Newsletter: Events, Recipes, and Tips

-- Please take a look at this script I wrote for a graphic version of The Queen of Fats. It's Omegas Made Easy

April 2, 2009

Susan Allport

Omegas Made Easy

With all the talk about fats (lots of people yammering about fats: good fats, bad fats, trans fats, partially hydrogenated fats, animal fats, vegetable fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats),

you’d think there’d be nothing more to say about these slippery -- and much-talked about -- substances (illustration of girl biting in to a sandwich and the chicken spurts out b/c of all the mayo -- or some other illustration demonstrating the slipperiness of fats)

the stuff of foods (illustration of lots of different fatty foods), bulges (illustration of lots of different body types) -- and every cell in our body (illustration of different cell types?).

But the most interesting thing about fats – and the thing that allows us to make sense of these nutrients and actually improve our health -- is not yet well known.

And that is that the two families of essential fats, the fats we can not make ourselves and must consume in our diets, (define here what omega-3s and omega-6s look like) compete with each other (illustration of two families racing towards a cell membrane)

for positions in cell membranes… the thin, waterproof envelops that surround every cell and cell organelle in our body.

These two families of fats, called polyunsaturates because of the multiple kinks or double bonds in their tails, are not one big happy family, as we’re used to thinking of them (illustration of two families in one house doing crazy pranks to get at each other; emphasize that omega-6s are kinky but omega-3s are kinkier).
But two competing families … with profoundly different effects on membranes – and all the enzymes in them.

(Illustration of a membrane dense with enzymes and activity showing that these membranes are very busy places. They are where a cell does most of its business and are full of enzymes that need to twist and turn in order to carry out their reactions.)

One family of essential fats, the family known as the omega-3s, loosens up membranes and speeds up all the enzymes working inside them, (illustration of omega-3s with oil cans)

The other family, the omega-6s, stiffens membranes and slows down all those enzymes.
(illustration of omega-6s with screw drivers)

Think of omega-3s as WD-40 for the entire body.

Or as ice breakers in the frozen Arctic.

And that’s just one way that these two families of essential fats produce their different effects.

These fats can also be snipped out of membranes and turned into messengers that cells use to talk to each other -- and coordinate their behavior. (illustration of messengers with messenger bags climbing out of cell membrane.)

And the messengers that omega-3s are turned into are cool and collected messengers, messengers that work to calm down biological processes such as inflammation and blood clotting.

While the messengers that omega-6s are turned into are hot-headed messengers, messengers that exacerbate any situation, including inflammation and blood clotting.

Think of omega-3s as peacemakers

And omega-6s as a SWAT team.

Now SWAT teams are useful in some situations – fighting terrorists, for example, or fighting an infection.

But not in everyday situations. (illustration of an ordinary situation interrupted by a SWAT team)

All of these fats are essential for life, (maybe sidebar mentioning other essential food: vitamins, amino acids)

which makes them very different from all the nonessential fats in our diets: the straight, saturated fats and the one-kink monounsaturated fats that also wind up in membranes and that humans and other animals are perfectly capable of making for themselves. (small sidebar noting that monounsaturates are sometimes called omega-9s)

But a balance between the two families of essential fats, as we’ve recently learned, is critical to health. (see saw with two families)

Just as a balance between blood flow and blood clotting is critical to healthy circulation. (Too little clotting = bleeding and hemorrhage; too much clotting = clogged arteries and heart disease)

And a balance between calm and inflammation is critical to mounting a healthy immune response (too little inflammation = infection; too much inflammation = chronic pain. Emphasize that inflammation is a normal response to invading, harmful stimuli from the outside: pathogens; irritants but too much inflammation causes problems of its own.)

But the most interesting thing is still to come:

There’s an important reason why these two families of essential fats should have such differing effects.

And it has to do with their origins

Their beginnings

Where these fats come from. (storks flying in with baby fats?; a galaxy?; one fat baby looking around for its parents?)

