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If there’s one area where the nutrition media seems to sing a different and more confusing tune every week, it’s with their messages about fats.
Low fat was good for us, now it’s not. Saturated fats may not be the heart-clogging poison we thought. And what exactly are trans fats? It’s enough to make us throw our hands in the air and reach for the nearest burger.
Fortunately, one message has been consistent: omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are extremely beneficial for your overall health.
The problem is, not all sources of omega-3 fatty acids are created equal.
In fact, in his recent post on multi-generational vegetarians, Christopher Clark explained how poorly the most common plant source of Omega-3s, called DHA, is converted to the form that we use, called EPA. It’s EPA which exerts the majority of the potent benefits of omega-3 fats.
But that’s only half of the story. While omega-3’s benefit our health, too much consumption of its counterpart, omega-6 EFAs, increases circulating levels of inflammatory arachidonic acid (AA) which can promote heart disease, cancer and most chronic diseases. 1
Unfortunately, our bodies can more readily convert omega-6 fatty acids to AA. Especially among some multi-generational vegetarians. That’s why, for optimal health, it’s not enough to just increase your variety of DHA and EPA-rich foods. You need to reduce your intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats as well.
Decrease Your Omega-6 Intake
The balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is critically important and unfortunately today’s modern diet is loaded with omega-6 fats. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of ancestral hunter-gatherer diets was approximately 2:1-3:1, whereas today’s ratio is around 10:1 to 20:1 (and higher among vegetarians). 2
Many people aren’t even aware they consume as much Omega-6 fatty acid as they do. It’s hidden in processed and convenience foods, used in most restaurants (even the expensive ones!) and in your favorite midday treat.
Vegetable and cooking oils are the most common sources. The following is a list of common omega-6 rich oils:
Oil - Omega-6 (%):Omega-3 (%)
Corn - 54:0%
Sesame - 42:0%
Peanut - 32:0%
Soybean - 51:7%
Canola - 20-9%
Fish Oil - 0:100%
For multi-generational vegetarians with the genetic variant described in Christopher Clark’s post, reducing these oils in the diet is a must.
But all of us will benefit from cutting out these pro-inflammatory oils in favor of Paleo-friendly fats like beef tallow and duck fat (best for high-heat cooking) as well as coconut, avocado, walnut, macadamia or extra-virgin olive oil (best for moderate-heat cooking).
Increase Omega-3 Intake (EPA/DHA)
Now that you’ve cleared your kitchen of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, it’s time to ramp up your dietary intake of the extra-long chain omega-3 fats; DHA and EPA.
A daily intake of just 1g of combined EPA and DHA can have many positive effects. If you’re overweight or struggling with poor health, increasing your intake of omega-3 fats can improve blood sugar and insulin control, help fight off low mood and depression, and protect you from coronary heart disease. 3,4,5
If you’re exercising regularly (or just getting active), the University of Florida found consuming DHA post-training was able to significantly reduce exercise induced pro-inflammatory markers IL-6 and CRP over a two-week period. 6 In the UK, researchers at Cardiff University found that EPA and DHA were able to reduce key proteins that trigger the disease progression in osteoarthritis. 7
Fish: A Great Source of EPA
Terrific sources of extra-long chain omega-3 fats include Atlantic mackerel (2.6g per 3.5 oz. serving), herring (1.8g), tuna (1.6g), and salmon (1.5g per 3.5 oz.). If you like shell fish, blue mussels (0.5g per 3.5oz serving), oysters (0.6g), and squid (0.4g) are nice options as well. Try great recipes like mackerel tartare and spicy salmon with avocado and yams.
Lean Meats: A Less Known Sources of Omega-3s
While most people naturally associate feedlot beef with saturated fats, and look to fish and seafood to get their omega-3s, grass-fed beef is actually a good source of EPA and DHA (0.3g per 3.5oz. serving). Ancestral staples like wild game meats – elk, bison, venison, etc. – are also good options as they’re naturally low in pro-inflammatory omega-6 with some omega-3s. Try this elk recipe perfect for a summer BBQ or stir-fry beef with veggies at dinner.
Pasture-raised eggs are far more nutrient dense than conventional eggs and provide 0.3g of omega-3s per two large eggs.8
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 is what’s crucial for optimal health, as well as mental and physical performance.9,10,11 Focus on both reducing your intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats and increase your intake of extra-long chain omega-3 fats to reverse chronic degenerative conditions and restore health and vitality.
(This article originally appeared on PaleoDiet.com)
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
 ResearchGate. (March 29, 2016). Human genome shaped by vegetarian diet increases risk of cancer and heart disease. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/human-genome-shaped-by-vegetarian-diet-increases-risk-of-cancer-and-heart-disease
 Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(2):341-54.
 Delarue J et al.Interaction of fish oil and a glucocorticoid on metabolic responses to an oral glucose load in healthy human subjects.Br J Nutr.2006 Feb;95(2):267-72.
