Sunday, April 10, 2011

US Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fat Consumption over the Last Century

Omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are essential nutrients that play many important roles in the body. They are highly bioactive, and so any deviation from ancestral intake norms should probably be viewed with suspicion. I've expressed my opinion many times on this blog that omega-6 consumption is currently too high due to our high intake of refined seed oils (corn, soybean, sunflower, etc.) in industrial nations. Although it's clear that the quantity of omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat have changed over the last century, no one had ever published a paper that attempted to systematically quantify it until last month (1).

Drs. Chris Ramsden and Joseph Hibbeln worked on this paper (the first author was Dr. Tanya Blasbalg and the senior author was Dr. Robert Rawlings)-- they were the first and second authors of a different review article I reviewed recently (2). Their new paper is a great reference that I'm sure I'll cite many times. I'm going to briefly review it and highlight a few key points.

1. The intake of omega-6 linoleic acid has increased quite a bit since 1909. It would have been roughly 2.3% of calories in 1909, while in 1999 it was 7.2%. That represents an increase of 213%. Linoleic acid is the form of omega-6 that predominates in seed oils.

2. The intake of omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid has also increased, for reasons that I'll explain below. It changed from 0.35% of calories to 0.72%, an increase of 109%.

3. The intake of long-chain omega-6 and omega-3 fats have decreased. These are the highly bioactive fats for which linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are precursors. Arachidonic acid, DHA, DPA and EPA intakes have declined. This mostly has to do with changing husbandry practices and the replacement of animal fats with seed oils in the diet.

4. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats has increased. There is still quite a bit of debate over whether the ratios matter, or simply the absolute amount of each. I maintain that there is enough evidence from highly controlled animal studies and the basic biochemistry of PUFAs to tentatively conclude that the ratio is important. At a minimum, we know that excess linoleic acid inhibits omega-3 metabolism (3, 4, 5, 6). The omega-6:3 ratio increased from 5.4:1 to 9.6:1 between 1909 and 2009, a 78% increase.

5. The biggest factor in both linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid intake changes was the astonishing rise in soybean oil consumption. Soybean oil consumption increased from virtually nothing to 7.4% of total calories, eclipsing all sources of calories besides sugar, dairy and grains! That's because processed food is stuffed with it. It's essentially a byproduct of defatted soybean meal-- the second most important animal feed after corn. Check out this graph from the paper:

I think this paper is an important piece of the puzzle as we try to figure out what happened to nutrition and health in the US over the last century.

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