People really need to know their blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Equally important, they need to know their levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which occur in most people's diets to an unhealthful, pro-inflammatory excess.
A question we received from a dismayed user of our Vital Omega 3 and 6 HUFA Test™ highlights the barriers to achieving a healthful omega-3/omega-6 balance.
The standard American diet lacks omega-3s and is awash in competing omega-6 fatty acids … with dire implications for heart, brain, and overall health.
Know your food … using omega-balance scores
America's near-universal dietary imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats explains why we display an “Omega 3/6 Balance Score” on most of our product pages.
A food's Omega Balance Score reveals its estimated impact on the relative proportions of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in your cells.
And the “omega balance” of your overall diet directly determines the corresponding omega balance in your body, which affects basic health.
This scientifically sophisticated scoring system – which we've turned into a unique consumer-educational initiative – was developed by renowned fatty acid researcher William E. M. Lands, Ph.D. … a former University of Michigan professor and ongoing advisor to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
As Dr. Lands wrote, “Physicians, health insurers, and policymakers could revolutionize preventive health care, and reduce related costs and suffering, by monitoring Americans' proportions of omega-3 and omega-6 blood fatty acids, and encouraging dietary choices that improve that balance.”
Thankfully, his deep concern about the fat imbalance in American diets is being spread far and wide by leading nutrition-oriented physicians, including Drs. Mehmet Oz, Andrew Weil, Mark Hyman, William Sears, and Nicholas Perricone.
Knowledge is power: Know where you stand
People need to know where they stand, so they can work toward improving their omega balance.
That's why we turned to Dr. Lands to help us find the best possible blood test … and he sent us to Doug Bibus, Ph.D., who studied under Ralph Holman, Ph.D.
Dr. Homan was the pioneering scientist who discovered the structure of the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, gave them their “omega” names, and revealed the critical omega-3/omega-6 conflict (see “At Home with Omega-3 Pioneer Ralph Holman”).
Dr. Bibus is the scientists behind our innovative Vital Omega 3 and 6 HUFA Test™, which measures your body's critical balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and provides a comprehensive report explaining its results.
(The acronym HUFA stands for “highly unsaturated fatty acids” … which are the forms of omega-3 and omega-6 fats that our bodies use for critical functions.)
He recently shared with us a letter from a concerned user of the test.
We wanted to share it with our readers, because it reveals the challenge facing most Americans … especially those who avoid or limit seafood and take no fish oil to compensate for that lack.
A test user's dismaying results, explained
Here's what “Marie” wrote to Dr. Bibus, concerning the results of her Vital Omega 3 and 6 HUFA Test™:
Dear Dr. Bibus,
I eat a very healthy diet without any processed foods.
I get most of my food from the farmer's market, and it consists mostly of fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, and some grains such as quinoa.
I haven't been eating a lot of fish because of my environmental concerns of the sustainability of fish and have had a battle over the health benefits of eating the fish and the environmental effects of eating them.
[Editor's note: All vital Choice seafood is sustainably harvested and declared so by independent bodies. So in our case, Marie's concerns are unfounded. To learn more, see our Sustainability page.]
I took the test, to see how much it was affecting me. I wasn't surprised, then, to have my omega-3 levels be so low.
I was, though, SHOCKED that my omega-6 levels were high. I went through the list, and the most shocking was [omega-6] LA linoleic acid, which was quite a bit higher than the average American's.
[Editor's note: omega-6 LA is the dominant fatty acid in most vegetable oils by far … except olive, canola, macadamia, and hi-oleic sunflower oils. Regular sunflower oil is very high in omega-6 LA.]
I looked up the food items that contain linoleic acid, and I do not EVER eat any of the foods that contain the highest amounts of LA: sunflower, cottonseed, corn, etc.
While I do have oils that had a smaller amounts of LA: olive oil, coconut oil, and a handful of nuts each day, I cannot imagine this would equate to a greater amount than the average American.
I read every label before I buy something and rarely eat out. I am confused by these results.
And here is Dr. Bibus' reply:
Thanks for your note regarding your results from the Vital Omega 3 and 6 HUFA Test.
Actually, your blood values of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids look pretty typical of most Americans.
While you are generally eating healthfully, you are not getting appreciable amounts of long chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) in your diet … so your omega-6 intake dominates the essential fatty acid “scene” in your cells.
Despite your efforts to avoid vegetable oils high in omega-6 LA, you are still consuming much more omega-6 than omega-3 fat.
Most nuts are high in omega-6 fatty acids, so a handful a day will deliver quite a bit of omega-6 fat.
And in general, dairy and meats – especially pork and chicken – are relatively high in omega-6 fats, with virtually no omega-3s. Pigs and chicken are primarily raised on omega-6-rich corn.
Beef also has omega-6 because of its corn-rich diet, but it contains a bit less because cattle are rumens, which digest fat differently from monogastrics like pork and poultry.
(As far as beef goes, your best choice is grass-fed, because its omega balance is modestly better than standard grain-fed beef.)
Some plant foods (canola oil, flax oil, dark leafy greens) contain the short-chain omega-3 called ALA.
However, the short-chain omega-6s in your diet compete with this short-chain omega-3 for conversion into the long-chain fatty acids your body actually needs (EPA and DHA).
Thus, the short-chain omega-6s in your diet will limit the amounts of short-chain omega-3s that can get converted into essential long-chain omega-3s.
Seafood and fish oil supplements are the only source of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) so they are the critical factors for increasing our blood levels.
There are many safe and sustainable seafood options. I regularly consume salmon, sardines, tuna, or other fatty fish (three to six oz) twice a week.
You can assess your dietary omega-6 intake with Dr. Bill Lands' Omega Balance program – which can be found here, which also forms the basis of the Omega Balance Scores displayed on Vital Choice foods.
Dr. Lands analyzed all of the foods in the USDA food data base, and ranked them based on their impacts on the omega-3/omega-6 balances in our cell membranes.
One thing that is striking about his results is how widespread omega-6 fats have become in our food supply, because of the heavy use of omega-6-rich grains and vegetable oils in many packaged, prepared, and processed foods.
I hope that this information will help guide you in your food choices.
Doug Bibus, Ph.D.