 Su K, et al.Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder. A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 2003;13(4):267-271
 Okuyama H et al. ω3 Fatty Acids Effectively Prevent Coronary Heart Disease and Other Late-Onset Diseases – The Excessive Linoleic Acid Syndrome. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics (Karger) 2007, 96 (Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease):83-103. Retrieved From – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232471505_o3_Fatty_Acids_Effectively_Prevent_Coronary_Heart_Disease_and_Other_Late-Onset_Diseases_-_The_Excessive_Linoleic_Acid_Syndrome
 Phillips T et al.A dietary supplement attenuates IL-6 and CRP after eccentric exercise in untrained males.Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003;35(12):2032-2037.
 Zainal, Z et al. Relative efficacies of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in reducing expression of key proteins in a model system for studying osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2009 Jul;17(7):896-905.
 Karsten H et al. Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Volume 25/ Special Issue 01 / March 2010, pp45-54. Retrieved From – http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7219036
 Sheppard, K.W. and C.L. Cheatham, Omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio and higher-order cognitive functions in 7- to 9-y-olds: a cross-sectional study. Am J Clin Nutr, 2013. 98(3): p. 659-67.
 Simopoulos, A.P., An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients, 2016. 8(3): p. 128.
 Simopoulos, A.P., The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother, 2002. 56(8): p. 365-79.
Choosing a Paleo diet and eating more in tune with how we’ve evolved provides the body with a robust amount of essential protein, healthy fats, gluten-free carbohydrates and nutrient dense veggies. An ancestral approach to eating also provides your body with key nutrients, vitamins and minerals the way nature intended. Does this mean that supplementation is unnecessary if you’re following a Paleo lifestyle? It’s a complicated question.
Most articles and blogs about supplements inevitably discuss the benefits or drawbacks of multi-vitamins. Research shows that if you eat a diet centered around the most nutrient dense foods – quality meats, veggies and fats – you’ll likely already be achieving a therapeutic dose for most vitamins and minerals. When intake is at a supra-physiological dose (that can never be found in nature), too many vitamins can actually put you at risk of chronic disease. Does this mean if you’re following a Paleo diet you don’t need any supplements?
Let’s look at the two most common instances where supplementation might still be a good idea, vitamin D and omega-3 fats. In both of these cases, although a Paleo diet is a great place to start, for many people this may not be enough.
SHOULD YOU SUPPLEMENT WITH VITAMIN D?
Vitamin D is classically known as an essential nutrient for bone health and immunity, however new research shows this fat-soluble vitamin has much more profound impacts on your health and well-being.
How important is vitamin D? Dr. Michael Holick, physician and vitamin D expert sums it up. “Imagine what would happen if a drug company came out with single pill that reduces the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, PMS, depression and various autoimmune conditions? There would be a media frenzy the likes of which has never been seen before! Such a drug exists… it’s the sun.”1, 2, 3
Vitamin D is different than other vitamins because it’s created under your skin when ultraviolet light from the sun interacts with a specific enzyme to form cholecalciferol or vitamin D3. However, exposure to daily sunlight is no longer the norm as we are cooped up in cubicles all day and the deeply ingrained ancestral benefits of light exposure are overlooked.
It’s estimated that up to 70% of the American population is deficient in vitamin D (defined as blood levels below 20ng/mL or 50 nmol/L), or suffering from vitamin D insufficiency, a level above a diagnosed deficiency but still not sufficient for good health (measured as 20-32 ng/mL or 50-80nmol/L). 4
If you live in a northern climate with a true winter season, or north of the 49th parallel, it’s very difficult to achieve the required blood levels of vitamin D from food alone. While cold-water fatty fish, eggs and mushrooms are good foods sources of vitamin D, in the dead of winter they’re likely not enough. Adding a supplement can be highly beneficial.
The standard medical recommendation for vitamin D drops is 1,000-2,000 IU per day, however in the darkest winter months you may need a higher dose. Remember, always get your blood levels tested and work with a doctor if you’re thinking of supplementing with more than the recommended dose. The normal range is typically between 32-50ng/mL (80-125nmol/L) and for athletes new research suggests achieving levels greater than 40ng/mL (100nmol/L) to support superior performance and recovery.5 Be sure to take your vitamin D supplement with a meal that includes fat for optimal absorption.
SHOULD YOU SUPPLEMENT WITH FISH OILS?
Extra long-chain fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the omega-3 ‘all-stars’ when it comes to supporting overall health and combating chronic disease. While most people know the benefits of omega-3 fats for cardiovascular health, many don’t realize they also help reduce the risk of diabetes and depression, protect against mental stress, and even support athletic performance by improving muscle protein synthesis and controlling excessive inflammation.
