Omega-3 fatty acids are all around us. Yet few of us get enough of them.
Even those people who think that fats are bad make an exception for the omega-3s. These polyunsaturated fats are essential to our good heart health, something that everyone with diabetes needs to take seriously. The most important of the omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Although our bodies can't synthesize omega-3s, they can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA. But our bodies have a limited ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA.
And the omega-3s in our diet compete with the omega-6 fatty acids for space in cell membranes and for the attention of various enzymes. This means that too much omega-6 in our diet is just as much of a problem as too little omega-3. Most of us think of fish as the source of omega-3s. But fish get them from plants. Most of the omega-3s in our bodies ultimately come from green leaves. On the other hand, most of our omega-6s come from seeds. This means simply that this lack of balance ultimately boils down to overconsuming seed oils and underconsuming greens. We worsen this imbalance when we eat grain-fed animals.
"No one knows what the optimal ratio in the diet is for these two families of fats," writes Susan Allport in 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, 2006). But "humans evolved under conditions in which they were about equal."
Now, however, the current ratio in the United States is about 10 times the amount of omega-6s in our diet as omega-3s. We can trace a lot of this imbalance to the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in the cooking and salad oils that we use.
Even everybody's favorite, olive oil, has a ratio of 12 times the amount of omega-6 to omega-3, according to data from the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory that Allport cites in her book. Canola oil has a better ratio, 2:1 (twice as much omega-6 as omega-3), but that ratio is still way out of balance. Soybean is 7:1, butter is 9:1, corn oil is 46:1, sesame oil is 137:1, and cottonseed oil is 259:1.
But that's not the worst balance. This invidious distinction goes to safflower oil because it totally lacks omega-3s, giving it a ratio of infinity to 1.
If all those oils are mostly omega-6, then where can we find foods with a positive omega-3 to omega-6 ratio? It's actually easy when we look for them. They are abundant in the green leaves of plants, fish and fish oil supplements, omega-3 enriched eggs, flax, chia, wakame, and krill. We all know most of those sources, right? But krill? In fact, krill oil has been available since 2003, when a Canadian company, Neptune Technologies and Bioressources Inc., launched its patented extraction of Neptune Krill Oil (NKO) from Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean. But until I read the newsletter from Dr. Michael Eades, who wrote Protein Power and The Protein Power Lifeplan with his wife Dr. Mary Dan Eades, I had discounted the hyperbole of some other advocates, who -- unlike Dr. Eades -- make money from selling it.
Krill oil, like fish oil, contains both EPA and DHA omega-3s, Dr. Eades says. But they hook together differently. "In fish oil these omega-3 fatty acids are found in the triglyceride form, whereas in krill oil they are hooked up in a double chain phospholipid structure," he explains. "Attached to the EPA leg of the phospholipid is a molecule of astaxanthin, an extremely potent anti-oxidant. The phospholipid structure of the EPA and DHA in krill oil makes them much more absorbable and allows for a much easier entrance into the mitochondria and the cellular nucleus." Krill are at the bottom of the food chain, so they don't concentrate mercury the same way that fish do. The problem with krill oil is that it costs more than fish oil, Dr. Eades continues. "Virtually all krill oil is produced by Neptune Technologies and shipped to the various supplement manufacturers, so any krill oil you get will have come from the same place and be the same dosage. The only unknown is how long it has been sitting around in a warehouse somewhere, which is, of course, the same unknown with fish oil. At least with krill oil, thanks to the high anti-oxidant content, the shelf life is much longer."
Two major supplement manufacturers, Jarrow Formulas and Source Naturals, market Neptune's NKO under their label. I take two little Jarrow Formulas softgels daily that I buy from iHerb.com. These two softgels provide 1,000 mg of Neptune Krill Oil. While supplement companies sell krill oil, the proven need for us to boost our omega 3 to omega-6 ratio has passed into the mainstream. More than three years ago the Food and Drug Administration gave "qualified health claim" status to EPA and DHA. This U.S. government agency stated that "supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omegaâˆ’3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." So far, the peer reviewed studies of krill oil itself are skimpy. But two good studies are already available.
One is a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study reported just last year in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. This study, "Evaluation of the Effect of Neptune Krill Oil on Chronic Inflammation and Arthritic Symptoms," concluded that taking 300 mg of Neptune Krill Oil a day for 7-14 days "significantly inhibits inflammation and reduces arthritic symptoms." Another study in a 2004 issue of Alternative Medicine Review, "Evaluation of the Effects of Neptune Krill Oil on the Clinical Course of Hyperlipidemia," compared Neptune Krill Oil to a high EPA and DHA fish oil and to a placebo in a double-blind randomized trial. The study concluded that "a maintenance dose of 500 mg krill oil is significantly effective for long-term regulation of blood lipids." Now that I am using krill oil to boost my omega-3s, I continue to use chia seeds on my eggs, salads, yogurt, and other meals. But when my supplies run out, I will stop taking fish oil.
I've never had a problem with the taste of fish oil. Nor does it make me burp. But some people who have a fish oil burp problem may especially want to consider krill oil.
Also because fish oil -- like flax -- can quickly go rancid, it needs to stay in the refrigerator. But not krill oil, which will last for two years at room temperature. It seems a bit counterintuitive to me that we shouldn't refrigerate this Antarctic krill oil, but that's what I've read. And this might not be important for you, but it is for calorie-counters like me. Another plus for krill oil over fish oil is that it has fewer calories. Two capsules of Neptune Krill Oil have just 10 calories. But each tablespoonful of fish oil has 160 calories.
David Mendoza wrote another post on September 16, 2008 related to oils and diabetes. To read it, click here.
For a blog post about which foods are high in omega-3 acids and oils, click here.