Can You Use Food to Decrease Inflammation? A Look at Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Nutrition and Energy

In last week's post, we focused on energy production, and one of the points introduced was this:

  • Think about inflammation and healing. Your body works best when its repair system is functioning well, and excess inflammation can impair the healing process. Excess inflammation is associated with many adverse health outcomes including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Ways you can help:
    • Choose unsaturated fat over saturated fat (there is controversy about saturated fat currently but the scientific literature clearly supports that unsaturated fat has greater health benefit)
    • Choose quality carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, whole grains)
    • Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

I received several inquires about omega-3 fatty acids, so let's take a deeper look.

One way to improve your nutrition, and therefore your health, is to simply start thinking about food quality, and looking for ways to "upgrade" what you eat. When you eat something, seek foods that are rich in nutrients and health benefits. One factor relevant to food quality is the fat content, and whether there are enough "good fats" in there. Eating more omega-3 fatty acids, while potentially reducing commercial omega-6 fatty acids, can improve the overall quality of your nutrition.

Let's talk about Omega-3 and Omega-6

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is plentiful in oily fish and certain nuts and seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids include EPA, DHA, and alpha linolenic acid. EPA and DHA may be especially valuable for health. Omega-6 fatty acids, another type of polyunsaturated fats come primarily from seed oils like sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils. The general consensus is that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and omega-6 fatty acids may increase it. Therefore, increasing the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids can benefit your health, and of course increasing this ratio can be accomplished by increasing omega-3 consumption, reducing omega-6, or ideally doing both of these.

In human health, keeping the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 high has been shown to have a number of health benefits. A typical Western diet is both deficient in omega-3 and oversupplied with omega-6 fatty acids. It is estimated the average Western diet has a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of about 16 to 1, where optimal may be around 4 to 1 (a ratio that was associated with a 70% reduction in the death rate of heart patients).

What you can do

So, how do you improve your fatty acid intake?

Eat more of these:

  • Oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring (I've been eating sardines, my kids think I'm crazy)
  • Lean cuts of meat from grass-fed animals
  • Omega-3 enriched eggs
  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds or chia seeds
  • Supplement with fish oil or flax seed oil if needed (in general better to get nutrients from whole food instead of supplements when possible)

Eat less of these:

  • Vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids - soybean, corn, sunflower, and cottonseed oils
  • Processed meats (processed deli meats, sausage, salami, bacon, etc.)

This week

Thinking about the food lists above, do you get enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet? Where might you get more? Can you cut down on commercial oils (generally done by eating fewer highly-processed foods)?

Want a sardine sandwich spread recipe? It's really easy (but perhaps an acquired taste).


Dr. Topher Fox


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