According to the website of chia-bar maker, Health Warrior, “1 bag of chia = 10 lbs of salmon.” These figures supposedly mean lots of “BRAINPOWER” and a slew of other health benefits. There are plenty of other companies and products that claim similar nutritional feats. If only it were all true. In the name of nutrition science, healthy fats, and your health, I’m here to call BS on this misinformed hype-y unscientific souped-up marketing claim!
While there may be some truth to the amounts of omega-3 in a single bag of Health Warrior’s product, there is some ridiculously important information health food companies don’t tell you when they equate plant and animal sources of omega-3. To put it simply: omega-3 from plant and animal foods are not created equal. And all that “BRAINPOWER” isn’t going to come from plant sources of omega-3—because it can’t.
You don’t have to know everything, but you should always question what you read and hear. While there are certainly health benefits to now-trendy chia seeds, along with good ol’ flax seeds, walnuts, hemp, etc. there’s just as much misinformation and hype based on the faulty logic of equal or higher amounts of omega-3 in these plant foods in comparison to animal foods.
DON’T FALL VICTIM TO NUTRITION MISINFORMATION & HYPE!
The omega-3 in chia and flax seeds—or any plant food for that matter—is not made up of the same stuff as the omega-3 in cold-water fish, and pastured animal foods like eggs, dairy and meat. That’s right, you heard me: not just fish, but animal foods in general have omega-3, and the best kind! That is, so long as those animals were pastured/grass-fed (vs. corn, soy, grain or “vegetarian”-fed—even if that corn, soy or grain is organic).
Why is omega-3 from pastured/grass-fed animal foods so great? Because it contains pre-formed fatty acids EPA and DHA. Plant foods do not. The way an animal is raised and fed determines how healthy the fat composition of its foods are. Pastured/grass-fed animals make some of the healthiest and most irreplaceable fats around. Accept no substitutions–they don’t exist!
WHY OUR BODIES NEED OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS EPA & DHA
You want to eat foods containing EPA and DHA for tons of reasons, including brain, heart, skin and immune system health, a healthy inflammation response, lubricated joints, maintenance of elasticity in cell membranes, healthy cholesterol levels, brain development in children, and normal brain function in adults1—basically an endless list of essential bodily functions.
WHY ANIMAL FOODS CONTAIN PRE-FORMED EPA & DHA, BUT PLANT FOODS DON’T
Think you can only get EPA and DHA from fish? Think again. Think of peoples in landlocked countries across time: their access to seafood was limited to occasional trade. In order to be able to nourish themselves, generation after generation, landlocked cultures must have had access to foods containing EPA and DHA. And they did: from animal foods sourced from the likes of pastured cows, goats, sheep, chickens, etc.
When animals eat grass, seeds and insects (yep, insects are part of a healthy diet Nature intended for animals, particularly chickens), their digestive processes convert the omega-3 fatty acid ALA they eat from said foods into omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Any of the foods you eat from these animals—eggs, dairy, meat—have this pre-formed EPA and DHA. In the case of wild salmon (not farmed salmon), they eat shrimp and krill which have, in turn, eaten lots of phytoplankton, putting salmon at the top of a food-chain with more than one stage of pre-formed EPA and DHA consumption.
So animals that eat grass, seeds and insects convert the omega-3 fatty acid ALA in their food to the Essential Fatty Acids EPA and DHA. Plants don’t (c’mon, they make energy from “eating” sunshine, water and soil minerals). One exception: algae. But don’t get too excited: although algae contain DHA, they don’t contain much EPA, nowhere near the ideal 1:1 ratio, or the suggested 4:1-1:1 ratio of EPA to DHA for optimal health and disease-prevention (more on this later).
