The worst food mistake of the last century?  

 Food mistakes?  We’ve made a few.  You could write a book about them.  Here’s the quick answer on fat:  The removal of omega-3 fats to improve the shelf life of processed foods may be our worst dietary mistake.   (A primer on fats is available at the bottom of this post.)


Fats are fascinating molecules essential to life.  The industrialization of food, unfortunately, resulted in some big fat mistakes.  This post provides the last of four Healthy Changes meant to improve the fats we eat.  The prior changes:

•  Healthy Change #2:  Never buy deep fat fried foods (avoids trans fats and oxidized oils).

•  Healthy Change #11:  Enjoy traditional fats like butter and olive oil (in moderation).  

•  Healthy Change #16:  Minimize consumption of refined seed oils (reduces omega-6 fat intake). 

The purpose of this post is to restore omega-3 fats to their traditional place in our dietary.  To appreciate the vital role of omega-3 fats in our health, here are five important lessons learned in recent decades, with credit given to the pioneers who discovered them:

Lesson #1:  Two Danish scientists, Hans O. Bang and Jorn Dyerberg, studied how to prevent heart disease.  In the ‘70s they decided to investigate Greenland Eskimos because they contradicted the conventional wisdom:  Eskimos lived on a high-fat diet with lots of blubber, yet were free of heart disease.  The scientists discovered that Eskimos (who ate more omega-3 fats) had healthy hearts while Danes (who ate more omega-6 fats, especially processed foods) had heart disease.  This was revolutionary because people were wrongly being advised to replace animal fats with vegetable oils, which added to the omega-6 excess.  Bang and Dyerberg’s contribution:  Omega-3 (especially the form called EPA) protects against heart disease.  (Note: fats are known by the acronym for the number of carbons, expressed in Greek, thus EPA and DHA, etc.)

Lesson #2:  Ralph Holman, a U.S. scientist sponsored by Hormel, the maker of Spam, of all things, made the next contribution.  Holman tested the blood fat profile of people around the world and made the critical discovery that omega-3 and omega-6 fats were competitive in the body.  Holman’s contribution: If you eat an excess of omega-6 fats—a common problem in the Western diet—the omega-3 fats, even if you get enough, will be pushed aside.  Eating both omega-3 and omega-6 is essential, but balance is critical.

Lesson #3:  Dr. Michael Crawford, an English physician who studied animals in Africa, was fascinated that though body fat of animals varied with diet (not unlike humans), the fat profile in brains was remarkable constant and rich in the DHA omega-3 fat.  Crawford’s main contribution:  Omega-3 DHA is critical to cells involved in data processing—the brain, nerves, and eyes.

Lesson #4:  Dr. William Lands studied the role of chronic inflammation—the immune system’s excessive response to unhealthy modern life—in the rise of chronic diseases like arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and certain autoimmune diseases.  His work led to an understanding of how inflammation is driven by omega-6 and calmed by omega-3.  Lands discovery:  The high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat in the modern diet can cause the inflammation that leads to chronic disease.

Lesson #5: Dr. Artemis Simopoulos studied the fat profile of cultivated and wild greens and how a diet of these greens affected the fat profile of animals.  Eggs from chickens whose diet included wild greens, for example, have ten-fold more omega-3 DHA than the eggs of chickens fed a typical grain diet.  Lesson:  Animal food products (eggs, dairy, meat) will only have a healthy fat profile if the animal is fed a healthy diet (that includes greens).  This is also true for humans, by the way.

Sources of omega-3 fats are shown in the picture above.  The modern deficiency of omega-3 is a little crazy:  Because the ALA form of omega-3 is found in plants, omega-3s are the most common fat on the planet.  So we have a classic contradiction:  the modern diet is most deficient in what Nature has most generously provided.  We can get our ALA by eating green plants like spinach, and foods like walnuts and flaxseed.  (Try to eat a daily salad; the breakfast compote includes ground flaxseed, which can be added to many dishes.)

The body can convert ALA to the higher forms, EPA and DHA, but at a limited rate.  So our diet should also include EPA and DHA, available from animal sources such as cold-water fish (or shrimp) and eggs from chickens (whose diet includes greens, flaxseed, or algae).  In our home, we try to eat fish twice per week and buy eggs from well-fed chickens.  If salmon or shrimp is too expensive, try sardines (which also have less mercury). 

Fats have been vilified and villainized in the past but actually are essential to life.  Please share your thoughts on fats in your diet, or comment on ways to reduce omega-6 and increase omega-3.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (14)

I've always loved eating fat. :) I use it sparingly where I can, but I don't skimp on flavor. Our main fats are plain old butter or olive oil, and a little canola oil for frying or for baking.

