Tuesday, January 30, 2007

An Important Difference: Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fats

Okay, since I’m sure most of you didn't read the Michael Pollan article I referenced yesterday (and I don't blame you… it's huge), I thought I'd dig in on one of the many issues he brought up: the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fats.

You already knew omega-3s were good for you (though I bet you don't know why), but did you know there were omega-6s? If so, do you know if they're good or bad for you? Well, like most things too much omega-6 is bad. How bad? According to Pollan, "too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3."

Here's why…

First of all, both omega-3s and omega-6s come from plants. (Yes, while we usually think of omega-3s as fish-based --and fish are a great source of omega-3 -- fish get the stuff from algae.) However, omega-3s (which are found in plant leaves) and 6s (found in plant seeds) play very different roles in plants. One promotes the fluidity of cell membranes, for example, the other makes cell walls rigid.

More generally…

Omega-3s, says Pollan, "appear to play an important role in neurological development and processing, the permeability of cell walls, the metabolism of glucose and the calming of inflammation… think of omega-3s as fleet and flexible."

"Omega-6s," on the other hand, "are involved in fat storage, the rigidity of cell walls, clotting and the inflammation response." In other words, think of omega-6s as "sturdy and slow."

The bad news is that America's intake of omega-3s has declined as the calories we get from plants have shifted from leaves to seeds (grains) over the years. This change has occurred because grains "can be stored for long periods" and "function as commodities," notes Pollan. Also, modern food processing practice favors omega-6s, which are more stable (last longer on the shelves before spoiling).

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.