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Why You Need Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Your Diet

"Dr. Hyman, I've heard so much contradictory information about omega 3 fats," writes this week's house call. "Some studies show they help everything while others argue they don't do much of anything. What's the real story here?"

As I often say, food is information, not just calories. Food influences gene function, hormones, your immune system and even your gut flora. Literally, food controls every function within your body.

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This is especially true with the omega-3 fatty acids found in foods like wild fish, flaxseeds and walnuts.

These fatty acids play critical roles in cognitive development and learning, visual development, immune strength, fighting inflammation, pregnancy, brain health and preventing Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, cancer, mental illness and so much more. They affect every one of your hundred trillion cell membranes.

In fact, a recent and the most comprehensive review on omega 3 fats looked at 19 studies from 16 countries (including 45,637 participants) and found that those with the highest levels of omega 3 fats in their blood had lower risks of heart attacks.

Makes sense how not getting sufficient amounts of these crucial fatty acids can profoundly affect your health.

Do Omega 6 Fats Make Us Depressed and Violent?

At a nutrition conference once, I heard Dr. Joseph Hibbeln, the scientist in nutritional neurosciences at the National Institutes of Health, present some startling data about how omega 3 fats impact mental health.

Dr. Hibbeln said soy oils and seed oils contain high amounts of inflammatory linoleic acid that create inflammation and disease.

He noted 80 percent of the fats that Americans eat are inflammatory omega 6 fats, while just 20 percent come from the anti-inflammatory omega 3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). (For the record, I would suggest that even less than 20 percent comes from EPA).

In Japan, that number is reversed: 80 percent of their fats come from EPA, while only 20 percent are inflammatory omega 6 fats.

Over the last century in the U.S., we have witnessed a 1,000-fold increase in soy oil consumption. About 10 to 20 percent of our calories come from soybean oil rather than omega 3 fats and other, healthier fats we should be consuming.

The omega 6 fats aren't the ones our ancestors ate. Human evolution occurred in an environment where seafood and wild animal fat was the predominant source of dietary fat.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate no seed oils. Obviously, they weren't eating French fries, donuts and the zillion Frankenfoods products that contain these oils. These refined oils create and exacerbate inflammation, which contributes to nearly every disease and makes us fat.

Beyond that, the repercussions are dramatic and far-reaching. Disturbing recent research shows homicide in the United Kingdom increased dramatically with increased consumption of linoleic acid-rich soybean oil.

The same thing happened in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Argentina. Interestingly, homicide mortality rates become inversely related to seafood consumption, meaning societies who eat more seafood have lower homicide rates.

Equally dramatic, one study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry gave one prison group recommended daily amounts of vitamins, minerals and omega 3 fats, while the other group maintained their regular diet and lifestyle. Researchers found reduced felony level violent offenses among prisoners who took omega 3 supplements.

In fact, providing vitamin and fish oil supplements reduced felony-related violent crime among the prisoners by 37 percent.

The Cure for Depression, ADD and Dementia—Is it More Fat?

More fat to cure brain maladies makes sense when you consider omega 3 fats affect how we think and behave. Research even shows omega 3s help treat depression, including postpartum depression.

The omega 3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a critical part of mother's milk, helps the fetus's neurologic development. Studies show women who have higher levels of omega 3 fats, specifically DHA, have lower rates of postpartum depression.

Omega 3 deficiencies also affect our children. Young kids with dyslexia, dyspraxia (difficulty writing), learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder (ADD) are often omega 3 deficient.

The neurotransmitter dopamine, critical for brain function in children, becomes higher when these children consume essential fatty acids. Controlled studies show fish oil improves reading, spelling and conduct because the nervous system depends on these fats to function.

I could go on, but I hope you can understand evidence overwhelmingly supports that omega3 fats are critical to improve mood, mental functioning, metabolism and so much more.

If you're curious to learn more, please check out my book Eat Fat, Get Thin, in which I show you how to effortlessly incorporate more omega 3s and other healthy fats to lose weight and get healthy.

Thankfully, emerging research proves how vital healthy fats are. The outdated "eating fat makes you fat" paradigm has shifted to a new, more accurate understanding of dietary fat as evidence shows some fats are essential for optimal health.

