By Dr. Mercola
A recent article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) throws conventional dietary advice on its ear. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), Americans should not reduce their consumption of omega-6 fats (think vegetables oils), and might even benefit from eating a little more.
The AHA has long promoted and still currently recommends getting at least 5 to 10 percent of your energy requirement from omega-6 fats, and teaches that reducing omega-6 PUFA intakes from current levels would likely increase your risk for coronary heart disease.
Unfortunately, this will worsen rather than improve your health, as eating too much damaged omega-6 fat and too little omega-3 sets the stage for the very health problems you seek to avoid, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes, just to name a few.
Most people, especially Americans, are guilty of this lopsided omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, and to correct it, you typically need to do two things:
- Significantly decrease omega-6 by avoiding processed foods and foods cooked at high temperatures using vegetable oils
- Increase your intake of heart-healthy animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil
Previously Missing Trial Data Confirms Harms of Too Much Omega-6
The myth that vegetable oils (rich in omega 6 fats) are healthier for you than saturated animal fats has been a tough one to dismantle. But the truth cannot be quenched forever. According to a BMJ press release:1
"Dietary advice about fats and the risk of heart disease is called into question on bmj.com today as a clinical trial shows that replacing saturated animal fats with omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable fats is linked to an increased risk of death among patients with heart disease."
The latest in-depth analysis of the health effects of omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) on coronary heart disease was not possible until now because data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study was missing.
This was a randomized controlled trial conducted from 1966 to 1973. Researchers from the US and Australia recovered the original data, and using modern statistical methods, they were now able to compare the death rates from cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, as well as all-cause mortality.2
"Their analysis involved 458 men aged 30-59 years who had recently had a coronary event, such as a heart attack or an episode of angina. Participants were randomly divided into two groups," BMJ writes.
"The intervention group was instructed to reduce saturated fats (from animal fats, common margarines and shortenings) to less than 10 percent of energy intake and to increase linoleic acid (from safflower oil and safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine) to 15 percent of energy intake. Safflower oil is a concentrated source of omega-6 linoleic acid and provides no omega-3 PUFAs."
The control group received no particular dietary advice and was allowed to eat whatever they wanted. Both groups kept food diaries for an average of 39 months. The results showed that:
- The omega-6 linoleic acid group had a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease during the study period, compared with 11 percent among the control group (those who did not receive any particular dietary advice)
- The omega-6 group also had a higher risk of all-cause mortality
I've repeatedly stated it's very important to maintain the proper ratio balance between omega-3 and omega-6, and medical researchers are also starting to realize and stress this importance. Jane Collis, an independent researcher not affiliated with the research commented on the study:3
"Commercial food processing destroys a significant amount of EFAs, along with their oxygenating ability... Polyunsaturated oils are unstable and very quickly become rancid. Oxidized fatty acids are dangerous to our health.
Lipid peroxidation and oxidative stress are important factors in this damage. Further damage is also caused by heating polyunsaturated fats in cooking (particularly frying foods).
Many omega 3 research trials did not consider the omega 3/6 essential fatty acid ratio which is vital to the eicossanoid balance. The correct omega 3/6 ratio is fundamental to holistic health for all. I believe that with simple dietary intervention diabetes complications such as retinopathy and nephropathy, could be ameliorated or prevented. ...
Healthy fertility and reproduction fundamentally rely on good nutrition, including EFAs [essential fatty acids] in plentiful supply. Poor maternal health is a cause for concern and may predict poor health in the next generations."
Southern Diet Sends Stroke Risk Soaring
In related news, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently presented the results from a study at the annual International Stroke Conference in Hawaii,4 which found that people who regularly ate a traditional "Southern" diet, known for its many deep-fried foods, had a whopping 41 percent increased risk of stroke. African-Americans had the highest risk — an incredible 63 percent higher compared to those who abstain from such foods. Lead researcher Suzanne Judd, PhD told ABC News:5
"Diet is an understudied risk factor for stroke. What was surprising about what we found was that when eating certain foods in the southern diet -- fried foods, organ meats, gizzards, sweet tea -- even when you account for other factors such as smoking, obesity, and physical activity, people still experienced a 30 percent increase in stroke risk."
Balance is Everything...
The science is loud and clear: the correct balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is essential if you want to be the healthiest you can be. There are actually two problems related to how these fats are being consumed by most Westerners today:
- Most people are consuming far too many omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fats. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is 1:1, but the typical Western diet is between 1:20 and 1:50.
- The typical Westerner is consuming far too many polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) altogether, which is a problem in and of itself.