LAME OMEGA-3 CONVERSION IN HUMANS: WHY IT’S SUPER-IMPORTANT YOU EAT PLENTY OF OMEGA-3 FROM ANIMAL FOODS
True, our bodies can make EPA and DHA from plant-sourced omega-3 (i.e. from chia, flax, walnuts, hemp, or any other plant fats). Unfortunately, our bodies don’t make it very efficiently: the conversion rate for the human body to make EPA from an omega-3 source (like chia or flax) is only 6-8%, while the rate for DHA is a meager 0.1-3.8%.2,3 And if your diet is super-high in omega-6 fats (like is it for anyone eating what’s considered “normal” amounts of vegetable/plant oils), this conversion rate is reduced 40-50% to virtually nothing.4
To make matters worse, EPA and DHA conversion is especially inefficient when the diet lacks sufficient saturated fat. When you consider that we’re told to avoid saturated fat like the plague in the US, the ability to convert EPA and DHA can and often does become even more compromised (basically, if you don’t eat meat, or even just whole eggs and/or whole-fat dairy, you won’t get much saturated fat unless you load up on coconut or palm oil).5
THE INFLAMMATION FACTOR: WHY YOU SHOULD EAT PLENTY OF PASTURED ANIMAL FOODS & LIMIT EATING LOADS OF PLANT FATS
Keep in mind that EPA and DHA naturally come together in animal sources. This is no mistake—Nature really does have our backs. Recent research has shown these nutrients function synergistically, and that our hunter-gatherer and cavewo(men) ancestors ate EPA and DHA in equal proportion to one another (meaning a 1:1 ratio). Today’s proportion is somewhere between 15:1-16.7:1.6
It’s super-important you remember: plant sources of omega-3 always come with higher amounts of omega-6 than omega-3.7 This makes it nearly impossible to properly balance your omega-6 to omega-3 intake in a 1:1 ratio on a diet that solely or largely relies on plant foods. (FYI: don’t worry about predominantly-saturated-fat tropical oils like coconut and palm—you can and should go to town with them).
Why do you want your omega-6 and omega-3 intake to be as even as possible? Because omega-6 has pro-inflammatory effects, and omega-3 has anti-inflammatory effects. Therefore, higher levels of omega-6 to omega-3 cause inflammation.8 This is not a good thing because inflammation is the root of disease (we’re talking everything from the common cold and allergies to diabetes, heart disease and cancer). For this reason you want to limit inflammatory foods (read: eat smaller portions), and eat plenty of foods that are rich in an even balance of EPA and DHA.9,10
Where do you find these foods? Wild/pastured/grass-fed animal foods.
SO WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
Simply put, we need animal-sourced omega-3, which comes with pre-formed fatty acids EPA and DHA—an absolutely crucial info-tidbit that’s all too frequently overlooked or not discussed by the media, health food and supplement companies, and often times even medical professionals. EPA and DHA are pre-formed in animal sources, like wild cold-water fish, and grass-fed/pastured animal foods (whole eggs, meat, lard, tallow, and whole-fat dairy like butter, cheese, yogurt and kefir). Sure you can still enjoy the likes of chia, flax and other plant-sourced fats, just limit them to smaller portions. Your body will thank you.
Does this mean health food companies like Health Warrior are lying to you? I can’t speak for them, but it’s likely they simply do not fully understand the way food works.
In any case, you are not being fed whole truth. And while anger, frustration or disappointment may be natural, understandable responses to this realization, you can transform these feelings into beyond-valuable assets, namely the drives to question, self-advocate, investigate, experiment and experience, while remaining open to new feelings and ideas.
Always remember: you have the final word when it comes to your health and what you eat.
Adapted from Erika Herman’s book, Eat Like a Fatass, Look Like a Goddess: The Untold Story of Healthy Foods.
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1 Ruxton, C., et al. “The health benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: a review of the evidence.” Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 17(5), 2004; pp. 449-459. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15357699
2 Gerster , H. “Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?” International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 68(3), 1998: pp. 159-173. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9637947
3 Williams, C. and G. Burdge. “Long-chain n-3 PUFA: plant v. marine sources” Proceeding of the Nutrition Society 65(1), 2006: pp. 42-50. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16441943
6 Simopoulos, A. “Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases.” Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy 60(9), 2006; pp. 502-507. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/17045449.
7 Kidd, P. “Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: Clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids.” Alternative Medicine Review 12(3), 2007: pp. 207-227. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18072818.
8 Pischon, T., et al. “Habitual dietary intake of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids in relation to inflammatory markers among us men and women.” Circulation 108(2), 2003: pp. 155-160. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12821543