Essential fatty acids are necessary for normal growth and development, but cannot be manufactured by the body. They must be obtained from the diet. There are two families of fatty acids known as omega-3's and omega-6's.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in marine life such as fish, seal and whale, and plants such as flaxseed. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in evening primrose oil, borage, black currant, sunflower and safflower oils.
The typical North American diet results in widespread deficiency of essential fatty acids as well as an imbalance of omega-3's relative to omega-6's.
Health Canada recommends a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 of between 1 to 4 or 1 to 7, versus the usual diet with its ratio of 1 to 20 to 1 to 60. The typical low fat diet may contribute to excess omega-6's fats. As a result, most health authorities suggest daily supplementation with one or more omega-3 sources.
People who consume a diet rich in omega-3 oils from either fish or plant sources have a reduced risk of heart disease. Studies of the Inuit and Greenlanders whose diet is high in meat and fat, mainly from seal, found they had a low rate of heart disease.
Inhabitants of Crete eat a typical Mediterranean diet with its large amounts of olive oil, vegetables, legumes, fruits, greens and wild plants. Cretan men have been found to be among the healthiest in the world. The Cretans also have a diet high in walnut oil, and a wild plant known as purslane- both high in omega-3's.
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that either fish oil supplementation or consumption of fatty fish lowers cholesterol and triglycerides levels. Fish oils can also prevent heart attacks in those that already have heart disease, and lower the incidence of blood clots. Fish oil or flaxseed oil have both been shown to lower high blood pressure.
Dozens of studies have demonstrated that rheumatoid arthritis patients who take fish oil supplements daily have less morning stiffness and tender joints and can reduce medication.
Omega-3 oils have numerous other health benefits including improving insulin action in non-insulin dependent diabetics. They are also very helpful in a wide variety of conditions including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple sclerosis.
Researcher Udo Erasmus, author of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill prefers flaxseed oil for omega-3's. However, he believes that health conscious people can overdose on flaxseed oil and that maintaining a proper balance of omega-3's to omega-6's is important.
Steven Kripps, author of Nutrition Alert , advises that flaxseed oil is very sensitive to heat, light and oxygen. He recommends grinding your own organic flaxseeds, a two week supply at a time and storing them in your freezer. But no matter how you do it, it is wise to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
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