The quick answer: Omega-3 fats are essential to health. Green plants provide the short chain type; the animals that eat green plants provide the long chain form. You need both.
Fat Healthy Changes
The majority of scientists and nutritionists have been at war with traditional fats for the past generation. Sensing an opportunity, Food Inc. has parachuted into that war—you can now buy non-fat, low-fat or reduced fat, versions of all kinds of foods. You can even buy non-fat half-and-half. Imagine that.
One can usually pick out the recipes that originated during the anti-fat era because they piously specify factory-modified (low-fat, or non-fat) rather than natural full fat products. Unfortunately, while we were processing traditional fats out of the national dietary, the diseases this was supposed to help continued to increase—I’m talking about overweight, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The crazy thing is that while we were reducing traditional fats on one hand, we ate increasing amounts of the most toxic of fats—anything deep fat fried. The deep fat fryer—loaded with trans fats and highly oxidized refined vegetable oils—was used to cook more and more of the fast foods and take-out foods we buy. It’s a rare restaurant that doesn’t have a deep fat fryer hidden back in the kitchen. Think anything French-fried, most crispy chicken, donuts—these are, in my view, among the most toxic foods offered for purchase.
So we’re contrarians on the subject of fats. We say enjoy traditional fats but avoid factory-refined fats. Healthy Change #2 forbids the consumption of anything deep fat fried. But we also note that when you limit yourself to a sparing amount of meat—Healthy Change #9—you will automatically eat less fat.
Certain fats—omega-3 and omega-6, as they are known—are essential. As noted in a prior post, for good health you must include them in your diet. Generally, we eat too little omega-3 and too much omega-6. The crazy thing is that omega-3 fats are the most plentiful on the planet—they’re found in everything green, whether on land or in the sea. The refined vegetable oils are a big source of omega-6. So if you eat more green stuff and minimize refined oils, you’re moving in the right direction.
A Fat Primer
Here’s a quick primer on fats. When a fat chain stands alone it’s called a fatty acid. The structure of a fatty acid is like your spine. Think of your vertebras as a chain of carbon atoms. The bony processes at both ends of your spine are like the head (alpha end) and tail (omega end) of a fatty acid. Now most of your vertebrae have two ribs attached, so replace the ribs with hydrogen atoms and you have a complete fatty acid, comprised of carbon, hydrogen, plus the alpha and omega ends. It’s that simple.
Two major characteristics of fats:
- The length of the fatty acid—the number of carbon atoms—matters. So-called short chain fats have six or less; the very long chain fats have 22 or more. Short chains are a good energy source; long chain fats provide more complicated functions.
- Degree of saturation—if a carbon is missing the hydrogen atoms it’s considered unsaturated. If every carbon has both hydrogen atoms, then it’s a saturated fat. The more unsaturated a fat is, the more active. So fats that are highly active, like in your brain or eyes, are highly unsaturated. Omega-3 fats are unsaturated at the 3rd carbon from the tail, or omega end.
The degree of saturation affects the point at which fats become solid. Butter is mostly saturated and is solid at room temperature. Olive oil is mostly monounsaturated so is liquid at room temperature but mostly solid in the refrigerator.
The polyunsaturated omega-3 fats are hard to freeze, which is what keeps cold-water fish like salmon from being stiff as a board in Arctic waters. All of these fats are important to our health. A simple rule is to eat a moderate amount of natural fats and minimize man-made or highly processed fats.
Long Chain Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats are highly unsaturated and essential to your health; they come in short and long chain forms. Basically, we get the short chain omega-3 fats from green plants. As noted above, we get the long chain omega-3 fats from animals that eat those green plants, whether on land or sea.
The two long chain omega-3 fats of most interest to humans are EPA and DHA. The inititals come from the Greek for the number of carbons in the fat, 20 and 22 respectively. (The short chain omega-3 fats typically have 18 carbons.) These longer and more unsaturated fats have incredible flexibility and reactivity which is why they're so good at data processing in your eyes, nervous system, and brain. It's also why they turn rancid so fast if not refrigerated. You get the bad with the good. To give foods longer shelf lifes, omega-3 fats essential to health were ignorantly removed from most processed foods. Maybe that's enough info for now.
Important: Pastured animals are rich in omega-3 fats but feedlot or caged animals fed dried grains are deficient. Your health depends on the health of the animals you eat—if possible, it’s best to eat pastured meats and wild game. So it's a good thing if your hunter husband comes home with a moose.
As noted above, Healthy Change #15 advised eating omega-3 fats with every meal. The picture above shows typical sources. Your body can convert long chain omega-3 to the essential long chain form, but has a limited capacity. So for good health, you need to regularly include long-chain sources in your diet.
Your brain is 60% fat—so being called a fathead is OK—but 25% of that fat is long chain omega-3. So you can see that if your diet is deficient in omega-3 fats, especially long chain omega-3 fats, your risk of dementia and such brain deficiencies is much higher.
Per the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we try to eat two servings of long chain omega-3 fats each week. We eat lots of greens and nuts and include flaxseed in our breakfast compote, but these only provide the short chain form. For the long chain, we try to eat two servings of fish, perhaps salmon at dinner and tuna at lunch. Shrimp salad is another favorite. If you’re married to a trout fisherman, think of him as an omega-3 source. We also buy high omega-3 eggs (flaxseed or algae is typically added to their diet but free-range is best).
Here’s a simple rule: The more green plant life in the diet and the colder the habitat of the animal or fish, the higher the omega-3 content.
Please comment: How do you include the long chain omega-3 fats in your diet? Have a recipe to share? Later we’ll post the recipe for Skip’s Poached Salmon.