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Ten Easy Steps for adding Omega-3s to your diet (and reducing your Omega-6s):

1.     Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Green vegetables are full of ALA, the parent omega-3, and all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that protect fats against oxidation. To bulk up on Omega-3s, you should eat the vegetables you enjoy – and lots of them.

2.     Avoid oils in which Omega-6s greatly outnumber Omega-3s, namely safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, peanut, and soybean oils. Instead, use more canola, olive, walnut, and flaxseed oil –  even butter, especially grass-fed butter which is now widely available.

Canola oil sometimes gets a bad repution (for very misguided reasons) but it is the healthiest oil out there because of its Omega-3 content and low amounts of saturated fats. I use expellor-pressed non-GMO canola oil in my Breakfast Cookies because I am concerned about the overuse of Round-Up associated with GMO crops, but all canola can help you to achieve higher levels of Omega-3s in your tissues. See the article below if you'd like to learn more about canola oil.

3.     Eat a wide variety of fish. Include lean fish such as cod, halibut, and trout in your diet as well as fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel. Because all fish live in water and require more flexibility (or looseness) in their membranes than land animals, all fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. (Though farmed fish have less if they are given a diet of grains.) Eating a wide diversity of fish should help prevent the over fishing of certain species and protect us against toxins that accumulate in certain fish.

4.     Eat free-range or Omega-3 enriched eggs. Most grocery stores carry these – look for the words Omega-3s or DHA on the carton and choose brands that come as close to 300mg Omega-3/egg (or 100mg DHA/egg) as your pocketbook will allow. These eggs, laid by chickens that have been fed a diet rich in flaxseed and/or fish meal, algae and other greens, provide one of the easiest ways of adding omega-3s to Western diets. They’re easy to produce and less expensive than many other foods high in Omega-3s. If the chickens are fed something other than fish meal, they’re also free of the contaminants that can be found in fish. By the way, all eggs used to be Omega-3 enriched eggs when the chickens that laid them foraged for a living, scratching and pecking in backyards and farms for greens and bugs.

5.     Eat grass-fed or free-range chicken, lamb, beef, bison, and pork whenever you can.  Just as all our eggs used to be Omega-3 enriched, so were all our meats and milk products -- when our animals were free range and ate more grass and other greens than they did grains. You can find grass-fed meats in some grocery stores and many farmers’ markets – or by searching online.

6.     Try to include a source of Omega-3s  (and not too many Omega-6s) at every meal. Metabolism is happening all the time -- not just when we remember to eat our fish or greens. The Omega-3s can come from fish, greens, Omega-3 enriched eggs, as well as cereals containing flaxseed. Other convenient sources of Omega-3s are Smart Balance’s Omega-3 peanut butter, soy and other beans, and some nuts: walnuts, especially. Baked goods (such as Susie’s Smart Breakfast Cookies) can be a great source of Omega-3s, especially if they contain liberal amounts of walnuts, flaxseed meal, use Omega-3-enriched eggs, and have replaced some of the butter with canola oil. Although Omega-3s can be taken in pill form (see below), like most nutrients, they are better absorbed from foods than pills.

7.     Avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. This step is important not only because of the reduced Omega-3 content of these oils but also because of their concentration of trans fats. Trans fats compete with Omega-3s for positions in cell membranes, and they may have adverse effects of their own. Avoiding these oils is fairly easy to do with foods bought in a grocery store, since producers are required to list them as ingredients on food labels. In restaurants, choose foods that are freshly prepared and take a pass on those that are packaged or fried.

8.     Take special precautions if you are pregnant or a woman of reproductive age. Follow the guidelines of the FDA and local agencies on fish consumption and look for fish that have tested negative for mercury and PCBs.  Most importantly, supplement your diet with other sources of omega-3s and keep your intake of Omega-6s at healthy levels. The benefits will be enormous, not only for your baby, but for yourself, since low maternal concentrations of DHA have been linked to an increased risk of postpartum depression. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to protect against preterm delivery and low birth weight. After giving birth, breast feed your baby if at all possible since no infant formula on the market matches the breast milk of a well-nourished mother.

9.     Use supplements carefully. If you do take Omega-3 supplements, avoid those that supply all the essential fatty acids, Omega-3s and Omega-6s. Omega-6s are essential, but we already have too many of them in our foods. So avoid supplements (and foods) with phrases such as high omega, complete omegas, complete EFA, ultimate omegas, or omega balance in their names as they will undoubtedly include oils rich in Omega-6s. If you take fish oil, look for products that are of pharmaceutical grade or molecularly distilled, thus ensuring that they will be free of toxins. Also, take fish oil rather than cod liver oil, as the latter contains significant amounts of vitamin A and can be harmful in excess. Keep your fish and flax oil in a cool, dark place and throw out any that smells bad. If it smells bad, it is bad. Taking oxidized oil is worse than taking no oil at all.

10.  Maintain a healthy weight by getting the exercise and calories you need. Excess calories and weight put a strain on the entire body, including its ability to transport and store fats.

Finally, don’t go overboard with this or any diet. You need Omega-6s in your diet, just not in the great quantities that most of us are currently getting. Balance is the key to this and every other aspect of life. By taking these ten easy steps, you can be sure you will be changing the balance of fats in your tissues -- and confident that health benefits will follow. Omega-3s have been displaced by the large amounts of Omega-6s in our diet. These ten, simple steps will put those speedy fats back where they belong.

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Canola Oil: Facts and Fiction

Most urban myths are pretty harmless. Think of the one about a certain coffee chain adding nicotine to its hot drinks. Or the sedative effects of eating turkey… or the origins of Santa Claus. 