Let’s start with the omega-3s, which don’t originate in fish (as many of us believe) but rather in the green leaves of plants. (Illustration of fish; when you turn the page you see that it is eating green seaweed)

(Who knew that green leaves had any fat in them? Not much, but this little bit adds up – and up.)

The parent omega-3 fat, which gives birth to all the rest of the omega-3s, is the most abundant fat in the green leaves of plants, including phytoplankton and green seaweeds. Its name is ALA, or alpha linolenic acid, and it’s found in highest concentrations in the membranes of the chloroplasts of green leaves.

And since green leaves are the most abundant thing on the planet, this omega-3 fat, ALA, is the most the most abundant fat on the planet. (illustrating panning out from one leaf to a forest).

ALA helps plants to carry out photosynthesis, the capturing of light molecules to be turned into sugars, the basis, need I say it, of all life on earth. Photosynthesis is a plant’s speediest and most metabolically demanding activity, requiring the coordination and activity of about 75 different enzymes. ALA keeps all those enzymes running quickly and smoothly.

Animals that eat lots of leaves accumulate lots of ALA. (illustration of different animals, small and large, eating leaves with predators watching from the side)

Since animals are faster – i.e., more mobile -- than plants, they turn this ALA into longer and even kinkier omega-3s: DHA and EPA. (side bar on animals that eat animals that eat leaves getting their DHA and EPA preformed)

Animals use EPA to create the peacemaking cell messengers in their bodies.

And they use DHA to help them with their speediest activities: seeing and thinking and contracting their muscles … including their heart muscle …

and propelling sperm, cells which have to swim the fastest most competitive race of all.

Now let’s turn to the parent omega-6 fat, linoleic acid, which is much more abundant in the seeds of plants than in the leaves.

The parent omega-6 is a storage fat for plants that plants (but not animals) can turn into omega-3s when they need them: at the moment of germination … when photosynthesis begins.

(Plants turn omega-6s into omega-3s by adding an extra double bond (or kink) to the end its tail).

The parent omega-6 has a different chemical structure than the parent omega-3.

It is slightly less kinky (and speedy) but much less susceptible to attack by oxygen. (protective shield on seeds protected from oxygen flying missiles)

And much less likely to go rancid over long periods of time. (Ugh!!! Illustration of someone smelling rancid fats)

So it’s much better at being stored – in a seed -- or a packaged food.

It’s not a bad fat (It’s time we moved beyond thinking of good fats and bad fats).

Animals need both – omega-3s and omega-6s -- in their diets and in all their tissues.

But if an animal has too many omega-3s, and not enough omega-6s, its membranes will be too loose goosey to function properly.

And its cell messengers will be too laid back to protect against infection.

And if an animal has too many omega-6s, and not enough omega-3s, its membranes will be too stiff to function properly.

And its messengers will be declaring a constant state of war. The animal will be in a chronic state of inflammation -- which could manifest itself as heart disease…obesity… diabetes or arthritis.

In the 1980s, a group of scientists began to worry about the large amounts of omega-6s in the food supply of Western countries such as the United States.

They took a look at all the vegetable, or seed oils, that Westerners were consuming -- in their fast foods, packaged foods, cooking oils, and margarines -- and they began to worry.

They took a look at how livestock was now being raised -- on corn and other omega-6 rich grains, instead of grass and other omega-3 rich greens, and they began to worry.

They took a look at how vegetable oils were being partially hydrogenated to improve their shelf life (a process that eliminates all the omega-3s in those oils and turns them into trans fats as well as omega-6s), and they began to worry

These scientists knew that omega-6s compete with omega-3s for a certain number of positions in cell membranes (seats reserved for polyunsaturated amongst seats for saturates and monunsaturates) such that people who are eating a diet very rich in omega-6s will have fewer omega-3s in all their tissues (and vice versa though this has never been a problem as far as anyone knows).

And they knew that populations around the world have vastly different proportions of omega-3s and omega-6s in their diets and tissues – and vastly different rates of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. (map of world with HD rates)

And that the cell messengers created from omega-6s are highly inflammatory and affect many other aspects of cell behavior, including cell growth, cell death, and cell migration.

