The Omega Conspiracy

Omega 3 fat is good for you. You must already know this, it is everywhere. If you have not noticed fish-oil tablets in your local pharmacy,  or expeller extracted flax-seed oil in your organic hippy shop, then you must be some kind of hermit.

One of the most peculiar things about the whole Omega 3 health craze is - that it appears to be based on evidence? This must make it the only health craze in the huge history of mankinds obessession with weird herbs and crazy ideas, that may actually work.

So what I mean by evidence is this. The Lyons Heart Study set about to test the idea of the Mediterranean diet to see if it was effective against Heart disease. In a country reknown for its famous paradox*, they still found enough people for their study, who had just had a heart attack and were willing to give some crazy Italian-sounding diet a go.

This is known as a secondary prevention study, a good way to study heart-disease, because you are beginning with people who are most susceptible and probably most motivated. Some participants were  given instructions to follow a 'Meditteranean' diet, which included lots of Fish, olive oil and a free tub of canola based margarine. Being French, I am not sure if the tub of margarine is still  sitting unused in the back of their fridges, yet nethertheless, these Frenchies did mostly what they were asked to do, ate more fish and olive oil on their salad.
Those who were chosen to be controls, were given advice to follow a prudent diet, generally low in fats, high in complex carbohydrates and a little bit of vegetable oil.

The results of the experiment were absolutely stunning, the Mediterranean diet really worked. (Or what they called a Mediterranean diet). See Stephan Guyenet's take on this for a good overview

So why did this diet work absolute miracles with preventing Heart disease?

Was it because the diet was lower in saturated fat?

If we believe that saturated fat elevates cholesterol levels, then the fact that the experimental dieters and control group had on average the same cholesterol levels throughout the course of the program, casts huge doubts on this theory.

The Lyons Heart Study is considered the prima facie evidence that consuming more Omega 3 fats is protective against heart disease. It is almost impossible to find anyone wearing a white-suit, or even a crazy-blogger with a huge chip on his shoulder and a pendant for huge conspiarcy theories to disagree.

So - if no-one is challenging the findings of this study, or the value of Omega 3 in the diet, then why is the title of this page called "The Omega Conspiracy"

To answer that, firstly you must recognise that the word 'conspiracy' gets attention, and if you have read this far, then you are probably expecting a twist.

There is obviously more to the story than what the health-industry are telling us, and part of it I have already alluded to.

The 'Mediterranean diet' the participants consumed had no effect on cholesterol levels despite, consuming 29% less saturated fat and 32% less cholesterol. So already we have a very uncomfortable fact for the traditional diet-heart theory. If reducing saturated fat intake does not affect your blood cholesterol levels, then surely the big cholesterol/saturated fat/heart-disease theory is blown out of the water. Nethertheless, this fact from the Lyons Heart Study is rarely raised when quoting the results of the Lyons Heart Study.

But apart from providing an alibi to the most maligned nutrient in Western Food Culture, the Lyons Heart Study has also brought us a new possible villain.

Apart from the participants increasing their Omega 3 intake, they also reduced their Omega 6 intake.

For the last two decades, a new health paradigm has been gaining momentum on the fringe of Health research, and many may have heard of it. It is the Omega3/Omega6 ratio. Omega 6 is the other more common polyunsaturated fat, common to most vegetable oils. According to proponents of the O6/O3 ratio theory, optimal health is achieved not so much by increasing Omega 3 intake, but by keeping your Omega 3 and Omega 6 intake in proportions somewhere between 10:1 and 2:1. Most articles quote a ratio of 4:1 as being probably the best target. Some 'experts' talk about an upper limit on Omega 6 intake, yet in all this, there is a common theme that too many people are consuming way too much Omega 6.

It is hard to know where this all began, it is possible that the infamous diet-heart skeptic, and hero/living saint of the new lipid movement - Dr Mary Enig, may have played some role in starting the theory.
However, the mantle has been passed to a new generation of more unconventional academics like  Stephan Guyenet and Chris Masterjohn, who have been villifying Omega 6 for several years now. The Australian cholesterol Skeptic a href="">Anthony Colpo , has also been on the forefront in promoting the Ratio Theory.