I'm trying to include more fish in our diet. How big is a serving of fish? It's so darn expensive for the fresh stuff. Are some types of fish better than others for obtaining omega-3's?

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Sacha, thanks for your note. Fish from cold waters must have higher levels of omega-3 (which has a low freezing point) to remain flexible. We think of these as "oily" fish, salmon, mackarel, etc. Trout is good also. We usually consider 3-4 oz. a serving for fish. Best, Skip

May 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I didn't realize how complicated it is to find healthy meats and eggs (ones fed on wild greens). It almost makes me want to become a vegetarian. It almost feels impossible to make it happen especially when the grass-fed kind are really expensive. I suppose the answer is to follow what the word of wisdom says and truly just eat meat sparingly so the cost evens out. I really appreciate all of this information. I read your blog religiously and we are eating much better as a result. This is stuff that makes sense and doesn't seem like a fanatical diet or health craze. Thanks you!

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMcKenzie

McKenzie, you outlined the value approach to good nutrition exactly. Eat less meat and meat products, but eat better quality (pasture-fed, etc.). Reduce intake of processed foods which are expensive by the pound (as noted in the last post, chips run $3 to $6 per pound). Eat more value foods like legumes, whole grains, and produce in season (all around $1/lb or so). If you use a weekly menu and shopping list, you take control rather than being controlled. Best to you.

May 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

It's also important to mention that omega-3's have been proven to have a profoundly anti-depressant effect. People who suffer from depression would do well to increase their consumption.

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thank-you. This has got to be one of the most succinct and readable descriptions of omega-3 fats I have ever read - and I read a lot of literature on healthy foods. I came via inchmark via stephmodo btw.

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersuiling

Suiling, thank you for your kind comment. Correcting the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 in our diet is a critical health issue in the US.

Amy, thanks for mentioning the anti-depressant effects of omega-3 fats. It is disappointing how often people are prescribed drugs without first addressing their diet.

May 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Brilliant. I always find that I am more satisfied when I have some good fat in my meals. I'm also stay full longer.

Natural is definitely better. When I started taking Omega 3 supplements I had weird dreams and I felt like it upset my stomach so I stopped taking it. As another comment stated I too am considering dropping all meat from my diet and being a vegetarian. I've already quit eating red meats and pork. I pretty much eat chicken and some fish. Thanks for the information.

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCherilyn

i think i saw your family in a really popular magazine today! how neat :)

May 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Emily, you're very alert. If you Google Skip's Homemade Apple Sauce, they also posted the recipe. I can't take credit, applesauce has been around forever, but I do enjoy making it. Now store-bought doesn' taste good. Skip

May 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I just did the google search. Yummy applesauce! And now I want to go pick up a copy of Martha Stewart Living. How fun!

May 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKiasa

Amen to the anti depressant effects of Omega 3! I have said it before on this site, but I live far up north where the sun is scarce for several months of the year, so I supplement with fish oil capsules to get the vitamin D I need. One year I ran out of fish oil capsules at the end of May, but since funds were low, I figured I could get enough vitamin D anyways during the summer (after all, I spent at least two hours a day outside in the sun). By the end of the summer I was not just feeling a bit blue, I was really stressed out and depressed. When autumn arrived, I bought a new bottle of fish oil capsules, and within weeks I felt as if a weight had lifted from me, I felt that I could breathe again, I was less stressed (even though there was a lot to stress me out as I had decided to quit my job, move country and start an uncertain career as a freelancer), and most of all, I felt alive again! The thing is, I only use olive oil when cooking (and occationally margarine when baking cakes as I am lactose intolerant), I eat fish, I eat nuts, I eat seeds, I eat leafy greens when they are in season, so I should get plenty of Omega 3 through my diet (and not really that much Omega 6). Maybe my body can't process the ALA sufficiently, maybe there is a chemical imbalance in my body that causes a tendency to depression due to lack of Omega 3, I don't know. But what I do know is, that Omega 3 increases my mental and physical wellbeing noticeably.

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

You mentioned avoiding "oxidized oils" from deep fried foods. Could you expound a little on that? I've done a cursory internet search for the implications of oxidized oils (specifically olive oil) but haven't been able to really find anything. I fear I am about to lose a debate with my mother over deep frying things in olive oil. Thank you for the blog, it is helping me to make changes at a reasonable and sustainable pace!

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJena

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