Brace yourself my dear readers for this will be a ride on the fat side of life…the good fat side of life that is. Join me if you dare as we start on the road to demystify the myths associated with FAT. It is considered by most in the dieting world to be a BIG no-no. Well next to carbs, calories and sugars. They makes most people shudder when the word is used in reference to them. But is an essential component of our everyday meals.

Just as an overview before we get to the fun part; fat can either be described as saturated or unsaturated. It is further expounded into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated; (terms derived from their chemical composition which is a story for another day). Fat is an important source of energy, of fat soluble vitamins, and of essential fatty acids.          

Let us camp here a while; essential fatty acids; – a fancy word for fats that must be obtained from the diet as our bodies cannot produce them. Are a type of polyunsaturated fat. A good example is omega 3 and its friend omega 6 which I am hoping are not strange words to you. In case they are, no worries because you will be well acquainted when you hit the last full stop.

Omega 6 is derived mostly from plant origin. Its sources including most vegetable oils e.g. corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and can also found in meats. Omega 3s aka “n-3s” (which is this article’s main focus); are present in flaxseed, egg yolk, cold water fish, as well as in certain dietary supplements. There are in existence several omega -3s. But since most of the studies conducted focus on three of them, there will our focus be as well. These three are: ALA, EPA, and DHA – which are obviously abbreviations for their names – a mouthful of science words I thought were not necessary for this read.                                       

Let us delve deeper instead and find out more about the three famous omega-3s. ALA is found in plant oils (walnuts, flaxseed and flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, linseed). It can be converted in the body into EPA and DHA through various metabolic processes. However, the EPA and DHA produced from these processes are not as potent and as effective when compared to the bio available EPA and DHA that exists without the conversion. The readily available sources of EPA are; krill oils, fish and fish oils obtained from herring, mackerel, salmon, cod, and flounder. DHA sources are krill oils, fish and fish oils obtained from herring, salmon, tuna, and from fermented micro algae. Closer home, we have fish like Nile perch and sardines.

Here is the fun part which answers why fats are important and more importantly why Omega 3 is over emphasized.                                                                                                                                                                          
Omega 3 has a structural role and is a key component of the cell membrane structure. Let us take you back to your science class and think of every cell in your body; (skin cells, eyes, heart cells, brain cells, reproductive cells, etc.). Each and every cell in the body has a membrane and this fantastic nutrient is an element of your cells. As if that is not enough, the omega 3 fatty acid EPA has anti-inflammatory effects and reduces the synthesis of pro-inflammatory components in the body. DHA on the other hand has a wide range of functions in the body’s cardiovascular system (heart), the pulmonary (lungs), the immune system, the endocrine systems (hormones) and is especially important in the structural integrity and the maintenance of the retina (eye), brain, and sperm.                                                                                    
Omega 3 fatty acids have been linked with benefits in heart health. Where it helps in reducing the level of triglycerides, and HDL cholesterol, and in reducing inflammation. It also has some benefits with blood pressure lowering and helps with reducing blood clots.                                                                                     

Another associated benefit of omega 3 fatty acids is in the maintenance of bone and joint health. The greatest effects visible in people with rheumatoid arthritis, athletes and people with inflammatory musculoskeletal disorders.                                                                                                                                              
In pregnancy and lactation, sufficient DHA intakes is essential for fetal brain and eye development. May have long lasting benefits for the offspring’s cognitive performance. Decreased risk of developmental delays, autism, cerebral palsy, and in cardiovascular health. Studies have also indicated that DHA may reduce the risk of preterm labor, postnatal depression and improve gestational diabetes.    

Omega 3 is associated with the optimization of brain development in the fetal period, into infancy, and in childhood and adolescence stages of life. In adulthood it aids in the maintenance of optimal mental health and cognitive functioning. While in old age it helps with deferring of the cognitive decline associated with degenerative mental conditions such as; dementia and Alzheimer’s. Consumption of these essential fatty acids have been seen to reduce the symptoms of ADHD, depressive symptoms of bi polar disorder and sleep deprivation. Omega 3 is an essential component of brain health throughout all life stages. Given the fact that 35% (dry weight) of the lipid content of an adult brain is made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly DHA.                                                                                                            
When it comes to eye health, omega 3 comes in handy since more than 50% of fatty acids in the retina, and the nerve tissue that lines the inside of the eye are DHA. Low levels of DHA and EPA in infancy have been associated with both structural and functional abnormalities, and in adulthood with diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome.                                                                

Auto immune diseases e.g. asthma which are characterized by inflammation also respond well to the presence of omega 3 fatty acids in the diet.                                                                                                                   
Metabolic syndrome symptoms such as central obesity, elevated blood sugar, and insulin resistance have been shown to respond well in cases where the diet is rich in omega 3 fatty acids with omega 6 fatty acids intake regulated.

