The Great Fat Debate
Looking past real food versus synthetic feed debate (yes, raw versus kibble), we tend to miss another very important nutritional debate raging. One that is also fuelled by a large multi-billion-dollar industry; - supplements. And the leading supplement – Omega’s! The “my-fat-is-better-than-your-fat” debate.
Fish Oil vs Krill Oils, Flax vs Coconut, Coconut vs Canola, Canola vs Olive Oil, and so forth. And then there is plant-based vs animal based. All pitching the same “perfect” Omega 3 & 6 ratio, or boost. Why is this important to us? Cause BigPetFood is learning from the woo-man supplement industry, fast, and they are Masters' of Marketing.
So why should we care? For one, too much Omega 6 in the diet increases inflammation in the body. Too little Omega-3 impacts many bodily processes fundamental to health. But like taxis and security response vehicles on Joburg roads, both need the same road to reach their destinations, and in most instances, without regard for any other commuters on the road, or each other. Each one has an important role to play in our society, but the number of Omega-3, 6 and 9 travellers on the road (pathways) at the same time, or the ratio, is where things tend to go wrong. And make no mistake – what the best ratio might be, for us and our fur kids, is HIGHLY controversial.
Let’s put this topic in context - this debate started in 1961, when the American Heart Association (AHA) made a cautious proclamation and started a PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) dispute that persists to this day. And with alternate dietary beliefs and philosophies being adopted, the debate is further complicated with “animal” and “plant”-based omega fatty acids entering this realm of nutritional awareness.
What Exactly Are Omega-3, 6 and 9?
The omegas are a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) [Ref 1] essential to health, for us and for our fur kids. Unlike other nutrients, they can’t be synthesized by the body and therefore must be obtained from the diet, like taurine for cats.
Strictly speaking, there are two essential fatty acids: alpha linolenic acid (ALA) (omega-3) [Ref 2] and linolenic acid (LA) (omega-6) [Ref 3]. Omega-9 [Ref 4] is not classed as essential, since it can be synthesized by the body from other fats.
Within the omega-3 family [Ref 5], the long-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) [Ref 6] and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) [Ref 7] are the most potent, based on current understanding. Although the body can make these from the shorter-chain omega-3, science literature states that it does so with very poor efficiency.
In context of this debate, one of the observations is that Omega-6 [Ref 8] is being vilified [Ref 9]. However, both Omega-3 and 6 are ESSENTIAL to our health. Omega-6 is being painted as “bad” because the most abundant source of it, in our and our fur kids’ diets, is heated vegetable oil and cereals. Our western diet. Heated vegetable oil is susceptible to oxidation. Excessive heating can even create trans-fats (the real super-villains) [Ref 10], and it’s a proxy for processed junk food, including McKibble and McCan.
Based on our understanding of this topic, what is really making us, and our fur kids, fat and sick is a skewed mix of two polyunsaturated fats in our diet caused by too few omega-3 fats from fish, nuts (for pet parents) and leafy greens and too much omega-6 fat from processed food, vegetable oils such as sunflower seed oil, and meat from intensively farmed animals fed on grains, not grass [Ref 11], and so forth [Ref 12 & 13].
The Basics of Fatty Acids
Fatty acids have several roles in the body. In addition to be the primary component of stored fat, they also serve as important building blocks of cell membranes and regulate inflammatory processes [Ref 14].
There are two main types of essential fatty acids [Ref 15]: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, you’ll find in animals and tropical plants. Unsaturated fats, which are usually liquid at room temperature, you’ll find in vegetables, seeds, and fatty fish.
Unsaturated fats are classified as either polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), which mainly include omega-3 omega-6 fatty acids, or monounsaturated fats (MUFA), which include omega-9 fatty acids.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA; however, the conversion is very inefficient, so dietary intake of EPA and DHA is important. EPA and DHA both play a crucial role in the development of the brain and central nervous system [Ref 16]. They also have potent anti-inflammatory properties.
