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Omega-3's Protect Against Clogged Arteries

August 12, 2008
A diet rich in omega-3 fats may explain why middle-aged men in Japan have fewer problems with clogged arteries than similar men in the United States.

The research found that Japanese men living in Japan had twice the blood levels of omega-3 fats, and also lower levels of atherosclerosis, compared to middle-aged white men or Japanese-American men living in the United States.

Atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque inside your arteries. Over time, they can lead to serious problems like heart attacks and stroke.

Nutritional studies show that intake of omega-3 fats averages 1.3 grams per day in Japan, compared to 0.2 grams per day in the United States. It’s been proven time and again that omega-3 fats are excellent for your heart health. Where this particular study made some strides was in showing that it’s likely diet -- and not genes -- that’s responsible for the drastically lower rates of heart disease among the Japanese.

That is, Japanese people living in Japan. Japanese people who live in the United States have many of the same heart issues as Americans. Why? Because their diets are Americanized.

Are You Getting Enough Omega-3?

Animal-based omega-3 fats, which come largely from fish and fish oils, are not eaten in abundance in the United States. What IS eaten in abundance are omega-6 fats, which come from vegetable oils like corn, soy, and canola.

The typical Western ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 20:1. To reach optimal health, the ratio should be closer to 1:1. Because the Japanese eat so much fish (about 3 ounces a day compared to twice a week in the United States) their ratio is about 3:1.

When omega-6 fats predominate in your diet, as is common in the United States, this encourages the production of inflammation in your body. Since so many diseases have now been linked to chronic inflammation, this really is one of the most important nutrition concerns to get right.

In fact, many scientists believe that one major reason for today's high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some forms of cancer is this profound imbalance between your intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fats.

Here is just a sampling of omega-3's benefits:
You can shift your ratio by consuming more omega-3 fats, which actually promote the production of substances that fight inflammation, while also cutting down on omega-6 fats in vegetable oils.

What’s the Best Source of Omega-3 Fats?

Most of your health benefits associated with omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA, not plant-based omega-3 fats like ALA from flaxseed. ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in your body, but only at a very low ratio. Even if you eat large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert very small amounts into EPA and DHA, and only when sufficient enzymes are present.

So, hands down, the types of omega-3 that you want to add to your diet are EPA and DHA, which are found primarily in fish. The study above is further evidence of this confirmation as these benefits were found in those consuming animal, not plant based, omega-3 fats.

I’m a big believer in getting your nutrients in as close to their natural form as possible, so in a perfect world you would get your omega-3 fats from eating fish.

Unfortunately, studies show that eating fish can potentially expose you to a high degree of contamination with industrial pollutants and toxins like mercury, PCBs, heavy metals and radioactive poisons.

This is why the FDA and EPA have put out health advisories warning against certain fish and shellfish consumption for young children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, and nursing mothers.

So instead of getting your omega-3 from potentially contaminated fish, I recommend taking it in supplement form, as this has been purified to remove any toxins. And, instead of taking fish oil, which is extremely perishable and prone to oxidation, I recommend taking krill oil, which is superior to fish oil for a number of reasons.

What about the Japanese? How can they eat so much fish without any noticeable side effects?

It’s my belief that eating the fish raw, as is commonly done in Japan, tends to diminish some of the toxicity.

It should be noted that recent tests have found high levels of mercury in sushi in the United States, particularly tuna, which accumulate more toxins because of their large size.

However, the variable that still remains untested is if the mercury and other contaminants are as toxic if you consume the fish raw. In other words, does cooking it change the nature of the food to transfer its toxicity to you? To the best of my knowledge those studies have not been done.

If you like to practice the precautionary principle then it would be best to avoid it. Personally I avoid tuna, whether raw or cooked. But, again, I believe the Japanese are able to eat fish in abundance because it’s almost always eaten raw.

Of course, there may be other variables in the equation as well.

What Else Helps Keep Japanese People Healthy?

There are clearly some downsides to the Japanese way of life. They eat loads of white rice, which is terrible for your insulin levels, and they’re expected to put in extremely long hours at the job. So stressful is the Japanese work environment that they have a word devoted to it: karoshi, which means “death from overwork.”

Still, Japan continues to have one of the highest life expectancies in the world -- 83 years, compared to 78 in the United States -- so they  must be doing something right. Along with their omega-3-rich diets, I suspect their longevity is in part due to:
I eat natto frequently, as it is the highest source of vitamin K2 on the planet, and has a very powerful beneficial bacteria, bacillus subtilis. It can usually be found in any Asian grocery store.
For those of you living outside of Japan, eating more fermented foods, drinking some high-quality green tea and taking power naps may all help improve your health. But make sure you combine them with one of the most important -- and easiest -- healthy steps you can make: taking high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats every day.

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