Omega-3 fatty acids are proven essential for infants' growth—especially their developing brains, nerves, and eyes. In adults, omega-3s help prevent and ameliorate cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and various inflammatory and autoimmune disorders (e.g. type II diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis).
This is why I was delighted to learn that the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a letter to the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture in the spring of this year, requesting that they promote consumption of omega-3s. The May 29 letter from OMB also urged the agencies to discourage consumption of less healthful fats and revise the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, to reflect the administration's advocacy of omega-3 fatty acids.
Why did the White House take such a dramatic stance? As OMB wrote in its letter, "Both epidemiological and clinical studies find that an increase in consumption of omega-3 fatty acids results in reduced deaths to due to CHD [cardiovascular heart disease]." And, as we will see, wild-caught fish are the best source of omega-3s.
Dr. Marvin Lipman, chief medical adviser for Consumers Union, welcomed the White House recommendations. However, when I was in Washington D.C. recently, leading omega-3 researcher Artemis Simopoulos, M.D. told me that large food companies are pressing the World Health Organization to alter its recommended dietary ratio of omega 6 to omega-3 fats from the widely accepted 3:1 ratio to an undesirable 10:1 ratio. You can expect these same food giants to oppose the Bush administration's stance on dietary omega-3s, because it conflicts with their commercial interest in selling processed foods uniformly low in omega-3s.
The caveman's case for omega-3s
There is growing evidence that humans evolved—and can therefore only enjoy optimal health—on a diet rich in omega-3s. Stone Age peoples and the succeeding hunter-gatherer populations consumed much less omega-6 and saturated fat—and far more omega-3s—than modern Americans do. Given their now-proven seaside migration route from Africa toward Mongolia and Australia, and the relative ease of getting food from nearby oceans and rivers, early humans' primary food sources would have been aquatic plants and animals extraordinarily rich in omega-3s.
The best estimates indicate that Stone Age diets also delivered omega-6 and omega-3 EFAs in a roughly equal ratio (i.e., 1:1)—a ratio that modern medical researchers hope to revive. In 1999, a panel of experts drawn from academia, world bodies, and U.S. government agencies recommended a combined daily intake of EPA and DHA of 0.65 grams per day—several times current average omega-3 intake levels. As the workshop summary concluded, "After much discussion, consensus was reached on the importance of reducing the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) even as the omega-3 PUFAs are increased in the diet of adults and newborns for optimal brain and cardiovascular health and function."
Fish better than flax for Omega-3s
Nuts, seeds (especially flax and hemp), and cooking greens are rich dietary sources of omega-3s—specifically, an omega-3 EFA called alpha-linolenic acid. However, two other omega-3s called EPA and DHA are the only omega-3s the body can use, unmodified, to build tissue and conduct key metabolic reactions. Conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA in the body is very inefficient—and it is even less efficient in older people. This is why fish fat is a far better source of omega-3s.
Wild salmon: The better source of Omega-3s
Wild salmon is clearly the best source of omega-3s. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers investigated the fat content of various wild and farm-raised fish, including salmon. As the Dutch researchers reported, "The ratio of n-3 to n-6 polyunsaturates [i.e., the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s] was significantly lower in cultured than in wild fish. Hunted fish are a better source of n-3 polyunsaturates [omega-3s] than are cultured fish."
I hope I've persuaded you to do yourself a favor, and eat more wild fish!
- Broadhurst CL, et al. Brain-specific lipids from marine, lacustrine, or terrestrial food resources: potential impact on early African Homo sapiens. Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 2002 Apr;131(4):653-73. Review.
- Crawford MA, et al. Evidence for the unique function of docosahexaenoic acid during the evolution of the modern hominid brain. Lipids. 1999;34 Suppl:S39-47. Review.
- Simopoulos AP. Evolutionary aspects of omega-3 fatty acids in the food supply.
- Proceedings of a workshop on the essentiality of and recommended dietary intakes for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. 7-9 April 1999, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2000 Sep;63(3):117-76. [http://www.issfal.org.uk/adequateintakes.htm]
- van Vliet T, Katan MB. Lower ratio of n-3 to n-6 fatty acids in cultured than in wild fish. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990 Jan;51(1):1-2.