Global warming is expected to have an enormous impact on the environmental production of especially the long-chain fatty acid, DHA. A recent study quantified the effect we can anticipate and that effect is very concerning. However, the study mistakenly approaches the problem strictly from the human perspective and makes some mistakes in doing so.
One of the primary uses of DHA is to provide speed and fluidity in cell membranes. DHA is critical for cold water fish, cold water mammals (such as seals and whales), and birds that either live or migrate to and from the poles. These creatures need the DHA to survive the cold, they need the DHA to sustain long migrations. All of them in large measure rely for survival and ability to function on krill adding DHA to the food chain. This new article tells us to expect up to a 58% drop in globally available DHA between now and 2100.
But rather than focus on the devastating effect this is having – and will have – on the environment, the article erroneously assumes that this will directly impact us humans because we too need ready-made DHA in our diet. We do not.
DHA is a very reactive molecule and as such enables our nerve cells to transmit impulses at rapid speed. It is combined to make one of the most reactive molecules known, allowing rhodopsin to collide with proteins in the eye and generate vision. DHA has some extraordinary abilities but it also has some extraordinary downsides. It is so reactive that it easily goes rancid and becomes an extremely dangerous fat. The body deals with this by being very careful about where it places DHA and extremely careful about not having too much of it laying around.
One way our body limits DHA is by creating it in a very limited fashion from its precursor ALA. The only humans that must have a source of preformed DHA are premature babies who would have otherwise have sourced their DHA in the womb from their mothers. Scientists, because DHA is a critical fat in the brain and eyes, and because premies need it, leapt to the conclusion that our body’s slow rate of ALA to DHA conversion was a defect, not a protection. For a very long time we were told that we either needed fish or fish oil in our diet to thrive.
Science has now caught up, however. We know that all creatures eating their natural diet have adequate DHA even though most limit the conversion of ALA to DHA even when their diet is lacking in DHA. After studying vegans, peoples with fish taboos, and our animal relatives, there is now an understanding: If we eat a diet with a decent balance of plant 6s to plant 3s, we will make the DHA we need. We do not need to have fish in our diet.
And as the toxin load in fish and other animal products increases, and as the sources of global DHA dwindle, we should step back and do our part for the creatures who really do need premade DHA to survive. We should eat lower on the food chain while increasing our intake of ALA dominant foods and reducing our intake of 6s. We can leave the salmon for the starving orca whales. We can leave the krill for the whales, seals, penguins, and migratory birds. We can work on learning how to eat a more plant based diet to help slow some of the damages caused by global warming.
And this ultimately is going to be a far healthier approach for us and the world than genetically modifying plants to make DHA or feeding cows formaldehyde to increase their DHA content. So remember: You do not need fish, fish oil, or krill oil but there are many creatures that do.
PS: A good book on Krill: Stephen Nicol. The curious life of krill: A conservation story from the bottom of the world.
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The study discussed: Colombo SM, Rodgers TFM, Diamond ML, et al. Projected declines in global DHA availability for human consumption as a result of global warming.
DHA= docosahexaenoic acid
ALA = alpha-linolenic acid
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Photo: Krill by Pal Ltr https://www.flickr.com/photos/106398176@N07/10544278996/
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