While visiting Sweden and Denmark earlier this year I learned new important facts about essential fatty acids that changed my entire approach to my concept of the raw food diet. That is why I added it to the new edition of Green for Life. I encourage you to read this entire article.
Greens – the Original Source of Omega-3s
The important thing is not to stop questioning. — Albert Einstein
What is one of the most striking differences between a hummingbird and a hibernating bear? Their metabolism. One moves extremely fast and the other is extremely slow, largely due to differences in the composition of fat in their bodies. According to recent scientific research on factors affecting metabolism, “the fats of high-speed animals such as the hummingbird are loaded with the omega-3 fatty acids.” Contrary to that, bears have to accumulate a lot of omega-6 fatty acids in their fat before they can go into hibernation. Omega-3s and omega-6s are seemingly alike substances and are even united under one name: essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. However, there are major differences between them.
The omega-3 molecule is unique in its ability to rapidly change its shape. This exceptional flexibility of omega-3s is passed to organs that absorb it. Omega-3s thin the blood of humans and animals as well as the sap of plants. As a result of these qualities, omega-3s are utilized by the fastest functioning organs in the body. For example, omega-3s enable our hearts to beat properly, our blood to flow freely, our eyes to see, and our brains to make decisions faster and more clearly.
The omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, serve the opposite function: they thicken the blood of humans and animals as well as the juices of plants. Omega-6s solidify and cause inflammation of the tissues. Some scientists link an excess of omega-6s in the human diet with such conditions as heart disease, stroke, arthritis, asthma, menstrual cramps, diabetes, headaches, and tumor metastases.
According to Allport, there are numerous studies looking into the role omega-6 fats play in the promotion of certain cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon cancer and exploring the benefits of omega-3s in treating psychological disorders such as depression and postpartum depression, attention deficit disorder, and bipolar disorder. A growing number of diseases are being associated with an imbalance of the essential fats, not just heart disease, cancer, depression, immune disorders, and arthritis but also obesity and diabetes.
For many decades, nutritionists have been linking obesity to the over-consumption of foods high in fat, particularly in saturated fat. Since then, many people have been trying to reduce the percentage of fat in their diet. From 1955 to 1995 Americans reduced fat consumption from 40 percent of their total calorie intake to 35 percent. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans decreased their consumption of saturated fats and increased their consumption of salad and cooking oils from 9.8 pounds per person in 1955 to 35.2 pounds per person in 2000. Yet despite these efforts, during the same time period the percentage of overweight adults in the U.S. grew from 25 percent to 47 percent. Apparently we have been eating the wrong fats.
When I was a little girl in Russia in the early sixties, my mother would give me a glass bottle and send me to the store to buy vegetable oil. She told me to always ask what date the oil had been delivered before I purchased any. If the oil was more than a week old, I had to go to another store. That was how quickly the freshly pressed oil could become rancid. At home, we knew to never leave the oil in direct sunlight and to store it in a dark, cool place to help keep it fresh.
