Oils are not our enemy. Damaged oils, damaged by refining and heating, hurt our cardiovascular system. Good oils help our heart, veins, immune system, skin and mood.
Brain Food for the Heart
Fish contains important nutrients called omega 3 essential fatty acids that have beneficial effects for the brain.
In the last several years there have been multiple studies published demonstrating the value of fish oil when it came to the heart. This week there were actually three separate studies published in major medical journals supporting the benefit of consuming fish/fish oil for heart disease. In the first study published in the prestigious journal Circulation, 11,323 patients who had suffered a heart attack within the previous three months were all put on a preventative care plan and ate a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil and fish.
However, some patients also consumed an additional 1 gram (1,000 mg) of fish oil supplements per day. Those patients that consumed an additional fish oil supplement had a reduction in death of 41% from any cause after only three months of treatment. After 4 months of treatment, those patients treated with fish oil supplement also significantly reduced the risk of sudden cardiac death. At the end of the three and a half year study period, patients treated with fish oil supplements were 45 % less likely to die from a heart related cause.
In a second study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, researchers analyzed blood samples taken from 94 men who had died suddenly from heart disease and 184 healthy men matched for age and smoking. The results showed that the risk of sudden death decreased as the amount of omega 3 fatty acids in the blood rose. Those with the highest blood levels of omega 3 fatty acids were 81% less likely to experience sudden death regardless of their age, smoking habits or the amounts of other types of other fatty acids in their blood.
Finally, in another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who consumed at least five servings of fish a week lowered their risk of coronary heart disease by more than 1/3 and cut the risk of fatal heart attack by over 50% over a 16 year period. Researchers indicated there is "mounting evidence suggesting that there is an inverse association between fish intake and heart disease in both men and women." It is quite amazing that within a period of a few days three separate articles appeared in different major medical periodicals, all demonstrating the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids. I cannot remember the last time that three separate studies appeared almost simultaneously in three different medical journals demonstrating the efficacy of a particular pharmaceutical.
With this information, it would seem foolish not to increase your intake of these important types of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA). The type of fatty fish that is most beneficial is deep water salmon and mackerel. The big problem in America is that most salmon and fish purchased is farm raised. Studies indicate that farm raised salmon has much lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. The reason for this is the salmon that matures in the wild eat their native diet that includes algae. It is this algae that provides the omega-3 fatty acids to the salmon. Farm raised salmon are not fed a native diet that is high in omega-3 fatty acids and as a result have very low levels in their flesh. The studies are clear that supplementation with additional fish oil provides significant benefit beyond a "healthy diet".
Flaxseed contains lignans, a fiber and phytoestrogen with a chemical makeup similar to human estrogen. Lignans are also a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, that is converted by the body into omega-3 fatty acids - compounds that help regulate several key cardiovascular functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood vessel dilation and blood clotting. So the Oklahoma researchers set out to study the cardiovascular effects of flaxseed on 36 postmenopausal women.
Half of the group ingested 40 grams of ground flaxseed daily for 3 months. The other half received ground wheat instead of flaxseed for the same period. At the end of the research period, the flaxseed group showed an 8% reduction in the blood level of apolipoprotein B - a molecule that carries cholesterol and is regarded as a better marker for heart disease than cholesterol alone. Total cholesterol levels of the flaxseed group also fell,but both LDL and HDL levels fell - in effect canceling out any benefit in the cholesterol department. The group of women who received the ground wheat showed no changes in cholesterol or apolipoprotein B levels.
There is clearly something going on here, it's obviously something good for the heart, and the primary active ingredient is omega-3.
Omega 3 and 6
Omega-3 and omega-6 are two groups of essential fatty acids. And while we need both in our diet, most modern diets are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. Which is exactly the reverse of what the ratio should be.
An omega balance that favors omega-6 promotes inflammation and has a negative impact on the body's immune system. We ingest omega-6 mostly through the consumption of corn, safflower, sunflower, canola - all commonly used in food processing.
The primary source of omega-3 is fish, especially dark-meat fish like salmon, swordfish and tuna. If you want to avoid mercury, a high quality fish oil supplement is a good source as well. Interestingly, both omega-3 and omega-6 are present in beef. But if the source cattle of your beef have been fed grain, omega-6 will be the larger balance, and if the cattle have been fed grass, omega-3 will prevail. Unfortunately, most of the commercial beef (especially in grocery stores) comes from grain-fed cattle. Even grass-fed cattle are usually fattened with grain feed in the days just before slaughter.
Send in the Flax
And then there's flaxseed oil. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil both have a very high omega-3 content and an excellent balance of omega-3 to omega-6. A tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains approximately 8 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, but only 2.2 grams of omega-6. No other oil comes close to this beneficial balance. This is why flaxseed oil is sold in health food stores as a supplement - usually refrigerated in dark bottles to insure freshness and prevent oxidation. And while flaxseed oil can be used for cooking, the effectiveness of the omega-3 content is lost when the oil is heated.
Another way to get the omega-3 benefits of flaxseed is to crush the seeds and eat them raw. Like the oil, the flaxseeds have a nutty taste, but at least two sources I found indicated that eating the whole seeds is not as beneficial as taking a spoonful of the oil. One of the things that flaxseed oil does best is to transport vitamin A (a fat soluble vitamin) to cells throughout the body, giving a boost to the immune system. Ingesting the seeds won't have this same effect on vitamin A.
In a number of important studies that came before the modest efforts of the Oklahoma State University study, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve cell function in the lining of the heart and blood vessels, lower triglyceride levels, and inhibit platelet clumping. Furthermore, they may also be helpful in the prevention of diabetes, arthritis, hypertension and even cancer. Those are amazing benefits, considering they're all available from a single source.
Obviously the key to this particular oil issue is balance. So many of the processed foods we consume contain the culprit oils that deliver omega-6 that it's probably a very good idea to add some salmon, fresh tuna, a fish oil supplement, ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil to our diets to provide the much needed protection of omega-3 in the balancing act.
"Specific fats play a crucial role in protecting us from many serious diseases - from heart disease to cancer to manic-depressive illness. Certain fats have an impact on such everyday complaints such as dry skin, intestinal troubles and achy joints... It really isn't that complicated. Omega 3 oils offer a simple way to help you regain control of your life." (Felix and Rudin).