Monday, September 8, 2008

A Practical Approach to Omega Fats

Hunter-gatherers and healthy non-industrial cultures didn't know what omega-6 and omega-3 fats were. They didn't balance nutrients precisely; they stayed healthy by eating foods that they knew were available and nourishing. Therefore, I don't think it's necessary to bean count omega fats, and I don't think there's likely to be a single ideal ratio of n-6 to n-3. However, I do think there's evidence for an optimal range. To find out what it is, let's look at what's been done by healthy cultures in the past:
  • Hunter-gatherers living mostly on land animals: 2:1 to 4:1

  • Pacific islanders getting most of their fat from coconut and fish: 1:2

  • Inuit and other Pacific coast Americans: 1:4 or less

  • Dairy-based cultures: 1:1 to 2:1

  • Cultures eating fish and grains: 1:2 or less

It looks like a healthy ratio is between 4:1 and 1:4 n-6 to n-3. Some of these cultures ate a good amount of n-3 polyunsaturated fat, but none of them ate much n-6 [One rare exception is the !Kung. SJG 2011]. There are three basic patterns that I've seen: 1) low fat with low total n-6 and n-3, and a ratio of less than 2:1; 2) high fat with low total n-6 and n-3 and a ratio of 2:1 or less; 3) high fat with low n-6 and high n-3, and a low carbohydrate intake.

I think there's a simple way to interpret all this. Number one, don't eat vegetable oils high in n-6 fats. They are mostly industrial creations that have never supported human health. Number two, find a source of n-3 fats that can approximately balance your n-6 intake. In practical terms, this means minimizing sources of n-6 and eating modest amounts of n-3 to balance it. Some foods are naturally balanced, such as grass-fed dairy and pastured lamb. Others, like coconut oil, have so little n-6 it doesn't take much n-3 to create a proper balance.

Animal sources of n-3 are the best because they provide pre-formed long-chain fats like DHA, which some people have difficulty producing themselves. Flax oil may have some benefits as well. Fish oil and cod liver oil can be a convenient source of n-3; take them in doses of one teaspoon or less. As usual, whole foods are probably better than isolated oils. Weston Price noted that cultures throughout the world went to great lengths to obtain fresh and dried marine foods. Choose shellfish and wild fish that are low on the food chain so they aren't excessively polluted.

I don't think adding gobs of fish oil on top of the standard American diet to correct a poor n-6:n-3 ratio is optimal. It may be better than no fish oil, but it's probably not the best approach. I just read a study, hot off the presses, that examines this very issue in young pigs. Pigs are similar to humans in many ways, including aspects of their fat metabolism. They were fed three diets: a "deficient" diet containing some n-6 but very little n-3; a "contemporary" diet containing a lot of n-6 and some n-3; an "evolutionary" diet containing a modest, balanced amount of n-6 and n-3; and a "supplemented" diet, which is the contemporary diet plus DHA and arachidonic acid (AA).

Using the evolutionary diet as a benchmark, none of the other diets were able to achieve the same fatty acid profile in the young pigs' brains, blood, liver or heart. They also showed that neurons in culture require DHA for proper development, and excess n-6 interferes with the process.

With that said, here are a few graphs of the proportion of n-6 in common foods. These numbers all come from nutrition data. They reflect the percentage n-6 out of the total fat content. First, animal fats:

Except salmon oil, these are traditional fats suitable for cooking. Except schmaltz (chicken fat), they are relatively low in n-6. Next, vegetable oils:

These range from very low in n-6 to very high. Most of the modern, industrially processed oils are on the right, while most traditional oils are on the left. I don't recommend using anything to the right of olive oil on a regular basis. "HO" sunflower oil is high-oleic, which means it has been bred for a high monounsaturated fat content at the expense of n-6. Here are the meats and eggs:

n-3 eggs are from hens fed flax or seaweed, while the other bar refers to conventional eggs.

A few of these foods are good sources of n-3. At the top of the list is fish oil, followed by n-3 eggs, grass-fed butter, and the fat of grass-fed ruminants. It is possible to keep a good balance without seafood, it just requires keeping n-6 fats to an absolute minimum. It's also possible to overdo n-3 fats. The traditional Inuit, despite their good overall health, did not clot well. They commonly developed nosebleeds that would last for three days, for example. This is thought to be due to the effect of n-3 on blood clotting. But keep in mind that their n-3 intake was so high it would be difficult to achieve today without drinking wine glasses full of fish oil.