So in the 1980s, these scientists began putting 2 and 2 together.

There’s been a huge change in our food supply. We’re now consuming many more omega-6s than ever before.

And this change is contributing to a whole host of human ills. These ills include diseases of the brain, of course, because of the high concentrations of omega-3s in healthy brain tissue and other fast acting tissues like the eye, as well as diseases of the heart, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, certain kinds of cancers, and metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, the diseases that tend to specifically plague Western populations, the diseases of civilization, as they have been called, without irony.

And so these scientists began advising people to change their diets: to eat more fish and other omega-3 rich foods and fewer vegetable oils in which the omega-6s greatly outnumber the omega-3s. (side bar explaining that different vegetable, or seed, oils contain different ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s.)

Prudent, commonsensical advice, one might think, but it flew in the face of the official advice from the government, which said that the polyunsaturated fats were one big happy family – not two competing ones. (omega-3s and 6s listening in on this debate from the side?)

And it enraged the many industries involved in growing, refining, and processing soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oil, oils that are particularly high in omega-6s.

And the many companies making packaged foods with these high omega-6 vegetable oils and relying on omega-6’s low oxidation rate to maintain the shelf life of their products.

And the many medical associations that already knew, or thought they knew, the difference between good fats and bad fats. Good fats, these associations thought, were fats that reduce the concentration of cholesterol in a person’s blood – and this is something that all polyunsaturates do. Bad fats were those that raised serum cholesterol. (But serum cholesterol is not a very good measure of a person’s risk for heart disease; far better, as many recent studies have shown, is a person’s omega-3 status.)

And the many physicians who thought that it would never work to tell people that they needed to eat less of something that is essential to health. That people would respond by trying to eliminate all the omega-6s from their diet and wind up in even worse shape – with loosey, goosey membranes and an inadequate immune response. (For the record: we need about 4 times as many omega-6s in our diet as omega-3s. What we don’t need is 10 times as many omega-6s….or 20 times as many omega-6s, as many Americans now have.)

So many different industries and organizations fought this advice.

Even some people in the fish industry fought it, preferring people to think that they should consume more omega-3 rich fish rather than less omega-6 oils – in order to increase the amount of omega-3s in their tissues. (For the record: both methods will work, but we need to eat a lot of fish – more fish than there are in the ocean -- to maintain our health on a high omega-6 diet. We need to eat much smaller amounts of fish to maintain our health on a low omega-6 diet.)

And they fought it well and convinced (almost) everyone that the problem with fats was with people eating too many straight, saturated fats … or too many animal fats…or too few monounsaturated fats… or too many trans fats.

But as our knowledge of the differences between these two families of essential fats continued to grow.

And we learned that the two families of fats have profoundly different effects on every cell type in the body: brain cells, heart cells, nerve cells, skin cells, bone cells, cancer cells, and even fat cells.

And on every cellular and bodily process, including insulin resistance and metabolic rate, cell growth and cell death.

And as our waistlines continued to grow as we lived by old, outdated dietary advice.

And as the list of ailments linked to an imbalance of omega-3s and omega-6s continued to grow.

We finally realized the truth about these two families of essential fats, the fats we can’t make ourselves and must consume in our diet…

And why they play such important roles in health:

That the two families of fats, omega-3s and omega-6s, are, in fact, markers of the changing seasons,

Which animals, like us, use to prepare for the future.

Their presence in our foods tells us whether we should be getting ready for times of activity and reproduction -- when the speedier fats of leaves are available -- (illustration of spring and summer)

or whether we should be getting ready for times of hunkering down and survival -- when the slower fats of seeds are much more plentiful. (illustration of fall and winter)

It’s a pretty neat system: As the earth makes its orbit around the sun, plants respond to the changing day length and changing rainfall by making or shedding leaves.

