There is still a lot of confusion surrounding fats, which types are healthy, which are not and what their various roles are.
The confusion is not surprising given the current state of competitive media and newspapers all vying for the most polarising headlines and click bait. The purpose of this article is to give a brief explanation of what Omega 3s are and why all Omega fat supplements are not created equal. But first, let’s cover the basics.
There are typically three types of fat. Mono-, and poly- unsaturated and saturated fat. Each is named so depending on the chemical bonds within the molecule. They are not named to represent what they do inside your body. For example, 'saturated' fat will not 'saturate' the inside of your arteries with devil spawn. It's just its name. It's also important to point out here that no food is any one type of fat but a combination of two or three of these types.
Or four if we count trans fats. Trans fats are typically man made and are the true culprits of the bad (LDL) cholesterol debacle and extremely inflammatory (there’s more on inflammation later). They are used to extend the shelf life of processed foods (cakes, biscuits, margarine etc). Despite decades of studies proving their destructive effects on our health, governments are only just now getting around to outlawing their use in the food industry. However, this is not without a 3 year "grace period" for the billion dollar food corps in question to remove trans fats from their products (we couldn't possibly force them to do it immediately. After all, it might harm their profits). The current food industry is about profit remember, not health. But, I digress... Anyway, I don't count trans fats as a type of fat; ignore it and avoid it at all costs.
So, back to the three…
The big villain of the fat family since... well, as long as I've been alive, so a while. It has finally been acquitted of all charges due to lack of evidence.The fact man has consumed saturated fat in various amounts since we first walked upright, without the ability to record intake on calorie counting apps should have been the first hint of its innocence and benefit to our biology.
A moderate and sensible intake of healthy forms of saturated fats are extremely good for our health. Saturated fat can help to raise the levels of healthy HDL cholesterol provided it is from wholesome sources. Cholesterol is used to create every cell wall of every cell in your body, including those that make up your arteries. It’s here I need to borrow an awesome analogy from Jonny Bowden in his book 'The Great Cholesterol Myth', in that blaming cholesterol for heart disease, specifically atherosclerosis, is like blaming the firemen for turning up to the fire or being at the ’scene of the crime’.
The real problem is not the firemen, but the fire, or as the evidence is now suggesting, the systemic inflammation reaching our arteries and circulatory system.
Saturated fat and cholesterol also play a chief role in producing our sex hormones. These, as I’m sure you’ve all experienced, are closely tied to our mood and feel-good hormones. Also essential to the survival of our species. So they’re pretty important.
Lastly they act as carriers for fat soluble vitamins and are required for mineral absorption. The best sources of saturated fat come from organically naturally raised livestock and animal products. This is why many vegans and vegetarians can have problems absorbing fat soluble vitamins and need to supplement carefully.Commercially raised livestock fed an unnatural diet and deficient in vitamin D produce bad cholesterol. So ethically sourced meat and dairy is not just ethical but also better for our health. Again, our early ancestors had this all figured out it seems.
Coconut oil is a great plant based saturated fat. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature (Coconut oil, Butter, Lard) and are very safe oils to cook with at high temperatures.
These tend to solidify at low temperatures like in a refrigerator. These are olive oil, avocados and avocado oil. These oils are also stable enough to be used for cooking provided they are quality sourced and pure.
Monounsaturated fats can also help improve the ratio of HDL (good) cholesterol to LDL (Bad) cholesterol in our bodies. They also tend to be stacked with antioxidants which give them their ultra-healthy reputation.
And finally, polyunsaturated fats
This is where we get into the sub categories of Omegas 3, 6 and 9. These remain liquid even at low temperatures and are prone to oxidation at high temperatures. Despite the fact we’ve been told for years to use these types of oils for cooking, instead of the so called unhealthy saturated fats, we should in fact do the opposite; polyunsaturated fats turn rancid too quickly under high heat. I’d say 'how ironic' but, the fact these vegetable oils are cheaper to produce makes me think the food industry doesn't really care.
So what do Omegas mean to you?
To simplify, Omega 6 fats are pro-inflammatory, and Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory. But it’s important to realise that not all inflammation is evil. We require pro-inflammatory substances to help maintain effective immune responses and cellular repair. The problem is that our current diets are too high in Omega 6 and very low in Omega 3s to maintain a healthy balance.
Omega 9 fatty acids are made from a combination of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. However, they aren't essential fatty acids since we can synthesise our own (that’s why supplementing with them is unnecessary).
The current 'healthy' ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is thought to be around 1:2. However, modern diets estimate the majority of us hitting as high as 1:20. Interestingly, some of the experts in the ancestral diet world think the ratio could've been as low as 1:1 in early humans, particularly those in coastal tribes feeding on a diet high in fish.
Additionally, all the land animals that were hunted would've been extremely rich in Omega 3 fatty acids rather than Omega 6s.
What I find fascinating is that the current belief between anthropologists, historians and biologists studying evolution is that the rapid growth of human brains and subsequent intelligence over such a short time was most likely due to the inclusion of Omega 3 rich animals into their diet. This makes sense. Omega 3 DHA makes up a huge part of our brains.
EPA is the other important Omega 3. It provides us with anti-inflammatory benefits. In fact, it's now believed the reason it is so potent is because it interferes with the metabolism of the pro-inflammatory Omega 6 arachidonic acid.
Remember the fireman analogy? The science is now showing that heart disease, along with a multitude of other illnesses including those that affect the brain and nervous system are caused by heightened levels of inflammation throughout the body and not cholesterol or saturated fats (#notguiltyyourhonour). Inflammation is thought to originate in our gut. So what we eat or supplement with is of the upmost importance. External factors like lifestyles and stress can also influence this inflammation. That’s why we all need to chill out a bit more too.
So what about ALA? It's also an Omega 3 fatty acid, and is found in plants sources such as flax, hemp and pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
Here's where we get into the nitty gritty; a topic of conversation I had with a friend last week.
I want to make clear that I am not anti-vegan or anti-vegetarian. Each to their own (as long as it’s not forced on infants or children). In fact for the most part, I consider these diets to be healthier than the average western diet. However, it is clear that people following these regimes need to have their diets and supplementation finely dialled in to maintain optimal health.
There is a common belief that the body can convert ALA from plants, into the most vital DHA and EPA Omega 3s.
Our bodies can convert ALA. But it’s been established that the conversion of ALA into DHA in humans is extremely inefficient (at around 5%). Conversion from ALA into EPA is even worse at 0.5%. To make matters worse, even this 5% conversion depends on zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 in the diet. These are all difficult to get in adequate amounts without including animal products in the diet.
To summarise, it’s best not to waste your money on a plant based Omega 3 supplement, and even more wasteful to buy combination oils or tablets containing Omega 6 and 9. It’s more than likely you’re getting enough of those already.
The only Omega 3 supplement I use and recommend is Lion Heart. This is due to its quality and being independently certified by IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards). It also delivers an effective dose of EPA and DHA without our bodies having to do anything to convert it. It’s great.
Although this may seem like a shameless plug I have, and only ever will, endorse products I truly believe in. Besides, you’re reading this, so you were obviously curious and it would be remiss not to tell you where to get the best of the best. Right?
Tim Blakey is a certified nutritionist, master trainer and performance physio.