How important are omega-3 fats? In 2013, the Cardiovascular Healthy Study found that people with the highest omega-3 (e.g. EPA and DHA) levels in their blood had the lowest overall mortality rates.6 In short, the more omega-3 fats you consume, the less chance you have of dying from absolutely any cause. The good news is they are found in abundance in a Paleo diet (e.g. grass-fed meats, wild ocean fish, farm fresh eggs). However, modern day living and long, busy days might mean you’ll benefit from extra support.
If you’re prone to low mood or depression, or cope with regularly high stress levels fish oils could well be an important key to improving your brain health. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found people experiencing depression had consistently lower levels of essential fatty acids in their blood. When subjects supplemented with fish oils they had significant improvements in their Hamilton Rating Scale, a recognized evaluation system for depression.7 The British Journal of Nutrition also discovered that supplementing with fish oils helps reduce the adrenal over-activation associated with high levels of mental stress.8
Rates of diabetes and pre-diabetes have never been higher, and constantly being on the go is just one factor that can lead to snacking on convenience foods that are high in processed carbs and sugars. A recent study of fish oil supplementation effects on blood sugar and insulin levels over a 3-week period found significant improvements in insulin function in those with elevated levels.9
Of course, it’s not enough just to increase your omega-3 intake. It’s far too easy to obtain excessive amounts of omega-6 type fats in today’s world, whether from processed foods, restaurant eating, or convenience snacks. The beauty of adopting a Paleo diet is that it often naturally restores this common imbalance. However, the impacts of modern living may still leave you short.
Unless you’re eating 1-2 pieces of cold, deep-water fatty fish daily, it’s best to add an omega-3 supplement rich in EPA/DHA. Fish oil is the richest in EPA and DHA, however krill oil, sea oil, and sea algae are all viable options as well. Aim to supplement with 1,000-1,500mg of combined EPA and DHA daily.
If you’re an athlete and training intensely fish oil supplementation can be a game changer. Supplementation can lead to an amazing 50% increase in the up-regulation of mTOR, the genetic signaling pathway that stimulates lean muscle growth, leading to significant increases in muscle protein synthesis and muscular hypertrophy.10If you’re serious about your training, adding extra omega-3 fats to your sports nutrition arsenal is important.
A Paleo diet is a great way to cover all your bases on the nutrition front. However, depending on your genetics, where you live, how busy you are, and your lifestyle, diet may not be enough to correct low or insufficient levels of vitamin D and omega-3 fats. Adding these two supplements into your regime, particularly throughout the winter months, may be the fix you need to improve your health, productivity at work and performance in the gym.
(This article originally appeared @ThePaleoDiet.com)
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS
Want to learn more? Listen to Paleo founder Dr. Loren Cordain PhD in episode #10 of the Dr. Bubbs Performance Podcast.
Check out more articles in the "IMMUNITY" SERIES...
- 6 Reasons You Keep Getting Sick (And How To Fix It)
- How To Paleo Boost Your Immune System
- Zinc - The Serious Health Punch Missing From Your Diet
- Can Mushrooms Supercharge Your Health? (And Maybe Save The World?)
Check out more articles in the "VITAMIN DEFICIENCY" SERIES...
- 90% Chance You're Low In This Key Vitamin?
- The Harmful Effects of Low B12 (And How To Fix It)
- Promoting Calcium Balance On A Paleo Diet (Easier Than You Think)
- 21 Symptoms of Anemia (And How To Fix It)
- Zinc - The Serious Health Punch missing From Your Diet
- Holick M.Vitamin D Deficiency:What A Pain It Is. Mayo Clin Proc 2003 78(12):1457-59Holick, M. Article Review: Vitamin D Deficiency. NEJM Medical Progress. 2007, 357:266-81.
- Holick, M. Shinning A Light On Vitamin D-Cancer Connection IARC Report. Dermato-Endocrinology, 2009 1(1):4-6
- Hanley D, Davison, K. Symposium: Vitamin D Insufficiency: A significant risk Factor in Chronic Disease and Potential Disease-Specific Biomarkers of Vitamin D Insufficiency: Vitamin D Insufficiency in North America. J Nutr 2005, 135:332-37
- Koundourakis, N et al. Vitamin D and Exercise Performance in Professional Soccer Players. Plos One. 2014 Jul 3;9(7):e101659.
- Mozaffarian D, Lemaitre RN, King IB, et al. Plasma phospholipid long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults. A cohort study. Ann Intern Med 2013; 158:515-525.
- Su K, Huang S, Chiu C, Shen W. Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder. A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 2003;13(4):267-271
- Delarue J et al. Fish oil attenuates adrenergic overactivity without altering glucose metabolism during an oral glucose load in haemodialysis patients. Br J Nutr. 2008 May;99(5):1041-7.
- Delarue J et al. Interaction of fish oil and a glucocorticoid on metabolic responses to an oral glucose load in healthy human subjects. Br J Nutr. 2006 Feb;95(2):267-72.
- Smith GI et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep;121(6):267-78.