Omega-3 Essential Fats


The quick answer:  Essential omega-3 fats are vital to your health and sources include fresh walnuts, eggs, flaxseed, seafood (especially cold water fish), and leafy green vegetables.


Nutrition Made Simple

Nutrition can be overwhelmingly complex, but here’s some simple guidance on the three macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein): 

  • Don’t bother with low-fat or high-protein diets. 
  • Don’t stress over the percent of fats, carbs and protein in your food. 
  • Don’t even fuss over the amount of calories you eat. 

But do eat your carbs, fats, and proteins in their natural form, as minimally processed as practical.  Eat whole foods and Mother Nature will deliver the best proportion of macronutrients, as well as fiber and micronutrients.   And this brings us to this week’s topic: fats. Though much berated they're essential to good health.

Big Fat Mistakes

Remember the biblical metaphor about “the blind leading the blind”?  Or the adage by Albert Einstein, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  So is a lot.”  It all sums up 20th century nutrition.  Science was so popular a century ago that traditional beliefs never had a chance.  For example, traditional cooking was reinvented as “scientific cookery” and laboratory discoveries often reappeared as new food inventions. 

The invention of hydrogenation—where hydrogen gas was bubbled through heated and pressurized vegetable oils in the presence of a metallic catalyst—enabled the invention of a new family of fat products made with cheaper vegetable oils.  Here are a few examples:

  • Crisco replaced lard (and wouldn’t spoil),
  • Margarine competed with butter (and also lasted longer),
  • Bottled salad dressings pushed out traditional oil and vinegar,
  • Peanut butter (the hydrogenated oil didn’t separate and kept longer) became the most popular sandwich ingredient,
  • French fries (cooked in oils so stable they could last for weeks in heated deep fat fryers) became the #1 way to eat vegetables,
  • Packaged foods (made tasty with hydrogenated oils and sugar and long-lasting on the shelf) replaced whole foods you had to cook.

Hydrogenation could alter the properties of vegetable oils but they gave industrialized food something much more important—a long shelf life free of rancidity.  The only problem was that rancidity came mainly from omega-3 fats (when exposed to oxygen) and though you could alter these fats through hydrogenation that didn’t change an essential fact—they’re vital to our health.  The removal of omega-3 fats from our diet by the industrialization of food was a 20th century nutrition disaster!

Omega-3 vs. Omega-6

You know the phrase “alpha and omega,” Greek for first and last?  Fat molecules have a chain of carbon atoms arranged in a chain like the vertebrae of your spine.  Across the living species there’s variety in the number of vertebrae in the spine and fats are the same way.  Fats are grouped as short, medium, or long chain.  Because of this variety, scientists identify the carbons in a fat chain by counting from the tail, or omega end. (The alpha end changes with chain length so isn't a good reference point.)

Carbons in the fat chain typically have two adjoining hydrogen atoms; think of them as ribs attached to vertabrae.  When all the carbons have a pair of hydrogen atoms the fat is saturated.  If one carbon is missing hydrogen, the fat is monounsaturated.  If hydrogen is missing at several sites the fat is polyunsaturated.  The properties and functions of fats change with chain length, and saturation, but also with the location of unsaturation.   Bottom line: The body needs all these fats in the balance found in Nature.

Omega-3 fats are first unsaturated at the 3rd carbon molecule and have properties of quickness and flexibility.  For example, they oxidize quickly when exposed to oxygen.  In the body, omega-3 fats are useful where data travels quickly: in the eyes, brain, and nervous system.  They also enable the flipping tail that drives semen in their mad gallant chase to the egg.  If infertility is a concern—omega-3 fats are critical to conception.

Think you’re getting dementia?  Make darned sure you get adequate omega-3 fats.  The brain is 60% fat but ¼ is omega-3 fat. 

Omega-6 fats are first unsaturated at the 6th carbon and are characterized as solid, slow and strong.   They form the walls of cells, act as cell messengers, and enable slower reactions.  You need both omega-6 and omega-3 fats, roughly in a ratio of 2:1.  These two essential fat families compete for the same enzymes so it’s critical to have balance in your diet.  The traditional ratio of 2:1 was slowly altered through the 20th century to roughly 20:1 to improve shelf life and other properties.  This was started in ignorance, but continues now that we know better.  There’s also a seasonal pattern:  omega-3 fats proliferate in the green of spring but omega-6 dominates in the fat when life slows down for winter.

