There are three types of fats: saturated (solid at room temperature), monounsaturated (liquid at room temperature and semi-solid in the fridge) and polyunsaturated (liquid at both room and fridge temperature). Polyunsaturated fats are comprised of two types of fatty acids: omega 6 and omega 3.
Our bodies require both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids in a one to one ratio. Cross culturally, and throughout history humans ate diets containing omega 6/omega 3 fatty acids in a ratio of 1:1 (or, at most 2:1). Today, that ratio has changed for most people to around 15:1!
Less than one hundred years ago, our diets underwent a dramatic change. Industrial cooking oils were developed. These oils: “vegetable oil”, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, etc. are extremely high in omega 6.
Something else occurred during the last one hundred years: the factory farming of animals. After World War II farmers were producing more corn than the American population was consuming. So, they started to feed the surplus corn to livestock. They discovered that cows eating corn fattened up much quicker than cows eating grass. Seventy-five years ago it took a cow four to five years to reach a slaughter weight of 1,200 pounds. Today it takes 13 months, thanks to corn, antibiotics, growth hormones and protein supplements. Similar results were attained with other livestock, so now cows, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry, and even fish are raised on corn and soy.
Cows and other grazing animals are ruminants: they are able to digest the cellulose in grass because of their multi-chambered digestive tracts. Corn consumption in cattle causes many problems (liver abscesses, bloat, sudden death syndrome, acidosis), because quite simply, cattle were never meant to eat corn. Pasture fed cattle have a healthy neutral pH of 7 in their stomach. A corn diet dangerously raises the acid level in the cow’s stomach creating disease states in the animal. Sick animals are now the norm, so all commercial livestock are routinely given high doses of medications and antibiotics. Diseased animals harbor pathogens, especially E coli. Eating commercially raised meats routinely exposes your gut and immune system to a toxic soup of harmful bacteria, pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and drugs.
Feeding livestock corn fundamentally changes the meat they produce, greatly increasing levels of unhealthy Omega-6 fatty acids and decreasing levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Wild or pasture raised meats have an omega 3/omega 6 fatty acid ratio that is close to 1:2. The ratio in commercial meats is closer to 1:5.
So, what’s so important about getting the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids right? When we consume omega 6/omega 3 fatty acids in a ratio close to 1:1, our body uses the omega 3 preferentially to produce lots of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These substances are anti inflammatory. Preventing inflammation halts many diseases in their tracks. For example, here’s the sequence of changes the leads to a heart attack or stroke: First, there is inflammation in our arteries. The inflammation leads to a buildup of oxidized cholesterol or plaque. This plaque can burst and form a clot, cutting off the blood supply to a region of the heart or brain, leading to death.
What is the major cause of this inflammation? Omega 6 fatty acids! Just as our body converts omega 3 to beneficial EPA/DHA via enzymatic action, our body converts omega 6 to AA (arachidonic acid). AA is harmful, and causes inflammation, when produced in excessive amounts. Western doctors prescribe taking an aspirin a day to their cardiac patients, because aspirin blocks the body’s ability to produce inflammation from all that extra omega 6 we consume in our diet. However, aspirin alone cannot undo all the damage caused in our bodies by the overconsumption of omega 6.
Some diseases known to be caused, at least in part, by systemic inflammation and EPA/DHA deficiency include: heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, osteoporosis, joint pains in general, depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, brain fog and cognitive decline, inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), asthma, macular degeneration, menstrual pain, breast, colon and prostate cancer.
Interestingly, vegetarians (especially vegans) have been shown in various studies to have an even worse ratio of omega 6/omega 3 in their diets than meat eaters. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you need to take some special precautions to ensure you are not undermining your health by eating a pro-inflammatory diet.
Stay tuned for Part II of this article, which I plan to send out in two weeks. In Part II, I will discuss exactly what you should eat if you are a meat eater or a vegetarian in order to improve your fatty acid profile and reduce inflammation in your body.