Finding the Good in the Fats We Eat
by Nick Noloboff
Best-selling author Michael Pollan summed it up well: “You are what you eat eats.”
Even though humans are at the very top of the food chain, there’s no escaping the risks of this interconnected hierarchy. In fact, there’s a kind of natural justice in being vulnerable to the life led by your food. All the elements that were consumed by the animal you’re now eating—nutrients, chemicals, minerals, etc.—have made their way to you. So it’s worth repeating just how important it is to take care of our food sources, and to make wise choices about what we eat.
One overlooked chapter in the story of our food is the role of fat. On one hand, dietary fats have played a pretty ominous part in our recent history: Heart disease. High cholesterol. Metabolic syndrome. Saturated fats proliferate in many of the foods we eat, even now that their adverse health effects are known. On the other hand, a different kind of fat, essential omega-3 fats, quietly disappeared from our diets without anyone really knowing they were there to begin with.
The short of it is that we’re eating way too much meat and foods ﬁlled with seed oils, and not enough (or not the right) ﬁsh. This imbalance has less to do with conscious food choices than it does with changes to the agriculture, livestock and seafood industries over the past 50 years. But ﬁrst, let’s talk about the ﬁsh you’re not eating.
Go wild with ﬁsh
Until recently, nearly all the ﬁsh we ate was taken from the wild, where the smallest ﬁsh consume microalgae, nature’s original source of marine omega-3 fats. Larger ﬁsh eat those small ﬁsh, getting all the omega-3 fats of their prey. This process works its way up the food chain until it lands on your plate as a delicious ﬁllet of sockeye salmon. But increasingly, you have to seek out “wild-caught” ﬁsh. The alternative is farmed ﬁsh that are raised on ﬁshmeal which is devoid of omega-3s. Plus, wild-caught ﬁsh costs more. So people eat less wild ﬁsh, and get fewer essential omega-3 fats.
Before wild ﬁsh became pricey, meat became cheaper, as economies of scale turned pasture-raised cows into grain-fed cattle. Similar to farmed ﬁsh, these livestock get far fewer omega-3 fats than they would by eating their natural diet of grass, and much more of another essential fat, omega-6, which is found in the grain and corn diets of feedlot cattle. Add to this change in the fat composition of meats the proliferation of seed oils in just about everything else we eat—dressings, processed foods, cooking oils, you name it—and you wind up with an abundance of omega-6 and a dearth of omega-3. A big fat mess, so to speak.
It seems that the obvious answer is to eat more wild-caught ﬁsh, and greens, but that’s just half of the solution. It’s true that we all need to consume more omega-3s, but we also need to radically cut back on sources of omega-6 to balance our intake of essential fats. Here’s why: Omega-3 and omega-6 fats both reside in cell membranes where they perform a variety of functions that are vital to health. But space in cell membranes is limited, and with so much omega-6 in our bloodstreams, it has a much better chance than omega-3 of getting incorporated into cells simply because it’s more prevalent.
Supplement with Omega-3s
Until the 1970s, few people outside of Scandinavia recognized the health beneﬁts of omega-3 ﬁsh oil. Today, over 8,000 clinical studies have documented omega-3s’ effects on health, yet Americans remain woefully undernourished in these fats. At least 90 percent of Americans are deﬁcient, according to a 2015 report issued by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Committee.
Although we now know how important omega-3s are, we have a tougher and tougher time getting them into our diets. One sure way to get more is to supplement with a high-quality ﬁsh or algae oil. Both of these sources naturally contain the long-chain marine omega-3 fats that are essential for health. Supplementing also ensures a consistent daily intake, even when you eat a few healthy servings of wild-caught ﬁsh each week.
Nick Noloboff is a marketing writer for Nordic Naturals and Adjunct Instructor in the Humanities at Flagler College. He has studied psychology, writing and the humanities for over twenty years and combines these interests to educate individuals on trends and new research that support natural health and wellness.