By the time I had my own family, technological advances had increased the shelf life of sunflower, corn, and other vegetable oils to one year. As I understand now, such convenience had been achieved by removing omega-3s from the oil due to their highly perishable nature. Over the course of several decades, many of our foods became increasingly richer in omega-6 fatty acids and deficient in omega-3s. In recent years genetic engineering has been manipulating seeds, trying to develop strains with higher omega-6 and lower omega-3 content in order to prolong the storage life of seeds along with the oils made from them even further. In addition, most farm animals, such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens have increasingly been fed soy, corn, and other grains instead of grass and hay. People who consume animal products would benefit from knowing that the meat from animals that consume grass is rich in omega-3s while the meat from animals that consume corn and other grains is rich in omega-6s. Even fish is now fed grains at fish farms [i] . In nature small fish, and some species of whales, eat phytoplankton, microscopic algae rich in chlorophyll which is the original source for omega-3 fatty acids in fish. Larger fish eat the smaller fish. Humans catch and eat many of these larger fish. [ii] That is why wild fish is famous for its high omega-3 content. Contrary to this, farm fish often has more omega-6s than omega-3s. [iii]
The same diversity appears in dairy products and eggs. For example, one study showed that eggs from free-range chickens which had feasted on grass, insects, and a very small amount of grain contained twenty times more omega-3 fatty acids than did standard supermarket eggs.[iv]
We’ve seen that one of the disadvantages of a diet rich in omega-6 fatty acids is that it slows down metabolic functions and promotes significant weight gain, like in the case of the hibernating bear. Whereas in a bear the function is a healthy cyclical one, the same is not true for humans! And the paradox of many obese people today is that they are starved for fat—they have more omega-6 than they need but are deficient in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Not only all chips, crackers, and cookies are made with seeds and oils but almost all salads and vegetarian dishes in restaurants are prepared with vegetable oils, loaded with omega-6s. As the consumption of foods rich in omega-6s continues to stay high, obesity continues to climb. The following obesity statistics reveal the disturbing trends in Americans’ health over the last two decades: [v]
* There are fifty-eight million overweight, forty million obese, and three million morbidly obese Americans
* Eight out of ten Americans over the age of twenty-five are overweight
* 78 percent of Americans are not meeting the basic recommended levels of daily exercises
* 25 percent of Americans are completely sedentary
* Since 1990 there has been a 76 percent increase in Type II diabetes among adults thirty to forty years old
Ironically, and most unfortunately, many of the very people who have been making an effort to eat healthier by substituting seed oils for animal fats have accumulated a lot more omega-6s in their bodies than they would have otherwise. Their metabolic rate has slowed down and as a result, they “could have a profound predisposition for obesity,” > [i] says Professor Leonard Storlien the University of Sydney in Australia. Professor Storlien, who studies the effect of dietary fats on obesity and insulin resistance, has found that “not only the quantity of dietary fat, but also the type of fat used, will produce different effects on body weight and metabolism.”[ii] In his experiments, foods rich in omega-3s can protect against obesity and diabetes. Another study, conducted by two Danish scientists, Dr. Jørn Dyerberg and Dr. Hans Olaf Bang, followed Eskimos of the Umanak district of Greenland, whose diet consists of fish, seal meat, and whale blubber. The scientists stated that despite very high saturated fat consumption, “not a single established case of diabetes mellitus is known at present in the population of the Umanak district.”[iii]
According to nutritional biochemist William E. M. Lands, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and one of the world’s foremost authorities on essential fatty acids, both omega-6s and omega-3s are competing for a certain enzyme in cell membranes called a desaturase enzyme. Although omega-3s are the preferred substrate of the enzyme, an excess of dietary omega-6s compared to omega-3s results in greater net formation of omega-6s.[iv] Put more simply, if we consume too few omega-3s, the body will use an even smaller percent of those omega-3s, choosing the higher amount of omega-6s instead. All these new science discoveries point to one major conclusion: humans need to consume plenty of omega-3s in their diet. Otherwise their metabolism may slow down and they could start feeling sleepy and sluggish similar to a hibernating bear. As Dr. Burton Litman, a membrane biophysicist concluded, “You couldn’t be an astronaut or a fighter pilot if you were raised on an omega-3 deficient diet.”[v]
So how can we achieve the healthiest balance of essential fatty acids? Most of the articles I read suggested that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s should be 3:1 or 2:1. The typical American diet today contains anywhere from a 10:1 to a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, an imbalance associated with a high rate of disease. The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommends an intake of approximately 10:1, much higher than the ratio recommended by Sweden (5:1) or Japan (4:1). The ratio in Japan is associated with a very low incidence of heart and other disease.[vi]
What can we do to increase our consumption of omega-3s? According to Dr. Frank Sacks, Professor of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health,[vii] there are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets. One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in flaxseed oil, walnuts, and also in green leafy vegetables. The other type, the longer chain fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found in fatty fish. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA.