While the Ratio Theory has been around for a while now, there are some recent developments that have perhaps made this writer feel like this bandwagon is certainly going somewhere.
The problem with the Ratio Theory up till recently, was that some clinical studies that seemed to contradict this. It appeared that Omega 6 had an alibi on the night that Western culture had a heart attack. Supporting the Ratio Theory were  "The Sydney Diet Study" in the 1970s and an infamous corn oil study in the sixties which demonstrated replacing Saturated Fat with high Omega 6 vegetable oils increased risk of heart disease. Howerver there were two other studies, one from Finland and another from Oslo that found the opposite. For years, the old-guard were burying the First two studies, and letting us all know about the latter ones.
This was their proof that Saturated Fat was the killer, convicted and charged. Unfortunately the new Lipid movement were not going to get away with such tactics, as those who challenge conventional wisdom need more artillery than those who have dug in and claimed the high-ground of respectability.

The breakthrough came recenly, a counter-offensive attack lead by The Heart Foundation and Unilever, saw the old saturated fat villain retried, hanged and quartered again by the self-appointed Kangaroo court committee. In Britain, the offensive was like a Nazi blitz, with shots of blood and guts and heart patients confessing their sins on national television. Here in Australia, a doctor tried to frighten every parent about the saturated fat content of butter that they were feeding to their children. Their driving science was a meta-analysis of historical clincal studies that claimed that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduced heart disease. The problems with the meta-analysis were immense, making no attempt to explain the anomalous results of the Sydney Diet Heart Study, or no attempt to analyze the polyunsaturated fat involved in the studies they included. Yet, despite these flaws, this was the grand new weapon against the Cholesterol Skeptics and Ratio proponents who had been winning converts through the medium of the Internet.

Enter the new Messiah for the Ratio Movement: a ground-breaking piece of historical detective work that analyzed the old clinical trials. Christopher E. Ramsdena1, Joseph R. Hibbelna1, Sharon F. Majchrzaka1 and John M. Davisa  actually tracked down the dietary notes for the studies that were conducted almost 50 years ago. Their discoveries of what was ommitted in publication were astounding. We have since learnt that the successful studies that intevened in diet did in fact involve fish oil supplementation as well as reductions in high-trans-fat margarines. The final pillars of evidence to convict saturated fat and promote all polyunsaturated oil as equal crumbled, as its lead witnesses were found to have perjured (or at least exclude vital clues).

A good discussion of the meta-analysis can be found here

So The Ratio movement and Cholesterol Skeptic alliance are claiming victory on the scientific front, even if exchanges in the propoganda war do continue.

For the confused consumer, the message is as follows

Consume far less high Omega 6/ Low Omega 3 oils:

Sunflower Oil
Safflower Oil
Corn Oil
Grape-seed oil
Peanut Oil

Consume moderately oils/fats/foods with moderate levels of Omega 6

Olive Oil
Palm Oil
Nuts (except walnuts)
Grain fed pork/chicken

Consume with caution (in small amounts) oils high in both Omega 3 ALA** and Omega 6

Canola oil
Soybean Oil
Hemp Oil
Walnut Oil

Seek out sources of Omega 3 DHA

Free-range Eggs
Lambs Brains
Algae Oil?

Use oils/foods high in Saturated and or Monounsaturated fat for cooking/eating

Lamb/Beef Tallow
Full-fat dairy
Macadamia Oil
Grass-fed red meats

So, it comes as no surprise then that the traditional foods of most healthy cultures have been diets that had healthy Omega3/Omega6 ratios.
High polyunsaturated vegetable oils have only been around for the last century. While some of these oils are high in Omega 3, we need to be cautious still. **The two main forms of Omega 3 that our body requires are: Omega 3 DHA and Omega 3 EPA. Apart from Algae oil, most vegetable oils can only provide a precusor form - Omega 3 ALA. Studies seem to show that we can convert some Omega 3 ALA into Omega 3 EPA, however the ability to convert Omega 3 ALA into DHA appears extremely poor in many people. Some studies have also reported that Omega 3 uptake is way more efficient when consumed with saturated fats as opposed to high levels of Omega 6.

In consuming vegetable oils like flaxseed oil, canola oil etc that are high in Omega3 ALA, we may well be providing
ourselves one component, but not the other. This may seem trivial, but the problem lies in overconsumption of polyunsaturated fats in general. One of the reasons that Omega 6 may be harmful is that it competes with other polyunsaturated fats for intake. Our bodies have a limited ability to absorb polyunsaturated fat for non-energy uses,  yet they all come in though the same door without any discernment from our enzyme system. So it could even be possible that  consuming high levels of Omega 3 ALA is making us deficient in Omega 3 DHA which we still require from diet.

A diet low in polyunsaturated oils is then our best guarantee that we get a fair balance of all our essential unsaturated fats. A strange case of less being more!

* - French paradox is the observation that despite huge consumptions of saturated fat, the French generally avoid Heart disease.

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