Yet we're not quite there yet. Unfortunately, about 90 percent of Americans are deficient in omega 3s. We're eating too many omega 6s and not enough omega 3s. That imbalance of omega 3 fats to omega 6 fats predicts your risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Neurological problems
  • Dementia
  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Depression
  • Skin problems
  • Arthritis
  • Autoimmune disease

Chronic disease will only increase as we move further away from the diet of our ancestors, which consisted of omega 3 rich protein (wild, grass-fed animals and wild fish), a healthy ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats and mostly plant foods.

We've gone way off course with the way our ancestors ate. Big food companies have hijacked our taste buds and our biology.

Yet there's hope. Science shows when you eat the right kinds of fat, you get thin, decrease inflammation and reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes and many of the other chronic diseases that plague us. You can take control of your health and destiny, starting with your very next meal!

To do that, check out my Eat Fat, Get Thin Challenge, a revolutionary science-based eating program that focuses on healthy fats to reset hormones, take back your biochemistry, effortlessly allow you to end your cravings, lose weight and reverse disease.

For now, let's establish some key facts about fats:

1. Sugar, not fat, makes you fat. Sugar spikes insulin—the fat fertilizer hormone laying the foundation for belly fat. Sugar also slows your metabolism and is addictive and makes you hungry (all the time!). Fat actually speeds up metabolism, cuts hunger and increases fat burning. Boy, did we get this wrong during the low-fat diet era!

2. Dietary fat is very complex. We have saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. And we have subcategories within each group. Some fats are good and yes, some are bad. Remember that quality matters; that food is information. To learn more, check out Eat Fat, Get Thin.

3. Low-fat diets claim to be heart-healthy but aren't. Low-fat diets typically tend to be higher in sugar. Eating less fat and more sugar and refined carbs floods our system with insulin, creating inflammation, heart disease and many other problems. When you consume lots of sugar and refined carbs, your body produces dangerous, artery-clogging small, dense LDL cholesterol particles; drops your protective HDL and increases harmful triglycerides. That's a bad combo just begging to bring on a heart.

4. Saturated fat is not a "bad" fat. A review of all the research on saturated fat published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. I am not advising eating sticks of butter every day; however, saturated fat is not the boogeyman we once thought. The problem arises when we eat them with sugar and starch (sugar, flour, white rice and potatoes), because then they are deadly. Basically, think no sweet fat.

5. Some fats are unhealthy. Trans fats and inflammatory vegetable oils are bad fats that cause free radical damage and create a perfect storm for inflammation. Most restaurants cook with toxic oils because they're cheap and marketed as heart-healthy, low-cholesterol fats.

6. We all need more omega 3 fats. Most Americans are deficient in these health-crucial fats. The best ways to include them in your diet are to include wild or sustainably raised cold-water fish and pastured or omega 3 eggs and taking a quality, toxin-free omega 3 rich fish oil supplement.

7. Eating fat makes you lean. The right fats can nourish your cells to better utilize insulin. Healthy fats also help to stop your cravings, curb your hunger and reset your hormones to help your body burn fat more efficiently.

8. Your brain is made up of mostly fat. About 60 percent of your brain is fat, mostly as DHA, which your cells need to communicate. Quality omega-3 fats improve cognition, memory and mood. Research shows omega 3 deficiencies increase depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's and bipolar disorder.

To get and stay healthy, eat quality fat at every meal. The right fats improve your skin, hair, nails and mood. They protect against type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer and inflammation.

Some of my favorite top-quality fats include:

  • Seeds: pumpkin, sesame and chia, flax and hemp—all of which contain omega 3 fats
  • Fatty fish, including sardines, mackerel, herring and wild salmon that are rich in omega 3 fats
  • Avocados
  • Nuts: walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia; but not peanuts (One study showed a handful of nuts a day reduced death from all causes by 20 percent)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Grass-fed or sustainably raised animal products (which have more omega 3 fats than feedlot beef)
  • Extra-virgin coconut butter, which is a great plant-based source of saturated fat that fuels your mitochondria, is anti-inflammatory and helps optimize cholesterol.

Simply put, a quality fat, whole-food diet that is lower in refined carbohydrates, low-glycemic and high in fiber is the best medicine to keep you lean and healthy.

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