There are two kinds of dietary information: simple and complex. Simple information categorizes everything into a few groups, either stigmatizing the bad groups or promoting a particular good group. Complex information breaks everything down into multiple options that require a chemistry/physiology degree to understand.
This seems especially true when trying to understand fatty acids: their intake, their functions in the body, and their proper balance in the diet. Let’s try a middle ground – a little complex information without too much chemistry and a little simple information without too much stigmatizing.
Most of the complex nutrients required for optimum human health can be made by the human body. But there are a few nutrients that humans cannot make. These are called “essential” nutrients – which means they must come from our diet. In the category of fats, we must get two fatty acids from the diet. The human body cannot make alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3) fatty acid and linoleic acid (an omega-6) fatty acid.
From both of these two fatty acids, the human body can manufacture on its own (with some effort) the rest of a myriad of fatty acids that make up most of the human brain, much of the human nerve cells, and the major building blocks of the capsule of all human cells. Various fatty acids also contribute to blood clotting, passing elements through cell walls, natural pain killers, and the immune inflammatory system that recognizes, isolates and eliminates foreign material such as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells.
EPA and DHA are two omega-3 fatty acids that can be made from the essential fatty acids, even by children. These two are especially important for brain and nerve growth and in lowering the risk of inflammation, heart disease, arthritis, mental health problems, and possibly some cancers. They are more easily absorbed from the diet than made in the body, especially by children, so they are both added to various foods, especially baby formula.
Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is made in the body and is important for blood clotting, repair and growth of muscle and nerve tissue, improved sensitivity to insulin, and control of eczema. It is the precursor for the fatty acids that cause degenerative arthritis.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both play vital roles. They are best absorbed in the diet in a ratio of 5 (omega-6) to 1 (omega-3). In the typical American diet with its emphasis on fatty animal products (meat and dairy) the ratio is 24:1 which throws the balance toward greater inflammation, greater blood clotting, and a more reactive immune system – a major cause of many chronic diseases. How do we fix this imbalance? Correct it through diet.
The obvious assumption is – decrease the intake of omega-6 fatty acids and correct the imbalance. But that would require decreasing the intake of America’s favorite fatty foods. Instead nutritionists usually suggest taking in more omega-3 fatty acids by supplementation – with cold water fish, flax seed, canola oil and so on. In other words, they assume that people will not choose to eat more healthfully and will only be willing to add supplements to correct the problem.
Two assumptions seem obvious:
- If one eats a diet that is already well-balanced in the omega-6:omega-3 ratio (Mediterranean diet), no supplementation is necessary. It is only intended for those not eating a good diet.
- If one eats a diet that is out of balance, change the diet – don’t ignore the imbalance or try to correct the imbalance with supplements.
Oh, yes – and breast milk gives the infant the same balance of omega-6:omega-3 as that which the mother eats. Obviously.