Because omega-3 fatty acids are so critical to neurological development, it is theorized that supplementation may aid in the treatment of neurological disorders. In addition, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids may lead to improvements in some inflammatory conditions. Unfortunately, in both cases, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have found that supplementation shows mixed results, no benefits, or clinically insignificant benefits, with one exciting exception. Daily supplementation of EPA/DHA can lead to improvements in the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Key point to remember - Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation [Ref 17], diabetes [Ref 18], and bone mineral density loss [Ref 19]. They can also help with anxiety and various types of cancer [Ref 20].
Animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: herring, sardines, salmon, mackerel, swordfish, mussels, tilapia, halibut, flounder, and pollock.
Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, pecans, and hazelnuts.
What Are Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
The primary omega-6 PUFA found in the diet is linoleic acid (LA). Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, which is converted to another type of omega-6 PUFA called arachidonic acid (AA) [Ref 21]. Arachidonic acid and EPA serve as precursors to an important group of signalling molecules known as the eicosanoids [Ref 22].
Eicosanoids derived from AA increase inflammation and can increase the intensity and duration of pain and fever. The eicosanoids derived from EPA are what gives omega-3 PUFA its anti-inflammatory properties [Ref 23 & 24]. The balance of these two types of eicosanoids has important implications for your body’s inflammatory response. Inflammation increases as the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in your diet increases. Stated in another way, too much Omega-6 in the diet leaves your body in a permanent “state of inflammation”.
Key point to remember - Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for proper brain function. They can also help treat rheumatoid arthritis and minimize symptoms of ADHD.
Sources of omega-6 fatty acids include: safflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and sunflower oil.
What Are Omega-9 Fatty Acids?
Omega-9 MUFA are components of animal fat and vegetable oil. The main type of omega-9 fatty acids is oleic acid [Ref 25], which is found in olives, nuts, seeds, and animal fats. Because omega-9 fatty acids are non-essential, current knowledge dictate that supplementation is not considered necessary. But like taurine, we know that there is an element of knowledge not yet discovered or acknowledged here.
Sources of omega-9 fatty acids include: olive oil and animal fat.
Relationship of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Since omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are a part of every cell in the body, in ours and our fur kids, changes in dietary composition of fatty acids has a direct effect on the concentration of fatty acids in the cell membranes. Every living cell in your body needs omegas (not just the one or the other) because every cell has a membrane. The function of this membrane is to allow nutrients into the cell and all toxins to pass out of the cell. A healthy membrane is fluid and flexible. A cell without a healthy membrane cannot retain water or vital nutrients. And, believe it or not, an unhealthy membrane also disallows a cell to communicate with other cells around it, called "cell signalling". Why is this important? Researchers are beginning to understand that this loss of communication is how cancerous tumours may begin. As all dietary fats become incorporated into cell membranes in our body, a diet high in saturated fats can produce problems with a cell membrane's ability to stay flexible and fluid as saturated fats become solid at room temperature. This in turn influences the amount of inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory eicosanoids produced by your cells.
Historically, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet was thought to be roughly 2:1; however, an increase in the use of vegetable oils and other non-specie appropriate food fragments has raised that ratio to as high as 20:1. The current recommendation to improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. As you might suspect, reducing the amount of omega-6 fatty acids will also help to improve this ratio! [Ref 26]
Key point to remember – it is not about increasing Omega-3 intake in the diet, it is about decreasing the Omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. In other words – we need to try and figure out how to balance the omega-3 and 6 in-take, to get closer to a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio, by looking at whole food sources instead of food fragments that ends up in skewing the ratios.
To demonstrate our point regarding whole nutrition and ratios, let’s consider almonds and brazil nuts in our (pet parents’) diets.
Both reviled for its linoleic acid and beloved for its easy metamorphosis into low-carb baking meal, the almond assumes a precarious position in this debate. But it’s much more than the bag of linoleic acid. An almond contains vitamin E, magnesium, prebiotic fiber, and protective polyphenols [Ref 27]. Why does this matter, and how does it relate to the claimed health effects of excess linoleic acid?
