The Omega-3 War Part III: Your Food
The omega-3 war going on inside our bodies has everything to do with what we eat. Our farming methods have modernized leaving our crops less nutritious. This blog provides a strong argument supporting:
- grass-fed beef
- pastured chicken
- pastured hen's eggs (even better than free range or organic)
- grass-fed milk, butter, yogurt and cheese
- wild fish instead of farm raised fish
Although the cost is greater, the nutritional rewards and humane treatment of animals far outweighs the extra expense.
Over 200 years ago, 90 percent of Americans engaged in farming practices producing their own food. Today, only two percent of the population produces food for the global consumer. This dramatic shift has pressured farmers to increase quantity leading to a significant degradation of food quality. Our soils have been depleted of valuable vitamins and minerals. Cows producing our beef and dairy products and hens providing our eggs must have sufficient nutrients in order to yield omega-3 rich food.
Farmers have had to adopt technology allowing them to make significant advances in producing more food for a world exploding in population growth. Each farmer is able to feed around 155 people today with the support of technology. Back in the 1940's, only 19 people could be fed by a single farmer. Yet the smaller crop yields and smaller size fruits and vegetables had far greater nutritional content. Foodies and gourmet chefs alike prefer the smaller, more wild versions of their favorite fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Donald Davis and his research team from the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry published a study in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They evaluated U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 including 43 different vegetables and fruits. Protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C all had "reliable declines" over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues attribute this declining nutritional content to the adoption of agricultural practices designed to improve traits such as size, growth rate and pest resistance.
Let's look at grass-fed beef a little closer. Grass-fed cattle are raised exclusively on grass or hay after weaning. This differs from most American cattle that are grain-finished in a feedlot giving the beef the classic flavor most of us have grown accustomed to.
While grass-fed beef is leaner than conventional beef, its fat tends to have a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids. In contrast, when cattle are fed grains at the end of their lives, their omega-3 stores rapidly decline.
The amount of omega-3s in beef depends on the animal’s diet and breed.
In comparing the omega-3's in grass-fed beef and fish, those found in grass-fed beef are predominantly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) as opposed to the EPA and DHA found in wild fish. The conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is very low. Even walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp nuts contain more ALA than grass-fed beef. Yet the fact grass-fed beef has less fat and fewer calories and is packed with more nutrients than grain-fed animals makes it a far better option. Grass-fed beef also has conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a powerful polyunsaturated fatty acid that’s been demonstrated in medical studies to help fight cancer, discourage weight gain and build muscle.
Omega-3s are most abundant in seafood like salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, sardines and tuna. Certain nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds and walnuts also have omega-3 fats. Quail, turkey and dark meat chicken like thighs and wings all have omega-3's. The levels are higher if they are pasture raised. This gives high schoolers a reason to learn about chloroplasts in biology class. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. Over half of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s. Grain has very little omega-3s and much of it is genetically modified or hybridized. When cattle is moved to a predominantly grain rich diet, the omega-3 stores rapidly diminish from cows.
When chickens are housed indoors and deprived of their natural habitat of greens, their meat and eggs become artificially low in omega-3s. Eggs from pastured hens can contain anywhere from two to ten times the omega-3s than eggs from factory hens. When you purchase eggs, look for pastured eggs and not just free range or organic. Free range does not have a clear definition when it relates to the natural habitat of the birds. It may refer to a small door leading out of their coop. The coop may be very crowded and the door leading to the natural area may rarely be used by the hens even if they have access to a healthier environment. It also may simply mean they are able to roam around a concrete area. You want to make sure the hens spend time outdoors foraging in their natural habitat. That is far more likely when you choose pastured hen eggs or pastured chickens.
Although nuts provide some omega-3s, they are not the optimal source since they tend to have more omega-6 fats than omega-3s. The best option are macadamias followed by walnuts. Nuts have many health benefits, but trying to get enough omega- 3s from nut and vegetarian sources will be an uphill battle.
When you purchase "Atlantic salmon" at the grocery store, most of the time the salmon comes from farm-raised waters and not the Atlantic Ocean. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has recently discovered this dangerous new trend. Their recommendation is to eat only Alaskan wild salmon, either fresh or canned, as this is the lowest in contaminants while still high in omega-3s.
You would assume that the fat found in salmon is the healthy omega-3 fat, however the fat in farm raised salmon is primarily the unhealthier omega-6 fat. In attempts to increase profits, fish farms are starting to move from feeding their fish the healthier fish oil to vegetable oil, reducing the amount of omega-3s in farm raised fish even more. In addition to an unhealthy diet, the fish are also exposed to more pesticides and herbicides in their artificial habitat.