Fortunately, omega-3 is widely available in all greens, especially in spinach, romaine, and arugula. One of the highest levels of omega-3 can be found in purslane, a widespread wild green. While several research papers stated that it was not certain if the parental molecule of omega-3 found in greens could be turned into DHA or EPA that the body could use, I was fortunate to find the following information: Dr. Ralph Holman, a biochemist who has focused his studies on lipids and fatty acids, researched the blood samples of thirty-eight Nigerians from Enugu, the capital city of Enugu State, Nigeria. Dr. increasingly Holman found that the omega-3 content in this group was higher than in any population he had studied. These Nigerians didn’t eat very much fish but they ate a lot of greens and had no omega-6-heavy vegetable oils in their diet.[viii]
Other great sources of omega-3s are sprouted flax seed, sprouted chia seeds, and flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is the only fat allowed in the diets of cancer patients at the Gerson Institute in San Diego. Charlotte Gerson, the founder of the Gerson Institute, explained that according to their research, flaxseed oil is the only fat that does not promote the growth of cancer cells.[ix] I now pour a tablespoon of flaxseed oil on my salads almost daily.
Omega-3s are very unstable and can become rancid extremely quickly, even inside our digestive tract. For example, flaxseed oil, which is highest in omega-3s, has to remain refrigerated; if it stays at room temperature even for twenty minutes it can become rancid. Ingesting rancid oil is dangerous because it can actually promote instead of prevent heart disease by forming lots of free radicals. To combat this problem, make sure to include a large variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in your meals that are rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, grapes cherries, beets, red cabbage, colored bell peppers, kale, and others. The high-rancidity potential of omega-3 oils makes it difficult for manufacturers to produce, transport, and store oils such as flaxseed in mass quantity, which is why products rich in omega-3s are usually a lot more expensive. But I would rather pay for high-quality food now than for medical bills resulting from my poor nutrition later on.
Increasing the omega-3s in our diet is important but not enough; it is also crucial to decrease our consumption of omega-6s. “Fish consumption counts, but our problems are probably caused not by a lack of fish in our diets but by an overconsumption of seed oils and underconsumption of greens,” writes Dr. Artemis Simopoulos in The Omega Diet.[x] The time has come for us to carefully examine our diets and reduce or eliminate our intake of such oils as corn oil, sesame oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and peanut oil as well as reduce our consumption of nuts and seeds. To help you make better dietary choices, I have compiled a list of ratios between omega-3s and omega-6s in a variety of nuts, seeds, oils, greens, and fruit. I have used the nutritional data provided by USDA.[xi] (to be published on the blog next week)
This important information about essential fatty acids helped me to find the answers to some of my own unanswered questions that I have asked for years. For example, I was puzzled why I, among some other raw fooders, gained extra weight and had a hard time loosing it.
I realize now that for a number of years I was fanatical about being a 100 percent raw foodist. I believed that anything raw was better than anything cooked. When I learned about the benefits of raw food, I didn’t think twice—I was going to do it all the way. While in the beginning of my raw food diet (which consisted of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) I felt completely satisfied, several years later I started to feel that something was missing. I developed cravings that continued to grow stronger and more frequent until at last I felt constantly hungry. I enjoyed eating fruits and I could eat a pound or two of them in one sitting, but after I was done, which is a symptom of deficiency, I was still hungry. Carrots, broccoli, and other such vegetables were not very appealing to me, especially when they were prepared with any kind of dressing made with oils. I have developed a strong dislike for any oils and after about ten years of being a raw foodist I couldn’t tolerate even a drop of oil in my food.
