For some time now, government recommendations have encouraged an increase in all unsaturated vegetable fat and oil intake. In an effort to help the consumer choose quality, health-enhancing fats, we have simplified the categorization of fats to just “good fats” and “bad fats.” However, when eaten out of balance to each other, the polyunsaturated “good fats” Omega-6 and Omega-3 can contribute to the development of degenerative diseases. In short, Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats behave badly when consumed in the wrong amounts!
In North America, we are eating a lot of one of the “good fats,” but only a little of the other “good fat.” Omega-6 rich oils, such as sunflower, safflower, corn, canola and soybean oil, are being eaten at an alarming rate of five-times more than what our bodies actually need. On the other hand, we are only consuming Omega-3 from fish and flaxseed oil at one-half of the dose that is needed for optimal health. In order to benefit from the consumption of these “good fats,” they must be eaten in balanced ratios to one another. The optimum amounts are: 4 parts Omega-6 to 1 part Omega-3.
Today, we eat considerably more foods made with vegetable-derived oils rather than foods containing fish and flaxseed oil. While vegetable oils are ubiquitous, fish and flaxseed oil have not yet become a Canadian favourite. In fact, we can see this deficiency play out in our younger generation – Canadian children have the lowest levels in the developed world of Omega-3 derived fatty acids found in fish!1 Ultimately, these low levels have a negative affect on learning and behaviour.
Why ‘good fats’ need to be eaten in balance
The successful metabolism of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats affects numerous reactions and functioning in our bodies. Both compete for the same digestive enzymes that transform them into substances that can cause inflammation or inhibit it by keeping our immune system healthy. The effects that Omega-6 and Omega-3 have on our bodies is noted in a landmark study in Healthy Lipids (2005) published by the American Oil Chemists Society. Omega-6 fats mediate pro-inflammatory pathways with hormone-like substances that vasoconstrict (narrow) arteries, repair tissue, initiate clot formation, stimulate allergic response, regulate bone production, and inhibit insulin activity (slows down the rate in which cells absorb sugar). Omega-3 fats initiate anti-inflammatory pathways, which include vasodilation (relaxes tissue and increases blood flow) and enhanced immune function. They also enhance the action of insulin at muscle cell membranes and stimulate metabolism of excess fat stores.
For the most part, the actions initiated by the Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats are opposite. Our bodies need all of these enhanced immune functions. However, if a diet is dominate in one fat and deficient in the other, the dominate fat’s metabolic activities will get all the attention. Herein lies the problem with the current imbalanced intakes of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats. Our bodies are getting all the Omega-6 pro-inflammatory responses loud and clear, but, because our intake of Omega-3 from fatty fish and flaxseed oil is so low, the antagonist reactions are not being registered. Consequently, we are experiencing pro-inflammatory disorders like arthritis and arteriole damage stiff joints, eczema, and depression at unprecedented rates because of the constant intake of vegetable oils that cause this inflammation response.2
Inflammation is necessary but only in controlled, balanced doses to anti-inflammatory response. Merely saying that we should eat just the right amount of all the “good Omega fats” is precarious at best. The average person is eating more than the acceptable amount of vegetable oils and vegetable oil products compared to their intake of fish and flaxseed oil. We need to rein in this imbalance in order to reap any beneficial affects of unsaturated fat in our diets. To monitor your personal balance of “good fat” intake check out the website http://efaeducation.nih.gov/sig/dietbalance1.htlm.
In order to move towards eating a safe balance of “good fats,” we can cut back on our consumption of unsaturated fats from safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn, and canola oil. At the same time, we can systematically increase fish consumption to 4-6 oz. servings four times per week, or increase use of flaxseed oil by using it on all salads or adding flaxseeds on top of our favourite dishes. Flax oil should never be used for cooking.
Omega-6 is ubiquitous. And so is the misleading message to “eat more unsaturated fats.” Our vegetable oil intake is far and above a normal, healthy, and acceptable amount. It can be found in almost all packaged foods today and is promoted as a “health food” necessity, vital to maintain a healthy heart. It has infiltrated our food supply disguised as the “almighty saviour” of our arteries and lives. Too much of this so-called good fat will be taking the life force that it was suppose to give. Like all things in life, and certainly in nutrition, a little bit is good and too much is bad.
1. Sheila Innes, UBC, DHA-Omega 3 Conference, 2008, Mississauga, Ontario.
2. Dr. Land, Healthful Lipids, pg.204, 2005
Melissa Putt is a registered wholistic nutritionist. She is currently studying Human Biology @ the University of Toronto and lipid chemistry. She is the owner of Healthy Habits Nutrition and Fitness Consulting Inc. in Toronto since 1988.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org