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Omega 3 and DHA: If You Understand the Science You Won't Buy the Supplement

Simplifying complicated nutritional biochemistry leads us to making wrong choices for our health

Dr Padma Garvey/Plant-Based Doctor Mom

Omega 3 and DHA:  If You Understand the Science You Won’t Buy the Supplement

One of the biggest pitfalls with modern medicine is our desire to single out that ‘ONE’ special chemical hoping for the panacea for health, smarter babies, and happier lives.  Pharmaceutical companies and vitamin manufacturers want us to believe that such a thing exists and that we should buy lots of it.  Fortunately, the human body is very complex.  In each and every cell in our body, innumerable, interconnected, complex, chemical reactions are occurring every second.  That is why, though  many studies have tried to definitively show that taking an omega 3 or DHA supplement significantly affects health, the overall consensus is that such findings are lacking.  Now this is not to say that we don’t have evidence that omega 3 fatty acids and DHA are good for us.  Quite the contrary, when we look at the eating patterns of large groups of people, like whole countries, over long stretches of time, like centuries, we do see that certain diets tend to be healthier than others.  Diets that are largely plant-based, whole grain, unprocessed, low in fat tend to be healthier than the typical Western diet.  It is believed that part of this lies in an inherent healthy balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids found in such diets. 

The biochemistry of omega fatty acids, like omega 3, omega 6, and DHA is complicated.   Humans cannot make omega fatty acids.  Humans need to eat them.  Omega 3 fatty acids help keep our blood flowing so they seem to help in preventing strokes, heart attacks, etc.  Omega 6 fatty acids help rev up our immune system by promoting inflammation.  Too much inflammation is bad, but a little bit is absolutely necessary.  Too much inflammation causes heart attacks.  So too much omega 6 in our diets and not enough omega 3 sets us up for poor heart health.  Keep in mind, that for both omega 3 and omega 6, we are talking about extremely small amounts.  You don’t need massive amounts of either of them in your diet.  An ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is probably 4:1 or 6:1.  The typical Western diet has a ratio of 20:1 to 30:1.  Where does all that excess omega 6 come from in the typical Western diet?  Mostly from the oils that are used in processed foods.  So if you simply eliminated processed foods and made your food from scratch you would go a long way towards heart health. 

While fish is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, eating it or consuming fish oil supplements is extremely detrimental to the environment.  There are excellent plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids.  Interestingly, traditional cuisines tend to utilize many of them.  Olives, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, tofu, black mustard seeds, greens, and seaweed are just a few examples of plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids.  Keep in mind also that you do NOT need massive amounts of these items.  In fact, if you stuck to a whole grain, low oil, unprocessed, plant-based diet then your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio would be close to 1:1, which is super. 

DHA is a byproduct of omega 3.  It is being recommended as a supplement for pregnant women because of a few studies suggesting DHA helps with brain development.  Our bodies take the omega 3 and push it through a chemical reaction in our cells and change it to DHA.  DHA is necessary for building healthy cell membranes, including the membranes of developing brains.  Our bodies have the ability to convert omega 3 to DHA.  Various companies and organizations have postulated that we cannot make enough DHA to meet our needs and therefore we need a supplement or an animal-based diet.  But studies looking at the DHA in cell membranes of vegans versus nonvegans found no difference in cell membrane structure. 

Think of the chemical reaction in our cells that changes omega 3 to DHA like a turnstile separating two rooms.  In one room, you have boys and girls.  The other room is empty.  If you have 99 boys in the room and 1 girl, then the odds are that a boy will go through the turnstile into the empty room.  If you have 50 boys and 50 girls in the room, the odds of a girl going through the turnstile  is much higher.  Similarly, if our diets have too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3, then the chances of omega 3 being converted to DHA goes down.  But if our diets have equal amounts of omega 6 and omega 3, then the chances of omega 3 being converted to DHA goes up. 

At the end of the day, we need to resist the urge to simplify humans into one single chemical reaction.  It is the lifestyle that is key.  Don’t overthink it.  Stick to a varied, low oil, unprocessed, plant-based diet and your body will know exactly what to do.


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