Healthy Changes

The 1st Healthy Change of the New Year got right after our sugar intake, limiting sugary drinks to one per week.  The 2nd Healthy Change addressed the trans fat problem of toxic hydrogenated oils:  “Never buy deep fat fried foods.”  This follows the Institute of Medicine guidance that the safe intake of trans fats is zero!

Now we’re back to learning how to eat healthy fats with the goal of correcting the omega-6/-3 ratio.  There are two steps to this:  1) Reduce omega-6 (mostly found in refined vegetable oils common to processed foods), and 2) Increase omega-3 by eating green foods and certain animal products, shown in the picture above. 

Basically, if you eat foods close to the form as created, and minimize industrialized foods, you should be okay.  Animal sources of omega-3 provide the long-chain variety.  The body can form these from the short-chain omega-3 found in green plants but the capacity is limited, so animal sources are also needed. 

Our goal is to include omega-3 fats in every meal.  For our Breakfast Compote, we include ground flaxseed.  Last week’s dinner menu included wild salmon plus a lunch of tuna sandwich another day.  That met our goal of two servings of fish rich in omega-3 each week.  If I don’t get two servings, I take a fish oil supplement of omega-3; not the same as eating fish but better than nothing, I think.  Most of our dinners include a green salad.

Please comment on your experience with omega-3 and omega-6 fats.  People need both, but we have to get back to a balance.  In our home we minimize refined oils in favor of traditional fats like butter and olive oil. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (4)

I have just stumbled across your blog. I have to say I am quite happy with the content and appreciate your families efforts in breaking down the essentials of health and nutrition and spreading the word. I have a 15 year old daughter that was diagnosed last April with Ulcerative Colitis. We were able to pull her out of the first flare with medication and trying to be a good mother I started researching how to manage symptoms by way of food. This was fine and dandy until this past December when she had another flare up. I took her into the Dr thinking they would put her on a steroid to help avoid another huge weight drop as she was already so thin from the first atttack. They requested various tests and sent us on our way. Two months later I took my now 80 lb daughter into the Dr's office after desperately crying over the phone and refusing their suggestion of performing another colonoscopy (it had been less than a year since the first and the symptoms were exactly the same and I already knew the diagnosis) that they looked at recent test results and were now convinced she was in a flare and were "comfortable" putting her on steroids to help resolve the issue. Her test results that should have been below 163 were at 1646. There is no way that they were NOT elevated when I took her in back in Dec. Needless to say- I have found a different physician (non medical) and have hurled myself into this world of health and REAL nutrition to help provide my family the healing that we need. I have studied healthy fats,and the balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 that we lack as a nation. This is one of the key factors in the maintance of ulcerative colitis, Because of being more aware of this and adding fish oil to our diet, I was able to hold off my daughters symptoms a great deal. I too add ground flax seed to our breakfasts. The kids complain sometimes, but one day they will thank me for it. I use a coffee grinder ($10) and keep flax seed in the fridge and grind it fresh every morning. I will also throw it on salads or casseroles at times. I also make homemade yogurt, add maple syrup and fresh berries blended together with lemon flavored fish oil---it is a tasty morning smoothie and so healthy, my kids don't complain about this one. :) Fish is the tough one for me to add. I am not a fish eater- which means my kids don't really eat it either-- but I am trying to add it. I have studied it and know the benefits of it. Your weekly menus I hope will help encourage me in this area.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristy

I love that you explained what all the different oils are. I've never really understood it, but now I do. Thanks for sharing!

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I like the in depth discussion of the fats. A few years ago I knew enough to avoid trans fats, but didn't realize that everything deep fried contains them. I always thought french fries were okay because they were just potatoes, oil and salt... ha ha. I know In n Out and Chik Fil A cook in peanut oil, although it's probably not a lot better.

We love Barlean's lemon swirl fish oil which tastes so great that my kids ask for it. I'd prefer something less processed, but I make a concession for fish oil.

Kristy, have you read the GAPS book by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride? I just finished it and think it has great potential for healing a lot of conditions, especially digestive disorders.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Yes, Lindsey, I have. :) I have incorporated many things-- but with any "diet", I believe it is best to listen to your body and do what you feel is right for you.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristy

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