The omega 6/ omega 3 ratio
The human past almost always has a way of influencing the present, and the future as can be referenced from my little tale.                                                                                                                                                              
Once upon a time, the main sources of food were all natural. The hunter /gatherer people would hunt in the wild for meat, pick forest fruits and eat wild and indigenous veggies. These natural sources of food provided them with nutrients in their natural and unaltered forms so they enjoyed the full nutritional benefits and were much healthier with little to no effort. Food was their medicine.                                   

Then came the agricultural age where cultivation was done with natural compost and our animals were free range grazers drinking from the rivers and ponds.                                                                                             
Next came the civilization of the industrial age which brought with it simplified ways to get food, to preserve food, to prepare and to cook food. In this day, fruits are dried or preserved in sugar syrups, meat is reared in farms and packaged to last up to a couple of months, and our veggies grown in green houses. Living in a world where microwaves rule over more traditional ovens and one where adding fast or instant to a food makes it a preferred choice for many, the result is more and readily available food sources but with that came some complications.

This ‘simplification’ processes strip bits by bits of the nutrients, and the more processed a food product is, the more nutrients it loses. In addition to that we have long forgotten the vital and intricate ratios for nutrient balance.

What do you think is the reason your grandparents and the people from generations before them suffered less incidents of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer at a young age?

Before I digress any further, let us get to the heart of the issue, omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. The waves of dietary changes in recent history have been leading us to the consumption of foods with excessive levels of omega 6 fatty acids. Remember the omega 6 sources listed above (feel free to check if you don’t, we’ll wait.), how many of you have consumed a food or a meal today with at least one of the sources mentioned?                                                                                                                                                                                  
Done? Okay.                                                                                                                                                                             Now compare that with the number of foods or meals you’ve had in the last 24 hours that have a source of omega 3. If you had smoked fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon), and flax seeds in a salad you might have greater chances here. If it was fried or stewed meat with a side of veggies sautéed in some sunflower oil, then your omega 6 is still higher than omega 3.            

 So, with the levels of omega 3 consumption being evidently lower, there is an unhealthy omega 6 to omega 3 ratio and the consequence is the reduction of the synthesis and functioning of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. This has been shown to promote the pathogenesis – another way of saying it creates an optimal and thriving environment for growth and development– of many of the diseases mentioned above.

The most unfortunate thing is that most clinicians do not assess omega 3 status because there are no established normal ranges or because they lack the infrastructure to do so.
If that is the case, how then can you know what your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is? We here are in luck because you have me – just had to put that out there – and my hacks into simplifying healthy living. One can simply take note of their dietary consumption through a food journal. Take note of the foods in your everyday meals, and of the ingredients that make up your diet. They paint a certain picture.

What does that picture tell you? Is that picture one that encourages healing in your body or is it one that tells you that there’s still some work to be done? How can you increase the omega 3 ratios?

Depending on who you are in terms of your stage in the lifecycle (infant, adolescent, pregnancy, adulthood, old age), your health status (your medical condition), and your lifestyle (sedentary or active) the omega 3 intake recommendations vary.                                                                                                                        
The EPA and DHA recommendations for the general healthy adult population is 250 mg per day which is an equivalent of at least 1-2 servings per week of oily fish. For cardiovascular health for example, the recommended intake value is 1000 mg per day of EPA and DHA or an equivalent of at least 2-3 portions of oily fish per week. In pregnancy and for lactating women, an additional 100 – 200 mg per day is recommended, with 100 mg DHA per day endorsed for infants and 200 mg EPA plus DHA per day for children aged 2 to 18 years.
In countries like ours where habitual fish consumption is low, supplementation becomes the next best option. To be safe and to get adequate amounts of omega 3 according to your needs, it would do you a world of good to seek the direction of a registered clinical nutritionist or dietician.

Just like with everything in life, the first step is knowing the truth – and the truth will set you free; next is the application. And then you’ll be on the road to a much more fulfilled life. That is my goal here: to see you live to your fullest potential, free of the discomforts and pains that hold you back.

By: Ababach Tamiru
Nutritionist/ Dietitian
Chiropractic & Physiotherapy Health Centre

MY FAT SERIES: 1- Omega 3 Fatty Acids

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