Part I of our review: Gripping scientific detective story explains omega-3s’ long-overlooked essentialness to health and offers practical prescriptions for America’s dietary deficiencies
by Craig Weatherby
An essential new book about omega-3s is also a riveting scientific detective story that involves Spam, Eskimos, a pair of cash-strapped, tent-dwelling Danes, and dogged persistence in the face of academic hubris and official indifference.
Last fall, the University of California Press published this groundbreaking new book, authored by noted science writer Susan Allport and titled The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them.
Even after years of reading about the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) that make seafood so healthful, we found the experience of reading The Queen of Fats an exciting and revelatory one.
And fortunately for public awareness, some high-profile media outlets found her book vital reading,too.
About Susan Allport
She is the author of two other highly praised books – The Primal Feast: Food, Sex, Foraging, and Love, and A Natural History of Parenting – and has appeared on Oprah & Friends Radio and NPR’s "Science Friday" and "The Splendid Table".
We’re sure you’ll find her contributions enlightening pleasures to read!
Bestelling author Mehmet Oz, M.D. of Columbia University interviewed Susan Allport on his "Oprah & Friends" XM radio show, and she was featured on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation / Science Friday as well (see "Resources" at end of article).
Our recent interview with Susan Allport resulted in an engaging, wide-ranging discussion that touched on every aspect of her book, and related nutrition and public policy topics of mutual interest.
We found her warm, witty, and modest about her obviously Herculean efforts to uncover the story of this complex subject.
We can’t fit everything we want to say about this landmark work in one newsletter, so we’ll continue the story in our next issue.
Move over, Rachel Carson
Susan Allport’s new work’s been called the “Silent Spring” of nutrition books: a description that to us seems no exaggeration. The author makes her key points in the book’s first chapter (clarifying insertions in brackets [ ]):
“…these fats have become rare, increasingly rare, in the diets of most Americans, which are short on leafy greens and long on seeds and the oil from seeds, including soybeans and corn.”
She goes on to say, “Scientists do not know all the ways that a deficiency in this family of fats can cause these diseases [i.e., dementia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes], far from it. But what they do know should make physicians and the government sit up and take notice before uttering another word of dietary advice.”
Allport—who is author of several other science-oriented books and a frequent contributor to The New York Times —also traces the changing theories of how the fats in our diet affect risk of heart disease, and profiles the intrepid researchers who uncovered the importance and role of omega-3s, including Vital Choice science advisor William E.M. Lands, Ph.D.
Ms. Allport’s book performs two essential services. First, The Queen of Fats offers the clearest guide to omega-3s and their health effects written to date.
It also tells, for the first time, the intriguing tale of how these woefully neglected nutrients finally drew the overdue interest of medical researchers and achieved a degree of public awareness: albeit a status still not commensurate with their critical importance to public health.
Amazingly, some of the earliest, most important clues to the importance of omega-3s came from an intrepid scientific investigator working for the makers of Spam.
And the role that Hormel Meats researcher Ralph Holman played in the remarkable history of omega-3s is just one of the many unexpected, suspenseful twists in Allport’s intriguing tale.
Critical role of omega-3s clarified
Ms. Allport’s engaging scientific page-turner illuminates the singular nature of omega-3s and shows how Americans can restore these essential nutrients to their diets and thereby redress the unhealthful excess of omega-6 fats in their cell membranes.
As she makes clear, human health depends very heavily on the kinds and proportions of fatty acids in these membranes.
Incredibly, the fact that this membrane mix—and the directions of basic metabolic and immune functions—depends on our diets went unrealized until Dr. Lands unlocked the secrets of key membrane functions over the course of the 1960’s and early 1970’s: an achievement that seems worthy of the Nobel Prize.
Along with DNA and enzymes, the body needs long-chain fatty acids to accomplish its most basic metabolic missions... and it gets them from its cells' membranes.
But the body doesn’t seem to care which kind of long-chain essential fatty acid (EFA)—omega-3 or omega-6—it uses to assemble the phospholipid layers of our cell membranes.
This is a problem if your diet is weighted too heavily towards omega-6 EFAs, because the body uses whatever EFAs it finds in cell membranes to make eicosanoids (ee-kos-uh-noyds)—the critically important messenger chemicals that Barry Sears, Ph.D. made famous in his diet bestseller The Zone—which exert pro- and anti-inflammatory influences.
If your cell membranes are overloaded with the omega-6 EFA known as arachidonic (uh-rack-ah-don-ik) acid, most of the eicosanoids the body makes will be those that yield powerful, persistent pro-inflammatory overreactions to various internal and external stimuli: a situation that promotes cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune conditions, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
As Allport told Vital Choices, “The average American’s intake of omega-3s is actually higher than their intake of arachidonic acid: the omega-6 EFA found in human cell membranes.”
“But their cell membranes remain too high in arachidonic acid because their diets are awash in linoleic acid: the omega-6 EFA that predominates in many common vegetable oils—and all partially hydrogenated oils used in packed foods—which the body converts to omega-6 arachidonic acid.”
EPA: the anti-inflammatory omega-3
One valuable aspect of The Queen of Fats is that Allport explains, more clearly than most who’ve tried, the moderating metabolic influence of the marine omega-3 known as EPA: one of the two omega-3s in fish oil and in human cell membranes.
We’ve often described EPA as “anti-inflammatory”, since it tends to have that effect in the body.
However, as Allport explains, EPA is actually the “substrate” (base) for making very mildly pro-inflammatory prostaglandins: eicosanoid-class messenger chemicals that are five times weaker than the more powerfully pro-inflammatory eicosanoids made from omega-6 arachidonic acid.
Thus, if our cell membranes contain adequate levels of EPA—instead of the EPA deficiency and extreme overabundance of omega-6 arachidonic acid typical of Americans’ cell membranes—the body will respond to minor infection or injury with an appropriately mild, fast-resolving inflammatory reaction, rather than the excessive, persistent, inflammation produced by the eicosanoids made from omega-6 arachidonic acid.
And, as we've said, the potent, runaway inflammation produced by omega-6-generated eicosanoids promotes artery clogs, blood clots, cancer growth, diabetes-fueling insulin resistance, and brain-damaging amyloid plaques.
DHA: governing the speed of thought and life
While it gives omega-3 EPA its disease preventive due, The Queen of Fats pays special attention to the utterly unique properties of DHA: the omega-3 whose singular characteristics underlie many key human capacities and explain this once-obscure chemical’s essentiality to mental acuity, among other things.
As Susan Allport explains in the chapter titled “The Speed of Life”, the fats we eat govern the speed at which animals—including humans—move, think, and live. And DHA is responsible for many of the capacities that make humans what they are.
It’s worth quoting here some key points she made in an interview on her publisher’s website (our italics for emphasis):
“I became intrigued with the role of omega-3s in healthy diets when I learned that the leaves of plants and the brains and eyes of animals, tissues that perform the fastest cellular activities (photosynthesis and nerve transmission), are full of this same family of fats.
“What makes omega-3s so special, I wanted to know, and why are they treated like dietary supplements when they are such important components of cell membranes?”
We’ll address the amazing biochemical properties that make omega-3 DHA indispensable in the next issue of Vital Choices.
Click here to hear Susan Allport on NPR's "Science Friday".
- Allport S. The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them. University of California Press, September 2006, Berkeley, California.
- University of California Press. Omega-3s and Your Health: An Interview with Susan Allport. http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10264/10264.interview.html