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Eating Essentially: The Good, the Bad and the Must-Have Fatty Acids

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

The Pasture Advantage

Historically, when humans were hunter-gatherers and our diets consisted mostly of wild plants, fish, and meat from grazing animals, we likely consumed an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio close to 1:1. (4) With industrialization, our diets shifted to include more vegetable oils, meat from animals raised on grains, and highly processed foods. As a result, the average American now consumes at least 10 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s (3), which may partly explain our current chronic diseases.

Good Reason to Get Omegas Back in Balance

The American Dietetic Association recommends increasing our intake of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation and lower our risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack. (5,6) There's also exciting research underway investigating the role of omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against colon cancer (7,8), depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and age-related macular degeneration – a leading cause of blindness in the U.S. (6, 9,10)

However, omega-3 fatty acids may be most important in brain, eye and nerve development, and especially critical for pregnant and lactating women and their infants (1, 5, 6)

Home Safe Home: Know the source of your food

Several national health organizations recommend two servings of fatty fish per week to deliver the equivalent of 500 milligrams essential omega-3 fatty acids per day. For people who already have heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends at least 1,000 milligrams of EPA/DHA per day. (5,9,11)

However, William Harris, a prominent omega-3 advocate and researcher recommends using omega-3 fortified foods, such as milk, to help meet health recommendations because he fears our oceans can't sustainably meet our increasing demand for fish. (12)

When choosing a product fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids from fish, be sure to look for a sustainably certified source. The Marine Stewardship Council is an example of an independent, global, non-profit organization whose role is to recognize, via a certification program, well-managed fisheries. (13)

Some fortified foods and supplements may contain Omega-3 fatty acids sourced from algae or flax. These sources provide sound nutrition, but a different mix of EFAs compared to fish. In addition, note that some manufacturers use hexane, a non-organic material, to extract DHA from algae. (14).

Unfortunately, many of our national and international waters are polluted with contaminants such as pesticides, dioxins, PCBs and mercury. Pregnant women and mothers of young children in particular, must be extremely careful to check public fish advisories to protect their families’ health. (2) Foods fortified with purified DHA/EPA can help deliver a health-protecting mix of omega-3s without fear of contamination.

Organic Foods: Your Win/Win

Organic foods not only minimize our exposure to environmental toxins, but because organic ruminant animals are required to spend significant time on pasture, organic meat and dairy products naturally contain a healthier mix of fatty acids. (2, 4).

One of the key issues organic advocates can bring to the diet debate is the importance of knowing the source of our food. Reducing our exposure to environmental toxins is key to our children’s health, and protecting our natural resources is key to the future of our planet.

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