Sunday, February 28, 2010

Omega-6: The Fat That Ruins Your Health

Letter #2 to Montana Lawmakers sent January, 31, 2010

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the result.
Winston Churchill

Dear Senator _________:

In mid October, 2009 the Samueli Institute, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism jointly sponsored a two day workshop entitled Nutritional Armor for the Warfighter: Can Omega-3 Fatty Acids Enhance Stress Resilience, Wellness, and Military Performance?

On day two, Biochemist Bill Lands, PhD spoke on Why Omega-6 Fats Matter for Your Health. In his opening remarks he said "Pragmatically, I really want primary prevention. I mean, treatment is all well and good. But if you never had to treat something, wouldn't that be a wonderful world? So, how would a pragmatist create a wonderful world? Well, if you know biochemistry, you can trace the molecular events that caused the disease or the undesired consequence and prevent the underlying cause of the problem. That means you have to trace back - and we can do that - the context of this molecular event. And the context is competition between omega-3 and omega-6 for storage and for action".

These past four decades Americans been relentlessly bombarded with messages to consume less butter, choose low fat dairy products, eat less red meat, eat fewer eggs, etc. At the same time we've been told to replace animal fats with margarine and polyunsaturated vegetable oil products. But foods manufactured from seed oils are high in omega-6 fats. It's estimated that Americans consume 10 to 30 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s. Both omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fatty acids. That means we have to eat them to be healthy. However, they need to be consumed in roughly equal amounts because the body does not have the ability to sort nutrients to balance their concentration in tissues.

Dr. Lands continues, "I heard several times yesterday about these chronic diseases that are preventable. If that's true, how come nobody's preventing them, for crying out loud?... These data have been out for a long time. Everyone knows that. Ancel Keys sort of knew this but he never really talked about omega-3 and omega-6. And it was a tragedy because we have had 40 some years when we could have really been preventing something and we didn't. We got off and we got on to distractions that were not mediators. But these are mediators of disease. People who have more than half of their HUFA (highly unsaturated fatty acids) as omega-6 HUFA, they really have a high incidence of cardiovascular death."

Elsewhere in his presentation Dr. Lands explained why it is wise to limit combined total intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats to less than 1 percent of total caloric intake. These polyunsaturates are highly reactive, chemically. At the higher levels of consumption Americans normally ingest, the body's biochemical capacity to control the action of these chemically unstable molecules is compromised. The consequence for human health is the broad spectrum of chronic inflammatory diseases that are so costly to treat and impossible to prevent unless omega-6 consumption is reduced.

The omega-6 story began almost 200 years ago in France with the 1813 discovery of margaric acid by Michel Chevreul. Forty years later, the German structural Chemist Wilhelm Heintz analyzed margaric acid and found it to be a combination of stearic acid and the previously unknown palmitic acid. In 1869, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. Responding to the challenge, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés invented a substance he called oleomargarine. The name became shortened to the trade name "margarine." Mège-Mouriés patented the concept but was unable make money manufacturing the product so in 1871 he sold the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens, now part of Unilever. In 1897, French chemist Paul Sabatier perfected a process called hydrogenation. In 1902, German chemist Wilhelm Normann was awarded a patent for the hydrogenation of liquid oils. In 1911, an American company founded by two immigrants, William Proctor, a candle maker from England and James Gamble, a soap maker from Ireland, began marketing a product called Crisco; the name being derived from the initial sounds of the expression "crystallized cottonseed oil."

So, around a hundred years ago, food technologists began manufacturing substitutes for butter (margarine) and lard (Crisco) from seed oils and about a decade later, the death rate from heart disease began to climb precipitously.

By the 1950s, heart disease was so prevalent and people were dying from it at such a young age that finding the cause became a major priority for medical researchers. The science of epidemiology was born and studies were carried out in many countries to determine if there was a connection between food intake and clogged arteries. Leading the charge was University of Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, PhD who enthusiastically promoted the idea that consuming too much saturated fat caused arteries to clog. The idea took hold and was vigorously promoted by vegetarian activists, sugar interests, the edible oils industry, and certain prominent scientists. In the late 1970s the federal government got involved and began issuing dietary advice to lower fat intake to control weight and restrict saturated fat intake to prevent heart disease.

But heart disease is just one of many health impacts resulting from excessive omega-6 intake. I think it's fair to say that anything that omega-3 treats can be more effectively treated or even prevented by reducing omega-6. Thus, the omega-6 problem fans out into many areas of concern including alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, divorce rates, mental illness, birth defects, the quality of life for seniors, academic performance, work place safety, the cost of doing business in the USA, and ultimately, the cost of health care. My point: if we can prevent these chronic conditions and problems by removing omega-6 seed oil products from the food supply and restoring healthy fats, what are we waiting for?

We're waiting for grass roots efforts by people like myself to take hold and reduce demand for fabricated foods. At present, corporate agriculture and the food manufacturing industry are extremely powerful, politically. In addition, they have a close, enduring relationship with academia because of the research funding they supply. I'm hoping these are not insurmountable obstacles. I'm hoping my efforts to help you lawmakers understand what has taken place will bare fruit in the form of legislation aimed at encouraging the production of more high quality animal products, the correction of mistakes in the dietary advice furnished by the the state, and the legalization of personal sales of raw milk dairy products in Montana.

I urge you to watch the 37 minute presentation by Dr. Lands that I quoted from above. Dr. Lands begins speaking at about 12 minutes 45 seconds into the webcast. Just drag the time control button on the line at the bottom slightly to the right to skip the preliminary remarks and dead time. There's also this 4 minute 10 second excerpt:

Finally, I encourage you to share information I send you with your spouse, relatives, friends, and political contacts. Thanks for your time.

David Brown
1925 Belmar Dr
Kalispell, MT 59901
Nutrition Education Project


Matt Stone said...

Thanks David. Good work. I too have cut my EFA consumption back to about 1% of calories since the beginning of the year. And I lived to tell about it!

Isaac said...

Most of the interventional trials utilizing EPA/DHA supplements show some benefit in treating disease. Combine that with the epidemiological data on open water fatty fish consumption and it's pretty clear to me that we as a society could do better at reversing that omega 6:omega 3 ratio.

Donna said...

Very interesting article!! Very thought provoking. I saw your comment on The Devine Low Carb blog and thought I'd check out your site. My family follows a Simplified Low Carb Diet that seeks to moderate carb and fat consumption, while balancing the need for fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and protein. We don't subscribe to the low carb culture of unlimited fats. You're article reminded me that I need to take a look at where we are getting our fats. Thanks for that! One point though....As an RN, I'm used to reading technical information full of medical terms and jargon, but the average reader may not be. I'd hate it if they missed the message out of frustration...I'm not saying to dumb it down, but maybe to assume most people are as well informed as you are about nutrition. For example, as I began reading the article I had to do a search to remind myself what the source foods of omega 3 and 6 fats were. Just a thought. Enjoyed the read, though. Donna
(If you want to keep the comment you can edit out my point about the language :)

David Brown said...

Thanks for your comment, Donna.

Having asked several hundred people over the past nine months what they know about omega-6 fats (The usual answer is "Nothing"), it's becoming increasingly clear that there needs to be a simple way for people to identify rich sources of omega-6 once they are alerted to the problem. One writer noted that, on the whole, omega-6 is concentrated in seeds and omega-3 is found in leaves. Livestock that consume leaves have higher levels of omega-3 in their tissues than animals that are fed seeds. Of course, feeding animals flax seeds can boost their tissue levels of omega-3. Every other sort of seed contains considerably more omega-6 than omega-3.