There is much confusion surrounding the issue of fats, particularly in the health-minded community. In the raw food realm, especially, fats are often lumped into one macronutrient category and regarded as either “healthy” or “unhealthy.” As with all other micronutrients and macronutrients, when it comes to fats, it is important that we understand how much our bodies need. We don’t want too much of a good thing or too little.
This story focuses on essential fatty acids, which are, as the name suggests, vital to our bodies’ proper functioning. Unlike cholesterol for example, essential fats cannot be synthesized internally. Therefore, essential fatty acids, namely omega-3 and omega-6, must be obtained from an outside source. In an adequate diet, we are easily able to obtain these nutrients in the proper ratios and, furthermore, to synthesize other essential nutrients from these basic ones.
Before going any further, let’s look at why this type of fat is so important to our well-being. Fatty acids are the basic building blocks of fats. As such, they hold many roles within the body, including, but not limited to:
- Keeping our skin smooth
- Cell division
- Oxygen transfer
- Recovering from physical exertion
- Hemoglobin production
- Inflammatory responses
- Hormone regulation
- Providing the basic structure for brain and neurological development
In fact, the brain, retina and neurological tissue are exceptionally rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3s and -6s. Fatty acids therefore play a key role in infant and child development and in many of the nutritional diseases that arise later in life.
Perhaps more important than the amount of these individual fatty acids that is consumed is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 acids that we are taking in. Ideally, our diet would provide us with a ratio of anywhere from 4:1 to 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. This is, in fact, the ratio range consumed within more traditional human diets. In the average modern diet, high in processed and animal-derived foods, a significantly higher ratio is typically consumed: closer to about 20 to 25 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Processed foods owe their longer shelf lives to higher levels of omega-6 than omega-3 because the former are less prone to oxidation.
But what’s the trouble with an inverse ratio? Simply that an over-consumption of omega-6s leads to inflammation within the body and interferes with the body’s production of other nutrients. While a lower ratio controls inflammation, higher ratios lead to the synthesis of DGLA (a longer-chain polyunsaturated fat), which is then converted into another fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is a primary contributor to inflammation in the body.
In the same manner by which the body creates longer-chained unsaturated fats from omega-6s, it can also create additional vital nutrients from omega-3s. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are especially important in brain and hormone development, are readily synthesized by the human body as necessary in the presence of sufficient omega-3s. Omega-6 causes inflammation whereas omega-3 reduces inflammation. Parents are often concerned about their children making enough DHA. Drs. Karin and Rick Dina, in their class “Overcoming Nutrient Concerns on a Raw Vegan Diet,” point out that less omega-6 makes it easier to convert ALA (alpha linolenic acid) into DHA on a healthy, low-omega-6 raw vegan diet. Approximately 150 to 300 calories from leafy greens contain 1 gram of ALA, which meets half of the daily omega 3 fatty acid requirement.
If this is so, why do we often hear recommendations, especially for pregnant women and growing children, to consume fish for DHA for healthy brain function? Are we not able to make sufficient EPA and DHA through our standard diets? The answer is, more often than not, no. This is so not only because our ratios are distorted to begin with, thus interfering with the production of other fatty acids from omega-3s, but other nutritional habits actually interfere with the synthesis of EPA and DHA by our bodies in an environment with already low levels of omega-3s. Both saturated and trans fats, which are prevalent in the typical Western diet, interfere with the body’s production of these fatty acids. Alcohol consumption creates yet another hindrance. This is especially important for pregnant and nursing mothers to keep in mind, as a deficient mother will not provide enough EPA and DHA for the proper development of her child. Babies don’t make enough DHA until 6 months old, so a mother should have a good omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio.
It is not surprising, then, that fish oil supplements are widespread, as many people are indeed DHA deficient mainly due to unfavorable internal conditions. Instead of consuming fish oils, which are completely unnecessary and most often rancid, containing cholesterol and mercury, we can take a much more pragmatic, healthy and simple approach: eating more fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens. These foods, as they are found in nature, contain omega-6-to-omega-3 ratios of approximately 1:1. If we are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and abstaining from foods that interfere with our bodies’ omega-3 conversions, it is quite easy to get one’s recommended daily allowances for omega-3s and omega-6s in the right proportions. Moreover, we need not worry about an excess consumption of DHA or EPA because the body regulates this exceptionally well, producing only the quantity that it needs.
The WHO recommends about 0.5 percent to 2 percent of our caloric intake to come from omega-3 fatty acids for children and adults and for 2.5 percent of caloric intake to come from omega-6s (3 to 4 percent for children) in order to prevent deficiencies. These levels can easily be obtained through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on leafy greens as well as some walnuts, chia and hemp seeds. These three seeds have a favorable ratio of omega-6-to-omega-3 fatty acids, ensuring that the anti-inflammatory mediators from omega-3 fatty acids remain in our favor for a happy and healthy body.
John Robbins, in his book, The Food Revolution, points out, “Tests done at several major universities have found that nearly 25% of today’s college students are sterile.” Could it be that the exaggerated omega-6-to-3 ratio is causing this problem for our young people in Westernized societies? Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, researcher and head of the Cleveland Heart Clinic, has recommended not to eat oils as they are too high in omega-6 fatty acid. We want to make sure our children will get plenty of omega-3s and not much of omega-6s, which will form the arachadonic acid in the liver, leading to an inflammatory response. Children are growing and need DHA for brain and nervous system development. A 1:1 or 1:2 and not greater than a 1:4 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is most important for our children’s health.