evolved. This means that if 10% of our fat consumption comes from essential fatty acids then our cell membranes will contain close to 10% of the fatty acids as those same EFAs.
Why Our Efficiency at Absorbing EFAs May Be Killing Us
As I have researched essential fatty acids and their impact on our health, I have concluded with more certainty than ever, that a healthy balance of proper fats is essential to the achievement of optimal health. On the flip side, the consumption of the wrong fats and/or damaged/oxidized fats is one of the most important contributors to disease. The reason for such a negative impact on our health seems to stem from the efficiency with which our body seems to absorb and utilize the fats that we consume.
Over the past century, our fat intake has changed dramatically. Whereas the consumption of essential fatty acids was somewhat scarce in our diet, now they are abundant. This abundance of essential fats, omega-3 fats included, can result in too much of a good thing as we started to cook, fry and otherwise process these fats in such a way that results in damaged/oxidized polyunsaturated fatty acids. These damaged fats take advantage of our efficiency in absorbing healthy fat and end up entering the membranes of our cells. These oxidized fats ultimately cause dysfunction in the cell that seems to be a major player in the development of disease, especially heart disease, obesity and cancer. In addition, the abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, also oxidized, throws the balance of omega-3 fatty acids further out of whack. With the combined effect, we have the perfect storm for disease:
Unbalanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids which can reach a level of up to 20:1 in many diets.
The abundance of oxidized/damaged omega-3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
In a nutshell, the average American’s cell membranes are full of oxidized fats and even if they were not oxidized, the imbalanced ratio alone would be sufficient to cause disease and dysfunction. We are in real trouble here. Did you know that scientists dissected the plaques of arteries from people who had died from heart disease and discovered almost no saturated fat in the arteries and plaques of these unlucky people? You know what they found plenty of? That’s right, oxidized omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Yet we spend so much time and money attacking saturated fats when in essence it is the intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, specifically oxidized omega-6 fats, that are to blame for many of our health problems. Saturated fats appear to be benign at worst and helpful at best!
Changing the Paradigm for Fats & Oils
I started the article by saying that I have been rethinking my approach to supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil. Let me now discuss my conclusions:
What we eat is more important than what we supplement with. We must first stop consuming oxidized polyunsaturated fatty acids which means we want to avoid fried foods, especially those cooked and fried in oils which are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as: Canola oil, grapeseed oil, walnut oil, corn oil, safflower oil and soybean oil.
If you do cook, use extra virgin coconut oil or organic butter as these contain saturated fats that will not oxidize nor will they through the omega-6:omega-3 ratio out of balance. Do not worry about the saturated fats in these oils as they will not cause heart disease as the authorities report. I also like to snack on a combination of organic coconut flakes and chia seeds called CocoChia by a company called Living Fuel Rx. I consume s couple tablespoons daily, it is a delicious treat and provides both healthy saturated and omega-3 PEFs.
For many people, fish oil cannot be called an essential fatty acid because the body does have the capacity to make the EFAMs, EPA and DHA, that are found in fish. It should be considered conditionally essential in those groups who I discussed earlier in the article, however, for most of us these fats should be taken in as natural a form as possible and used in smaller quantities. They should also be used in the context as support for a lifestyle and diet that is low in cooked polyunsaturated oils, as described above. For general maintenance, we are recommending a new, whole food fish oil product that is called WholeMega by New Chapter . This formula is a brand new form of fish oil that is standardized to more than just EPA/DHA. In fact, it contains many different EFAMs that exist in smaller quantities but play critical roles in the health of the body. In addition, this product has a natural antioxidant that is built into the fish oil so as to prevent oxidation within the capsule and body. The recommended dose for many people is 2-4 capsules daily. In some people, higher doses of this or another fish oil may be needed.
Supplement with PEFs. The majority of the essential fatty acids should come from the parent essential fats, this will permit the body to make its own EFAMs as it sees fit. We should consume these fats raw and uncooked and they should compromise only a small percent of our caloric intake. According to fatty acid expert, Mary Enig, Ph.D., omega-3 fatty acids should compromise 1-1.5% of our caloric intake. If your daily caloric intake is 2,000 calories, you should consume 2.2-3.3 grams of PEF omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, we should consume 2-3% of our caloric intake as omega-6 fatty acids which means someone who eats 2,000 calories daily should consume 4.4-6.7 grams of omega-6 fats. This consumption can come from diet and/or supplements but it should be in an unadulterated form. I recommend the formula called Udo’s 3-6-9 Oil Blend which can be used as a liquid on top of prepared food or in capsule form as a supplement to prepared food.
Trans Fats should be avoided entirely. These fats are not naturally found in the diet and wreak havoc on the health of the body. Trans fatty acids will short-circuit our the efforts above. The government now requires that foods list the quantity of trans fat within prepared foods, however, the food industry has found creative ways to mask the trans fat content of food by making the serving size of food so small that it can legally say “Contains 0 grams of Trans fat”. In addition, the industry has replaced trans fats with a new kind of fat called interesterified fatty acids that may turn out to be worst than trans fats. We will talk more about this in the future.
Make sure that you eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables and supplement with plenty of antioxidants in order to protect these fats from unwanted oxidation.
Don’t be afraid of saturated fat or cholesterol in the diet. In fact, eating a free-range egg a day is a good practice to provide the body with important EFAMs, PEFs, antioxidants, amino acids, and phospholipids.
Watch your intake of refined carbohydrates. When you consume excessive levels of carbohydrates, the way that your body processes fats gets disturbed. We have discussed this in detail in previous articles and radio shows, so I will spare you today.
Get a copy of Know Your Fats by Dr. Mary G. Enig. This book, although quite technical, really does a good job of answering the questions around consuming healthy fats.