All living things (insects, plants, mammals including humans, fish, fowl, plants) need omega 3 fats. Only plants make the basic omega 3 fat ALA which they primarily use in their chloroplasts. ALAs are highly reactive and allow photosynthesis to continue even as temperatures drop and other fats begin to solidify. ALA is an essential fat for humans and one reason we need plant foods.
While ALA is a fluid, highly reactive molecule, it can be elongated into a much more fluid, yet more reactive molecule known as DHA. DHA is needed in significant amounts in cold-water fish (such as herring and salmon) and sea mammals (such as seals and whales) to keep their cells fluid and functioning in their freezing environment. They typically get their DHA from cold water krill or creatures who subsist on krill. Most other creatures instead make the DHA they need from plant ALA. DHA contributes speed and fluidity so DHA is concentrated in the axons of nerve cells (to carry nerve impulses), in retinal disks (to make vision possible), in the tails of sperm (for swimming), in chest muscles of hummingbirds (to promote rapid flight), in rattles of rattlesnakes (for quick movement to generate the rattle), and to sustain the flights of long-range migratory birds, to name a few uses.
ALA, however, is typically only converted to DHA in very small amounts. DHA is vital for brain function, but is not provided to a fetus until later in pregnancy. Premature infants lack sufficient DHA and if not supplemented can suffer irreparable neurological issues. Based on these facts, scientists immediately concluded that insufficient DHA was a problem for all humans and that all of us, prematurely born or aged, needed to get DHA from outside sources. For the longest time – and I am talking decades here – we have been told to either eat fish regularly and/or take fish oil capsules to get DHA. Many vegans were found to have low blood levels of DHA and many practitioners concluded that a vegan diet as a result was neither sustainable nor healthy.
Science now knows that this is not the case. If living in the wild eating a natural diet, animals have a near perfect omega 6:3 ratio and have adequate DHA for their brains, heart, sperm, eyes, etc. This proved true for everything from gorillas to chimpanzees to hummingbirds to mice to rattlesnakes, many of which consume no sources of premade DHA. As well, peoples with fish taboos (such as the Southwestern Native Americans and a number of pastoral African tribes), live without fish or fish oil supplements but do not automatially develop omega 3 deficiencies. It is now certain that any human who eats a relatively healthy diet will make all the DHA that person needs.
There are problems though. While we have the ability to make enough DHA, we cannot do so unless we eat properly. And eating properly means balancing the ALA we get from our chloroplast-rich plant foods against the omega 6 (LA, a different plant fat) foods we to tend overeat in our food culture. Modern man eats enormous amounts of omega 6 dominant foods (such as grains, nuts, and seeds.) This why many vegans lack sufficient DHA: Their diets are too rich in omega 6s and too low in ALA. Ultimately, if we are willing to eat well, we do not need fish to stay healthy. Nor do we need to take omega 3 supplements, be it fish or krill oil. And the fact that we can limit or manage without fish and DHA supplements is good news for the environment.
Our whales, seals, cold water fish, and long-range migratory birds must have cold water krill to thrive. While there seems to be an enormous abundance of cold water krill available, global warming is changing that in dramatic ways. As a result, it is far from clear that krill oil supplements are sustainable. Second, most DHA oil supplements are manhandled as they are manufactured raising questions about whether it is even healthful to take them. Most are made from small, fatty fish, the food source for many challenged and hungry larger fish. The amount of menhaden used for fish oil instead of feeding wild fish is shocking.
Third, here in the Northwest, we all suffered as we watched an Orca mother drag her dead baby around Puget Sound for days on end. Orcas are seriously endangered. They suffer high toxin loads and they are starving because the Chinook aka king salmon stocks are dropping. Some Seattle restaurant are eliminating king salmon from their menus in support of the Orcas and many of us are following suit. And, as we do this, it is good to know that we are not jeopardizing our health. In fact, as long as we replace seafood, in part or whole, with the right balance of ALA rich plant foods, we will be as healthy or possibly even healthier than we were with seafood and krill oil in our diet.
ALA = alpha linolenic acid
plant omega 6 = LA = linoleic acid
DHA =docosahexaenoic acid
Interested in trying a science-based yet traditional approach to eating? We have TQIDiet classes starting soon, and our schedule, a syllabus, and testimonials are posted here
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I have taken flax seeds and ground flax with my breakfast cereal totaling 1/4 cup for twenty years, thinking it was good for my heart. I have Hypertropic Cardiomyopathy. Do you think this is a good or bad idea? Al Clark
Whole flax seeds function as a bulk laxative so would not be a source of omega 3. Grinding your own flax seeds fresh is a good source of 3s. However, to really get what your body needs, I think you need to be eating other plant sources of omega 3s daily and limiting your omega 6s. But basically what you are doing is a good idea.