And animals use their changing diet to prepare for the future. When animals increase their intake of leaves (and/or animals that eat leaves), leaf fats come to outnumber seed fats in the membranes of their cells. This new, green, faster diet causes them to speed up.

Then, when plants shed their leaves and put their energy into making seeds, the process is reversed. Seed fats come to outnumber leaf fats in the membranes of animal cells, and this slower, seed diet causes an animal’s body to slow down -- and store weight as fat.

(Some animals slow down so much that they go into hibernation which they cannot do on the faster, green diet.) (Be sure to include the fact that even in the tropics animals go into hibernation)

It’s a neat system for everyone but Americans and other Western populations, whose sophisticated food growing, food processing, and food storage techniques, specifically our ability to squeeze all the oil out of seeds, enables us to eat a high omega-6 diet all year long.

Per capita consumption of the parent omega-6 fat, linoleic acid, the most abundant fat in soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oil, has been climbing steadily in the United States, since the turn of the 19th century, from about about 1+1/2 teaspoons a day (7 grams) to almost 2 tablespoons (25 grams).

a rise which parallels rises in heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, behavioral disorders, reproductive disorders and certain forms of cancer, . These parallels would be meaningless if not for the many mechanisms by which excessive omega-6s are known to promote -- and omega-3s are known to protect against -- all these conditions.

Per capita consumption of the parent omega-3 fat has remained fairly constant over this same period – about a half a teaspoon a day or two grams.

But this faster fat is now being swamped, in our diet and tissues, by the many seed fats.

This is the real omega-3 story, and it makes sense of our ballooning waistlines, as well as our ballooning health care costs.

It also makes sense of the current advice to eat fish twice a week. And provides a timely alternative to that advice, given the state of most of our fish stocks and the contamination of some species with mercury and PCBs. (Not enough fish in the ocean to fix this problem)

Because fish are one of the few animals in our diet that still eat greens and because fish live in cold, dim environments where they need more of these faster fats in their membranes, fish are, indeed, a good source of omega-3s.

But eating fish is not the best way of fixing a problem that came about from eating large amounts of high omega-6 oils. The best way is to understand where these fats come from and that the American diet is busting out all over with the fats of seeds.

But you don’t need to be out of balance. You can right the balance of omegas in your tissues and food supply – and put speediness back into your membranes -- by taking some fairly simple steps.

Ten Easy Steps for greening your tissues and food supply:

1. Eat lots (and lots) of fruits and vegetables. Green vegetables are full of ALA, the parent omega-3, and all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that protect fats against oxidation. To bulk up on omega-3s, you should eat the vegetables you enjoy – and lots of them.

2. Change your cooking oil to canola oil and avoid products made with safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, peanut, and soybean oils, oils in which the omega-6s greatly outnumber the omega-3s. It’s also okay to use olive and walnut oil and small amounts of butter. Butter has large amounts of saturated fats and small amounts of polyunsaturated fats, but a wholesome ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.

3. Eat a wide variety of fish. Because all fish live in water and require more flexibility (looseness) in their membranes than do land animals, all fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish have more because they store their excess fat in their bellies, not their livers, as do lean fish like cod. Eating a wide diversity of fish should help prevent the over fishing of certain species and protect us against toxins that accumulate in certain fish.

4. Eat free-range or omega-3 enriched eggs. Most grocery stores carry these – look for the words omega-3s or DHA on the carton and choose brands that come as close to 300mg omega-3/egg (or 100mg DHA/egg) as your pocketbook will allow. These eggs, laid by chickens that have been fed a diet rich in flaxseed, fish meal, and/or algae and other greens, provide one of the easiest ways of adding omega-3s to Western diets. They’re easy to produce and less expensive than many other foods high in omega-3s. If the chickens are fed something other than fish meal, they’re also free of the contaminants that can be found in fish. By the way, all eggs used to be omega-3 enriched eggs when the chickens that laid them foraged for a living, scratching and pecking in backyards and farms for greens and bugs.