So, most consume the wrong amount — AND the wrong ratio of these fats. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are PUFAs and they're both essential to your health, but when omega-6 is consumed in excess, it becomes problematic — and even more so if it's damaged through processing. As a group, when consumed in the wrong ratios, PUFAs tend to stimulate inflammatory processes in your body, rather than inhibit them.
One of the problems with PUFAs is that they are very chemically unstable, and highly susceptible to being altered and denatured by what's around them. Think about what happens to the oils in your pantry — they are susceptible to going rancid as a result of oxidation. In your body, PUFAs undergo a similar process when exposed to the toxic byproducts of proteins and sugars — especially fructose. This is one of the reasons why most fish oil supplements have such a short shelf life, and many are already oxidized before they hit the bottle.
Consuming oxidized fats (whether in the form of processed vegetable oil high in omega-6, or rancid fish oil, high in omega-3) can do your body more harm than good. When you eat too many PUFAs, they are increasingly incorporated into your cell membranes.
Because these fats are unstable, your cells become fragile and prone to oxidation, which leads to all sorts of health problems, such as atherosclerosis. I believe a lack of omega-3 is one of the most serious health issues plaguing contemporary society today, in addition to being seriously deficient in vitamin D. But on the flip side is the problem of simply consuming far too many processed and damaged omega-6 fats in the wrong balance with omega-3.
How to Balance Your Omega 6:3 Ratio
The primary sources of omega-6 that you would benefit from by reducing include:
Corn oil Canola oil Soy oil Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats Margarine Shortening
Just look at the labels on the foods and condiments you buy and you'll see just how overabundant these oils are. It's very difficult to find any kind of processed or prepackaged food that does not contain one of these oils. I strongly recommend you avoid all of the above as they will only worsen your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. Acceptable oils include:
- High quality extra virgin olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Organic, grass-fed butter
- Rendered fat from cooking healthy animals can also be used
Another way to improve your omega 6:3 ratio is to change the type of meat you eat. You could consume more game meat like venison, or other game animals that are raised exclusively on grass or free-range diets. Keep in mind that because nearly all cattle are grain fed before slaughter, if you eat traditionally raised beef it will typically worsen your omega 6:omega 3 ratio. Free-range and/or grass-fed beef, however, contain better ratios of these two fats, and are a far better option.
Limiting Omega-6 During Pregnancy May Be Key for Healthy Baby Weight
As mentioned by Collis above, fertility and reproduction rely on good nutrition, and essential fatty acids (EFA's) are absolutely critical in this regard. EFA's is a term referring to the PUFAs your body needs but cannot produce (or convert from other fats), so they must be obtained from your diet. Traditionally, only two fats were considered "essential" — ALA (an omega-3 fat) and LA (an omega-6 fat). However, we now know it's the long-chain derivatives — arachidonic acid, DHA, and EPA — that your body needs the most. (Although you have the enzymes to convert LA into these longer-chain fats (ALA, DHA and EPA), the conversion isn't efficient enough for optimal brain growth and development.)
According to recent research,6 limiting your intake of omega-6 fats and boosting intake of omega-3 during pregnancy can result in a healthier, more muscular baby. The researchers examined the relationship between the mothers' levels of PUFA's and the body composition of their babies in 250 mother-child pairs. Levels of omega-6 in the mother's blood during pregnancy was positively correlated with their child's fat mass at ages four and six. One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Rebecca Moon, told Food & Drink Europe:7
"Omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs seem to act in opposite directions on fat mass; previous trials have attempted to use omega-3 supplementation to reduce fat mass, but our results suggest that such an approach might work best when combined with a reduction in dietary omega-6 intake."
Do You Need an Omega-3 Supplement?
It is my belief that most people would benefit from taking a high quality animal based omega-3 supplement, in addition to reducing the amount of omega-6 — which you get plenty of from processed foods. In my view, krill oil is clearly your best option when it comes to obtaining important high quality animal based omega-3 fats. It contains essential EPA and DHA in a double chain phospholipid structure that makes it far more absorbable than the omega-3s in fish oil.
Krill oil also contains vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D and natural astaxanthin, which is a potent antioxidant that helps prevent it from going rancid. Research has shown the antioxidant potency of krill oil is, in terms of ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorptance Capacity) values, 48 times more potent than fish oil.
As discussed above, the importance of proper omega-3 to omega-6 balance simply cannot be understated. If you want to increase your overall health and energy level and prevent health conditions like heart disease, cancer, depression and Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and a host of other diseases, one of the most important strategies at your disposal is to increase your intake of omega-3 fats and reduce your intake of processed omega-6 fats.