Unfortunately, my solution to satisfy my cravings and still stay on a 100 percent raw food diet was to increase my consumption of seeds and nuts. In the late 90s, several companies in the United States began manufacturing a new line of health products designed especially for raw foodists, which included organic raw tahini (ground sesame seeds) and a number of raw organic nut butters such as almond, cashew, and pumpkin. One of such manufactures was located in our town of Ashland. I started to buy nut butters on a regular basis and even ordered in bulk, buying a case at a time. At first, eating more nuts and nut butters seemed to help me with my cravings and I thought that I found the solution to my problems. However, after several months of overconsuming nuts, I noticed that my health began to decline. My energy went down, my nails became brittle, and I developed several cavities in my teeth. Worst of all, I started gaining weight. It wasn’t until I came up with the idea of green smoothies in 2004 and began drinking them daily that I experienced a profound improvement in my health and lost some weight. I understand now that I added the necessary omega-3s to my diet but still had not eliminated the omega-6s.
I continued consuming nuts on a regular basis, as I thought them to be a necessary source of good fat for raw vegans but to my surprise, I was becoming less and less fond of nuts. To continue consuming them, I started preparing “gourmet nuts,” enhancing their taste with different herbs and fruits. I became really good at making these delicious mixtures, but despite my efforts, the time came when I was not able to consume any nuts or seeds at all. If I ate any amount of nuts, I instantly developed a sore throat and fever that would last several hours. A few times I visited potlucks in different raw food communities and accidentally consumed nuts without being aware that I had done so. Each time nuts had the same effect on me and I had to leave the party.
At one of my lectures in St. Petersburg, Russia, a young man told me an interesting story. As an experiment, he once ate nothing but nuts and seeds for six months. His rationale was that if people could live on fast food, he should be able to live on raw organic nuts and seeds. After six months he passed out on the street and was taken to an emergency room, diagnosed with brain seizures. When he explained to doctors about his experiment, the doctors told him never to eat nuts or seeds again.
For a long time I couldn’t find an explanation for my body’s rejection of nuts, and didn’t know what to do about my diet until I read the very latest research about the dangers of overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acids that could cause a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids.
While I still consider a raw diet to be the optimal, I don’t want to fanatically follow a 100 percent raw food diet, especially at the expense of my health. When asked, I respond that my diet now is about 95% raw. If I need to choose between nuts and steamed vegetables, I allow myself to choose steamed vegetables. As I continue my life and my research, my diet might slightly change again.
I find it remarkable that the highest concentrations of alpha-linolenic acid, the parent omega-3 fat, are found in the chloroplasts of green leaves, where it assists plants with their most active process, photosynthesis, the basis of all life on earth[xii]. I believe that greens are the second highest vegetarian source of omega-3s after flaxseed oil and so greens are very important for helping us get enough essential omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Considering all the benefits that we can get from omega-3s, green smoothies are simply a miraculous healing drink. I enjoy my green smoothies every day. I prefer to associate myself with a hummingbird rather than with a hibernating bear.
[i] Allport, “Queen of Fats,”
[ii] A. P. David, A. J. Hulbert, and L. H. Storlien, “Dietary Fats, Membrane Phospholipids and Obesity,” The Journal of Nutrition (1993).
[iii]H. O. Bang, J. Dyerberg, A. B. Nielsen, “Plasma lipid and lipoprotein pattern in Greenlandic West-coast Eskimos,” The Lancet, no. 1 (1971).
[iv] William E. M. Lands, “Fish, Omega-3 And Human Health,” American Oil Chemists Society(2005).
[v] Allport, The Queen of Fats.
[vi] Allport, The Queen of Fats.
[viii] Allport, The Queen of Fats.
[ix] C. Gerson, B. Bishop,J. Shwed, and R. Stone, Healing the Gerson Way: Defeating Cancer and Other Chronic Diseases (Carmel: Totality Books, 2007). [x] Simopoulos, The Omega Diet.
[xii] Allport, The Queen of Fats.
[iv] Artemis P. Simopoulos., The Omega Diet: The Lifesaving Nutritional Program Based on the Diet of the Island of Crete, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1975).
[v] “Facts from the CDC (Center for Disease Control). http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/index.htm