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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Omega-3 deficiency may be hurting our hearts

Nutritional shortage tied to obesity, cardiovascular disease, researchers say
Image: Omega-3 benefits of fish
Joe Raedle / Getty Images file
Scientists believe Americans are suffering from a widespread deficiency of fatty acids which are found in foods such as fish, leafy greens and grass-fed meats.

By Susan Allport
Prevention Magazine
updated 4:43 p.m. ET, Fri., Oct . 23, 2009

When Lisa Kepp (*name has been changed to protect privacy) was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with a neurological condition. She had not said a word in her short life — and it wasn't for want of trying. Lisa was so frustrated at not being able to form the words she clearly wanted to say that she flew into temper tantrums four or five times a day. The family was on pins and needles waiting for the next time the little girl would explode.

A pediatric neurologist diagnosed verbal apraxia, a speech disorder, and recommended that she receive intensive speech therapy. He suggested no other treatment. Lisa's mother had heard, though, about studies linking omega-3 fatty acids to intelligence and healthy brains, and she thought she'd give them a try. She purchased a bottle of Nordic Naturals' Children's DHA in liquid form and began putting half a teaspoon in her daughter's orange juice every morning. Within a week, the young girl was babbling and her tantrums stopped. Amazed, her mother spoke to the doctors, but none of them would engage her, as she puts it, in a conversation about omega-3s. So Lisa continued speech therapy — and her omega-3s — for a year and will be starting preschool this fall with her peers.

A happy anecdote, to be sure. Ask any scientist, though, and he will admit that without testing, we can't be certain that omega-3s fueled Lisa's recovery. But he can point to a growing body of scientific literature that touts the benefits of omega-3 supplementation. Studies show that these special fatty acids accumulate in the brain and can aid children with learning disabilities, reduce violence in prison populations, and even improve everyday mood.

We can only obtain these fats through our diet. They are essential to the development of healthy brains and other metabolically active tissues. Indeed, research from the world's top universities shows that these fats do much more than regulate our brains: They can also lower risk of heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. They even help fight wrinkles and may block fat-cell formation.

How could omega-3s possibly be this powerful? Scientists believe it's because Americans are suffering from a widespread deficiency. A recent study conducted by Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, found that the absence of these fatty acids in our diet is responsible annually for up to 96,000 premature deaths in this country. Scientists, however, are learning that fixing this nutritional deficiency is a bit more complicated than simply telling people to eat more fish.

Our collective omega-3 deficiency
Every once in a while, a discovery comes along that changes everything about the way we see the world. In the early 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus had such a moment when he discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe. Our new understanding of essential fats is that kind of discovery, and I was lucky enough, as a science writer, to make a small-yet-key contribution. While researching a book on omega-3s, I realized that the essential fats — the omega-3s and their close cousins, the omega-6s — change with the seasons. It might sound like a small idea, but it may soon fundamentally change the way you think about food.

3 easy ways to increase omega-3s

The competition of omega-3s and omega-6s is happening all the time, not just when we take our fish oil capsules. The best way to ensure you have a healthy balance of essential fats is to have a source of omega-3s — and not too many omega-6s — at every meal.

1. Eat more greens
Leafy greens, legumes, and potatoes have a better balance of omega-3s to omega-6s than most seeds and grains. Omega-3s live in leaves as the omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Animals (like us) convert ALA into even more dynamic omega-3s: EPA and DHA. This conversion is somewhat inefficient, however, and that's why the next steps are so important.

2. Eat healthier meats
Cows raised on grass produce meat, milk, and cheese with many more omega-3s than their corn-and soy-fed counterparts. Chickens fed a diet rich in flax and greens produce eggs that are as high in EPA and DHA as many species of fish. Some would argue that grass-fed meats are more expensive than grain-fed, but the former come without the very steep medical price tag of a diet high in omega-6s.

3. Eat fish
Fish can also be a sustainable part of our new diet, as moderate fish consumption will be more effective when our diet has fewer omega-6s. Try to eat at least two meals of fish per week. Fish oil supplements can also help, as toddler Lisa's mother found, though they're not a long-term solution to this widespread nutritional deficiency.

First, let's start with omega-3s, what I'll call the spring fats. These are likely the most abundant fats in the world, but they don't originate in fish, as many believe. Rather, they are found in the green leaves of plants. Fish are full of omega-3s because they eat phytoplankton (the microscopic green plants of the ocean) and seaweed. In plants, these special fatty acids help turn sunlight into sugars, the basis of life on Earth. The spring fats speed up metabolism. They are fats that animals (humans included) use to get ready for times of activity, like the mating season. They're found in the highest concentrations in all the most active tissues: brains, eyes, hearts, the tails of sperm — the flight muscles of hummingbirds. Because fish have so many of these fats in their diets, they can be active in cold, dark waters. These fats protect our brains from neurological disorders and enable our hearts to beat billions of times without incident. But they are vanishing from our diet, and you'll soon understand why.

Our omega-6 surplus
Next up are the omega-6s, what I'll call the fall fats. They originate in plants as well, but in the seeds of plants rather than the leaves. The fall fats are simply storage fats for plants. Animals require both — omega-3s and omega-6s — in their diets and their tissues. But omega-6s are slower and stiffer than omega-3s. Plus, they promote blood clotting and inflammation, the underlying causes of many diseases, including heart disease and arthritis. Omega-3s, on the other hand, promote blood flow and very little inflammation, which may prevent things like heart disease. The proper mix of these two fats helps create tissue with the right amount of blood flow and inflammation. But because they're in constant competition to enter our cells, if your diet consists of too many omega-6s, your body will be deficient in omega-3s. And that is what's been happening to us as we've been eating more and more seed fats in the form of soybean, corn, and other vegetable oils.

Since 1909, according to the USDA, Americans have more than doubled their daily intake of omega-6s — from about 7 grams to around 18. One hundred years ago, heart disease was much less common in this country. Over the past century, though, heart disease has risen in tandem with our increasing intake of these seed fats, or omega-6s, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). So have neurological disorders like Lisa's, as well as depression, arthritis, obesity, insulin resistance, and many cancers. While other dietary factors such as increased consumption of calories, trans fats, and sugar undoubtedly contributed, our essential fatty acid imbalance is a key player in most of these illnesses.

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