            But the urban myth about canola oil: that it is a toxic food, unfit for human consumption, is anything but benign. That’s because canola oil, unusual among the edible oils for its high content of the parent Omega-3 fat: alpha linolenic acid, has the potential of reversing our century-old imbalance of essential fatty acids, an imbalance that has been linked – through well-defined, causal mechanisms -- to many of our most common illnesses, including heart disease. 

            Canola oil, developed in Canada in the 1970s from a strain of rapeseed that is low in erucic acid and introduced into the United States in 1985, has already made some inroads in correcting the great imbalance of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in American diets, according to an analysis by researchers at Pennsylvania State University. These researchers reported a significant drop in the ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in the American food supply in the years 1985 to 1994 (from 12.4:1 to 10.6:1). That’s still far from an ideal, of about 4:1, but canola oil, with a ratio of just 2:1, makes that ideal possible.

            Whether this healthy trend continues, though, and whether it benefits any single individual depends on that individual’s acceptance of canola. Does he think of it as the great Con–ola, as one website describes canola, and avoid, therefore, every food with canola as one of its ingredients?  Or does she trust the health organizations, including the AHA and the Mayo Clinic, who support the healthfulness of canola oil. 

            As someone who frequently encounters people who are virulently opposed to canola oil -- whenever I speak or appear on a call-in radio show, I thought I would try to get to the bottom of canola’s sinister reputation. I began by typing in “canola oil” and “negative effects” on my browser and up popped more than 200,000 web pages. 

            Many of these sites repeat the outlandish claims that canola oil is an ingredient of mustard gas… that the Canadian government paid fifty million dollars for GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in the US... that canola oil causes emphysema, respiratory distress, anemia, constipation, irritability, blindness, as well as hair loss. 

            Others knock canola because it is usually sold as a refined oil. (But consumers worried about the effects of refining can always choose expeller pressed or cold-pressed canola oil). Or because it is a genetically modified plant. (Yes, there are genetically modified forms of canola, as of many plants, but canola was originally developed by traditional plant breeding methods. It is true that most of Canada’s canola – 80% -- is currently GM, but this could change, conceivably, with consumer demand. European farmers are prevented by law from growing GM crops, but they still grow plenty of canola – calling it rapeseed.)

            A few sites mention the fact that the large amounts of alpha linolenic acid in canola oil are prone to isomerization, or becoming trans fats, during processing – which has indeed been a problem for canola crushers in the past. The heat of both deodorization (the final step in producing refined oils) and expeller pressing is great enough to allow isomerization to take place. Crushers are well aware of this tendency now and adjust the time and temperature of these procedures to keep trans formation below 2%.                        

            Isomerization and genetic modification are legitimate issues, but do they explain why canola has been singled out to become the stuff of urban legends? 

            I wasn’t getting very far in my search, I realized. I certainly wasn’t getting close to the kind of information that I as a science writer need in order to understand the reasons for such extreme views about a vegetable oil. What, for instance, was the problem with erucic acid in the first place, such that it was bred out of rape seed plants by Canadian scientists? Had this fatty acid caused any problems in those populations in Northern Europe and Asia that had been using rape seed as a cooking oil for centuries?  Is there anything to the claims by the Weston Price Foundation that canola oil is dangerous because of its low concentration of saturated fats (7%), a feature canola producers brag about?  

            And so I turned to someone who had practical experience with canola oil, someone who had actually raised animals on this fat in the 1960s and knew firsthand its long-term effects. Dr. Joyce Beare-Rogers, a retired Canadian biochemist, was very surprised to hear about internet sites dedicated to disparaging canola oil, but there were problems, she explained, with using rape seed oil – and canola oil – as a sole source of dietary fat. The high levels of erucic acid in traditional rape seed oil caused experimental animals to develop lipidosis, an accumulation of triglycerides in their myocardium. Young animals aren’t very good, it seems, at breaking down this unusual, 22-carbon, monounsaturated fat.     

            Erucic acid had never been a problem for populations in the past -- because they had never had very much rape seed oil to use. But that would change with large scale cultivation in Canada. Since scientists in Canada had already identified a low erucic acid strain of rape seed (one that was also low in glycosinolates, compounds that had prevented the use of the meal for animal feed), production was based on this new strain, and the oil given a new name – Canada + oil -- to signify its origin and new properties. That name, of course, also avoided the negative connotations of the word rape. 

            But even canola oil was found to cause health problems, Dr. Beare-Rogers continued -- when it was made from seeds that had a very low percentage of saturated fats – 3%. “Most people thought this was a good thing, but if you want to have normal cell membranes, you have to have sufficient saturates in the diet,” she went on. “Yes, animals are capable of making saturates,” she said in reply to my question. “But how well will they do it -- especially if they are given large amounts of monounsaturates, as is the case with canola oil?”         

            At a meeting of the Canadian American Oil Chemists in 2002, Dr. Beare-Rogers did her utmost, she said, to persuade those oil producers who were trying to get the saturates in canola seeds as low as possible to aim instead for 7% -- where canola is now.           

            We’re still far from understanding what constitutes the perfect diet, my conversation with Dr. Beare-Rogers reminded me. And perhaps this is the reason for the online rumors about canola oil: people are suspicious, as they should be -- as humans have always been -- of a new food with which they have little experience. Researchers call this behavior neophobia, and it is evident in all omnivores, animals, like humans, that must eat a varied diet in order to get the many different nutrients they need to survive.          

            Canola oil is a Cinderella story, it is often said, -- with Canadian researchers turning the humble rape seed into a world wide commodity. But for canola oil to have a happy ever after ending… for it to be the happy ending to the many medical problems that stem from our current imbalance of Omega-6s and Omega-3s, we need to see it as it is: an imperfect food all by itself (just like any other single food!). And use it as it should be used – as part of a balanced diet – balanced between Omega-3s and Omega-6s, as well as between saturates and unsaturates, where variety, as always, is the key.