Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Omega-3 and Omega-6 ...A Little History

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One of the first associations between omega-3 fatty acids was made by scientists while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in the 1970s.

As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain diseases (coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis) than their European counterparts. Yet their diet was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon.

Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.

Researchers in the field of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have since found that without a sufficient supply of polyunsaturated omega-3s, the body will use saturated fat to construct cell membranes. The resulting cell membranes, however, are less elastic, a situation that can have a negative effect on the heart because it makes it harder to return to a resting state.

Also, nutritionists have come to recognize the importance of balancing omega-3 fatty acids with omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Because most people on a typical Western diet consume far more omega-6-rich foods (including cereals, whole-grain bread, baked goods, fried foods, margarine, and others), the ratio is out of balance for almost everyone. This means for most Americans the emphasis now needs to be on increasing omega-3s to make the ratio more even.

Vitamin E also plays an important role whenever you take any type of fatty acid. Vitamin E is said to help keep the fatty acids from breaking down too rapidly in the body.

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids, which means that they are essential to human health but cannot be manufactured by the body. Therefore, they must be obtained from food.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there are three major types of omega 3 fatty acids that are ingested in foods and used by the body: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Once eaten, the body converts ALA to EPA and DHA, the two types of omega-3 fatty acids more readily used by the body.

Sidenote: Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation.

Fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Eating a lot of fish also takes the place of foods rich in saturated fats. Omega-3s are also found in: soybean and canola oils, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables.

Sidenote: avoid fish harvested in areas where mercury dangers are high.

According to the AHA, patients taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements should do so only under a physician's care. High intakes could cause excessive bleeding in some people.

So there you have it... a little history on omega-3s and omega-6s.


AHA Scientific Study - 2002

University of Maryland Medical Center - Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Swedish Medical Center, Seatle WA - Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

AHA - Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids