Balancing Omega-3 and Lipids for Optimal Health
You might have missed some of my previous blogs on Omega-3 and our lipidome—the world of fats that are essential for our survival. Today, I want to address some common questions about Omega-3 that I get in relation to supplements, and to highlight an exciting new book written by a former colleague that makes this easier to understand. The book explains the essentials of the Omega Balance and how our modern diet has disrupted this crucial balance.
The Importance of Balance in Nutrition
Balance is the key to a healthy life. Each nutrient has minimum requirements and upper safety limits for optimal health (see the chart above), but there are three ways we can miss the mark:
- TOO LITTLE: Inadequate intake of essential nutrients, such as iron, can lead to serious health issues like anaemia.
- TOO MUCH: Excessive consumption of certain nutrients, like salt, can be harmful, particularly when found in oversalted processed foods.
- IMBALANCE: Achieving the right balance of nutrients is crucial. It's not just about the quantity of fats, carbohydrates, and protein, but also the type of fats we consume. The balance of fats such as Omega-6 to Omega-3 are very important for how our body sends signals across cell membranes - which are essentially rafts of fat.
Our food system is not making it easy
The modern food system has taken away the diversity of fats and shifted it in one direction. Towards Omega-6. Omega-6 is ESSENTIAL and we can not mistake an IMBALANCE of Omega-6 to Omega-3 as an indication that seeds oils and Omega-6 is bad. But we must try to reset the balance.
Seed oils are a very good source of Omega-6 and so they should not be blacklisted as bad. That is a bit like saying salt is bad, when it really is essential nutrient that we just eat too much of. The issue is balance, and seed oils dominate the modern food chain, from the oils we use, to the foods we manufacture and even to the animals that we feed. The entire Omega-6 to Omega-3 balance has been upended across an entire food system. We should not need to be taking supplements to get the Omega-3 that we need. A diet and food system rich in green leafy things and with less seed oils plus a bit of seafood would get us there. But when our diet is overdosed with Omega-6 seed oils, it is the last resort we have in FIXING THE BALANCE.
However it is not only that we consume a lot more Omega-6 rich plant parts such as seed oils, but the whole food chain does it as well.
The Omega-6 chain to our supermarkets
A former Professor and colleague at the University of Wollongong, Anthony Hulbert, has just released a new book, Omega Balance, with a very big picture view about why this has happened and how different foods, including different animal products from the same species, might differ based on the ratio of green leafy parts of plants to seeds in our diets. Green leafy things, like our seaweed cells membranes, are rich in Omega-3 and our own research has shown how adding seaweed back into the diet of Abalone for example, can turn their Omega balance back towards seafood. Putting seed oils into animals feeds is enriching Omega-6 and this now dominates the food chain. It is one of the reasons that grass fed-beef is promoted as better for you than grain fed beef. Just like seaweed fed abalone is better for you than grain fed abalone. However, you need to be conscious of the balance of leafy greens throughout the food chain which is difficult to do unless the supply chain let’s you know.
The Importance of Omega-3
Omega-3s, especially those from marine sources like algae and seaweeds, are crucial for building cell membranes, and we can only get them from our diet. Our shift towards an industrialized food system has depleted Omega-3 sources in favour of Omega-6 sources, disrupting the crucial Omega-6 to Omega-3 balance. It's essential to enrich our diets with Omega-3 through diverse food choices, including green leafy vegetables and seafood.
Omega-3 for Optimal Health: Omega-3s play vital roles in various aspects of our health:
- Cell Membranes: Different cell functions require specific lipid compositions, with Omega-3s providing flexibility and suppleness to cell membranes.
- Brain: Our brains rely on optimal lipid composition for proper function and development, starting from before birth. Omega-3 DHA is crucial for neural pathways and vision development.
- Skin: Essential lipids like ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids in our skin maintain its integrity, acting as a barrier and preventing leakage.
- Inflammation Control: The balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3 influences our inflammatory response, affecting our overall health.
- Reproduction: Omega-3s are essential for reproductive cells and can improve sperm motility.
- Hearing: A balanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is associated with fewer hearing difficulties as we age.
Striving for Balance
The pursuit of an optimal diet can be complex, but the key is to embrace diversity in our food choices. A diet rich in green leafy vegetables and varied nutrients can help reset the balance and ensure a healthy lipidome, but you might need to think about sourcing foods where the supply chain tells you that it focuses on leafy greens. For example, grass fed dairy products such as yoghurt with PhycoMuesli will take you towards a better Omega Balance with better Omega-3 content in yoghurt, seaweed and hemp seeds (one of the few seeds with a good Omega-3 content). Choosing SeaSpirals pasta with a marinara sauce will shift the pasta Omega Balance in our favour not to mention the dose of Omega-3 from the seafood. And any of these choices can be made fully plant based as well as long as you look for the Omega-3 rich sources.
Supplements can be considered when dietary adjustments aren't enough, which is why we created SeaFibre-3. However, incorporating seaweed and foods that are more rich in a leafy plant food chain into our diets can offer a natural way to restore the balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6.
Concerns with Omega-3 supplementation?
Some people have asked me, and rightly so, can you overdose on Omega-3 and is it dangerous to take when using blood thinning medication? To the point on taking too much Omega-3? We are so far away from adequate intake of Omega-3 in our diets that there will be very few people that could even come close to the Omega-3 intake of Inuit communities or the Japanese.
In relation to contraindications with blood thinning medications, the short answer is, if you are at a point where blood thinners are being prescribed, then the acute needs of medication have saved many lives. The longer answer is, that maybe if we as a society shifted diets back towards a good Omega Balance, then we could reduce and in some instances reverse the need for blood thinning medication. Research is currently demonstrating that Omega-3 doesn’t stop blood from coagulating, but just allows it to flow better, in which case the risks for internal bleeding on blood thinners may not be made worse by Omega-3. However, this research is still underway and you should always follow the advice of you GP. But don’t be afraid to ask about how your diet might be changed to help in your circumstances – it doesn’t always have to be through a supplement.
Understanding and achieving the right balance of nutrients, particularly Omega-3 and lipids, is essential for our overall health and well-being. Do not take the Recommended Dietary Intakes in the chart here as a set rule and number of nutrients for everyone, as it will vary from birth to aging, from athletes to less active people, and for specific health considerations. It is the concept and understanding of balance that is important here, although it is fascinating to see how the spread of different nutrients works and how sometimes extremely small amounts is all that is needed for certain ones.
If you want to learn more about the balancing concept of our food chain, I can highly recommend the latest book Omega Balance by a former colleague and Professor at the University of Wollongong, Dr. Anthony Hulbert. Omega Balance makes complex things very logical and easy to grasp. Not only that, you can find tables of diverse foods where the Omega Balance can easily be seen so that you can make some better informed food choices.