5. Eat grass-fed or free-range chicken, lamb, beef, bison, and pork whenever you can. Just as all our eggs used to be omega-3 enriched, so were all our meats and milk products -- when our animals were free range and ate many more grasses and other greens than they did grains. You can find grass-fed meats in some grocery stores and many farmers’ markets – or by searching online (see recources below).

6. Try to include a source of omega-3s in every meal because metabolism is happening all the time – not just when you decide to take a fish oil pill. The omega-3s can come from fish, greens, omega-3 enriched eggs, as well as cereals containing flaxseed. Other convenient sources of omega-3s are Smart Balance omega-3 peanut butter (and other Smart Balance products), soy and other beans, and some nuts: walnuts, notably, with lesser amounts in beechnuts, Brazil nuts and chestnuts. Most of these omega-3 rich ingredients can be added to salads, yogurts, cheeses, sauces and so on. The nuts can be eaten as a snack (with or without raisins and chocolate chips). Homemade baked goods can be a great source of omega-3s, especially if you add liberal amounts of walnuts, use omega-3-enriched eggs, and replace some of the butter with canola oil. Although omega-3s can be taken in pill form (see below), like most nutrients, they are probably better absorbed from foods than pills.

7. Avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. This step is important not only because of the reduced omega-3 content of these oils but also because of their concentration of trans fats. Trans fats compete with omega-3s for positions in cell membranes, and they may have adverse effects of their own, though it is difficult to distinguish between the two. Avoiding these oils is fairly easy to do with foods bought in a grocery store, since producers are required to list them as ingredients on food labels. In restaurants, choose foods that are freshly prepared and take a pass on those that are packaged or fried.

8. Take special precautions if you are pregnant or a woman of reproductive age. Follow the guidelines of the FDA and local agencies on fish consumption and look for fish that have tested negative for mercury and PCBs. Most importantly, supplement your diet with other sources of omega-3s and keep your intake of omega-6s at healthy levels. The benefits will be enormous, not only for your baby, but for yourself, since low maternal concentrations of DHA have been linked to an increased risk of postpartum depression. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to protect against preterm delivery and low birth weight. After giving birth, breast feed your baby if at all possible since no infant formula on the market matches the breast milk of a well-nourished mother.

9. Use supplements carefully. If you do take omega-3 supplements, avoid those that supply all the essential fatty acids, omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-6s are essential, as we know, but we already have too many of them in our foods. We don’t need to take any more. So avoid supplements (and foods) with phrases such as high omega, complete omegas, complete EFA, ultimate omegas, or omega balance in their names as they will undoubtedly include oils rich in omega-6s. If you take fish oil, look for products that are of pharmaceutical grade or are molecularly distilled, thus ensuring that they will be free of metals and other toxins. Also, take fish oil rather than cod liver oil, as the latter contains significant amounts of vitamin A and can be harmful in excess. Keep your fish oil and flax oil in a cool, dark place and throw out any oil that smells bad. If it smells bad, it is bad. Taking oxidized oil is worse than taking no oil at all.

10. Maintain a healthy weight by getting the exercise and calories you need. Excess calories and weight put a strain on the entire body, including its ability to transport and store fats.

Finally, don’t go overboard with this or any diet. You need omega-6s in your diet, just not in the great quantities that most of us are currently getting. Balance is the key to this and every other aspect of life. By taking these ten easy steps, you can be sure you will be changing the balance of fats in your tissues -- and confident that health benefits will follow. Omega-3s have been displaced by the large amounts of omega-6s in our diet. These ten, simple steps will put those speedy leaf fats back where they belong.

Further Reading, Resources, and Family Trees:

The Queen of Fats by Susan Allport, University of California Press, 2008.

Susan Allport’s website has additional articles and resources on omega-3s.

Jo Robinson’s website and list grass farmers in almost every state.

The Marine Stewardship Council’s website: has a list of sustainable fisheries

Joyce Nettleton ’s excellent newsletter on current fatty acid research can be found at

Vital Choice Seafood has another excellent newsletter and is a great source for pure and sustainable fish from Alaska.