The food industry has been urging me to eat fish. The supplement companies have been urging me to take fish oil supplements. They claim that omega-3 fatty acids prevent heart attacks. Some people even claim that pregnant women need to eat fish or fish oil. But in reality, green plants are an excellent source of the essential omega-3 fatty acid. This could explain why people who rarely if ever eat fish can have healthy hearts and healthy brains. In fact, the healthiest populations are the ones that eat very little fat of any kind and lots of vegetables.
Where Do Omega 3 Fatty Acids Come From?
All of the omega-3 fatty acid in the food supply came originally from the green plants and blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). These plants and algae are at the bottom of the food chain. They contain an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. This fatty acid comes from the thylakoid membranes that are involved in photosynthesis.
No animal can make an omega-3 fatty acid. Animals do not have the enzymes that would put a double-bond in the omega-3 position in the fatty acid. However, animals can lengthen the carbon chain of an omega-3 fatty acid. Thus, fish and other animals (including human beings) can convert alpha-linolenic acid to longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The two most important ones are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). You can find EPA and DHA in fish but not in most plants.
Which Omega-3 Fatty Acid Is Essential?
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, only one omega-3 fatty acid is essential in human nutrition. It is alpha-linolenic acid, which comes from the chloroplasts of green plants. You can get this omega-3 fatty acid by eating green vegetables. Flaxseeds, hempseed, and walnuts are also good sources of alpha-linolenic acid.
There is also an essential omega-6 fatty acid: linoleic acid. It is easy to find in grains, nuts, and seeds. In fact, many people worry about an imbalance between the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. To solve that problem, eat a low-fat diet. Add some walnuts or a spoonful of ground flaxseed to your cereal in the morning.
You need only a small amount of these two essential fatty acids from your food. This need was not even discovered until hospitalized patients were being fed nothing but sugar solutions. To meet a patient’s need for the essential fatty acids, you can just rub a little bit of vegetable oil on his or her skin.
It is practically impossible to find real cases of fatty acid deficiency. This problem could happen only in people who cannot absorb fat from their food. It has happened in people who were being fed artificial, fat-free diets.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Blood Thinners
For years, many people have been urging the public to eat fish or take fish oil supplements, to reduce the risk of heart attack. Populations that eat a lot of omega-3 acids from cold-water fish do have fewer heart attacks than you would predict from knowing their fat intake. However, this is probably because omega-3 fatty acids thin the blood. The blood thinning effect could also lead to more deaths from major bleeding.
It’s easy to make yourself heart-attack-proof. Just eat a low-fat, plant-based diet to keep your total cholesterol below 150 mg/dL.
Breast Milk and Baby Formula
Some manufacturers have been adding DHA to baby formula. The goal is to get the formula to be more like breast milk. Yet we do not know if that DHA does the baby any good. If you give long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, you might have to give arachidonic acid as well.
I do not know if anyone would benefit from taking DHA or EPA. If so, they can get it from an algae source. Algae farms are sustainable. Also, algae would contain less of the pollutants that build up in animal tissue.
Photo by albertstraub