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The Omega of Foods

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 12 in the November 12-13, 2005 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.

Just when you decided to start your health kick by eating apples and broccoli, along comes omega. It seems to be the new power food very important for just about anything, but most people don't really know just exactly what it is. And even more amazing is how it magically seems to transform foods that perhaps you should not be eating into healthy ones. Never mind the perishable fresh foods sitting on the shelves, just grab the processed ones with a shiny new omega label. You probably have never actually seen an omega tree, nor have you visited an ultra-secret omega farm. But many of us have been reaping its benefits for years.

To understand this health fad, we need to start with some basic biochemistry. Our bodies require fat to function normally. Fats are roughly divided into four basic types: saturated, monounsaturated, cholesterol and polyunsaturated. Saturated fats tend to exist as semi-solids at body temperature, making them sludgy and not really what you want floating around in your arteries. A fatty acid is a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen attached emanating from a methyl group. We animals synthesize most of our fatty acids from glucose. When we find double bonds between the carbon atoms, convention states that the Greek symbol "omega" be used. So that omega-3 means that there is a double bond between the third and fourth carbon atoms in the chain. One double bond describes a monounsaturated substance whereas multiple double bonds make a substance polyunsaturated. The problem occurs because we humans cannot manufacture all the different fatty acids that our bodies require. Some we acquire by eating foods that contain them. These fatty acids are therefore termed "essential".

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are generally considered good for us, especially if their first double bonds occur in the third or sixth positions. We refer to these substances as belonging to the "omega-3" or "omega-6" group. Both groups are essential for humans, meaning we cannot produce them. In recent years, much debate has taken place over these two groups. It appears that our choice of foods has resulted in a deficiency of many important omega-3 fatty acids. In the typical North American diet we eat 10 to 20 times more omega-6 containing foods than omega-3. Vegetable oils and meats derived from animal fed grains seem to be one root cause. The omega-6 fatty acids found in these food types can cause inflammation and sludging. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, dark green leafy vegetables and flaxseed can reduce inflammation, blood pressure and elevated lipids. What we require is to change the ratio of our omega-6 to omega-3 consumption. Eskimo societies such as the Inuit used to eat large amounts of fat without suffering rampant heart disease and diabetes. Their diet of salmon, seal and whale imparted large amounts of omega-3. It was the slow shift towards a more typical North American diet that paralleled a large increase in the aforementioned diseases.

The really interesting part is that fish, chickens and cows cannot make the omega-3's and 6's anymore than we can. They simply store the substances derived from their diet. Fish eat green algae which are high in omega-3's. Omega-3 eggs found on our store shelves are not necessarily produced by free range chickens. It is more economical to simply add green algae to the standard grain chicken feed and boost the omega-3 content to a level allowing exclusive advertising. I prefer the eggs from true free range chickens, because they tend to wander and eat large amounts of natural greens.

Certain omega-3's are also important for the proper growth and development of our brains. Without the proper omega-3 fatty acid available, our body will use omega-6 substances in their place for the building of cell membranes. What results is a stiffer, less rugged product. Many infant formulas are now fortified with omega-3 substances because the brain grows at its quickest during infancy.

It seems that we are the masters of our own disasters. The advent of food processing on a large scale has resulted in man having plenty of food choices unlike ever before seen in history. Choice is no longer dictated by hunger or availability, but for many the choice is made on the basis of economics. It is essential to increase our fat intake of omega-3 type substances in a natural and sensible way. I discourage anyone who feels this can be best rectified by spending money on pill-form supplements! Who would have guessed that fishing is becoming one of the finer things in life?

Related resources:

Omega-3, fatty acid from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

What Is Omega-3? from the Omega 3 Group.

Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids from American Heart Association. "Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of or who have cardiovascular disease. We recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times a week."

What's New - Omega 3's from Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Functional Foods Fact Sheet: Omega-3 Fatty Acids includes Table 1. Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids, from International Food Information Council (IFIC).

Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acid from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids - Also Known As: essential fatty acids (EFAs), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) from University of Maryland, Medical Center. Contents: Overview, Uses, Dietary Sources, Available Forms, How to Take It, Precautions, Possible Interactions, Supporting Research.

Omega-3 fatty acid; Omega-6 vs Omega-3, Health effects of omega-3 fatty acids, Known and suspected risks of omega-3 fatty acids, Dietary sources of Omega-3, Grass fed ruminants, Oils with little impact on Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance, Sources which in fact promote an imbalance between Omega-3 and Omega-6, Chemistry, Biological significance of omega-3 (and omega-6) fatty acids, from Reference.com/Encyclopedia.

The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids from Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, Washington, DC.

Understanding Omega-3 and Omega-6. Reviewed by Glen F. Aukerman, MD, College of Medicine and Public Health, Ohio State University.

Fact Sheet on Trans Fats. What are dietary fats? What are the main sources of trans fats? from Health Canada.

Omega-3 for Depression and Bipolar Disorder by John McManamy of McMan's Depression and Bipolar Web.

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