- Magnesium deficiency is strongly related to lipid peroxidation in vivo – the very same thing we’re trying to avoid by limiting omega-6 fats [Ref 28];
- Vitamin E protects the linoleic acid from oxidation (that’s why vitamin E tends to come packaged with linoleic acid in nature, because plants don’t like their fats oxidizing, either) [Ref 29];
- The polyphenols found in almond skins protect LDL from oxidation, too, especially when combined with the vitamin E found in almond meat [Ref 30];
- Almond prebiotics are also beneficial, leading to a healthier, more diverse intestinal microbiota [Ref 31].
Then there is the Brazil nut [Ref 32], famous repository of “so much omega-6!” It’s also a good source of magnesium, vitamin E, and selenium [Ref 33]. We’ve already covered how magnesium and vitamin E can counter any potential negative effects of the linoleic acid they come packaged with, so let’s discuss the selenium in Brazil nuts.
One common complaint about linoleic acid is that it depresses the metabolism by interfering with thyroid function. However, selenium is one of the most important pro-thyroid minerals in existence [Ref 34]. It allows the conversion of the storage thyroid hormone (T4) into the active thyroid hormone (T3). T3 is what increases metabolism, improves LDL clearance by increasing LDL receptor activity, and generally does most of the positive stuff we associate with the thyroid. And arguably the best, and certainly the easiest, way to get enough selenium into pet parents' diet is by eating a couple Brazil nuts each day.
Why Does the Balance Matter?
Both omega-3 and 6 are converted by the body into hormone-like eicosanoids but, because they compete for the same pathway (roads), the ratio in the diet determines how many omega-3 and omega-6-derived eicosanoids are made. This is where the potential problem lies.
Whereas omega-6 eicosanoids are very potent and promote inflammation, omega-3 eicosanoids are less inflammatory, even anti-inflammatory.
Excessive levels of omega-6, or rather a deficiency of omega-3, can therefore lead to a pro-inflammatory state in the body, as we have stated before, has been linked to several conditions including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, stroke, cancer and allergies in pets [Ref 35].
Although studies suggest that we evolved eating diets with a ratio of omega-6 to 3 of 1:1, the ratio in Western (and McKibble and McCan) diets is more like 10:1 or even as much as 20:1 [Ref 36], due to an increase in processed foods and a reliance on cereal products in our, and our fur kids, diets.
Benefits of Omega fatty acids in the diet?
By now, we hope, you will understand that essential fatty acids are highly involved in the production of other fatty acids and overall healthfulness in your fur kids’ body. They help in various regenerative functions and are thus required to stop development of various diseases! EPA and DHA are very important omega-3 fatty acids required for vision and neural development. AA is an omega-6 fatty acid required for taming down inflammatory diseases. Combined these fatty acids provide several benefits to our four-legged friends:
- Reduces Osteoarthritis - is a joint disorder in which the pet suffers from painful and inflammatory joints. Omega-3 fatty acids can subside inflammation, stiffness and lameness in the pet’s joints. A study from the Netherlands published in 2012 in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition suggests that cats with naturally occurring osteoarthritis (OA) show symptom improvement when their diets are supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids [Ref 37]. A Canadian study published around the same time indicates that omega-3s are equally beneficial for dogs with naturally occurring OA [Ref 38]. The dogs were fed a diet containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and showed significant improvement in locomotor disability and performance of daily activities. In another study, cats with degenerative joint disease (DJD) fed a diet high in EPA and DHA, plus green-lipped mussel extract and glucosamine chondroitin sulfate, showed improved measurements of mobility [Ref 39].
- Controls and prevents skin disorders – today, pets suffer from many kinds of skin problems and allergies. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially beneficial in reducing allergies caused due to inhalation of pollens and molds. It also reduces itchiness and inflammation in skin and thus improves the pet’s skin and coat. Back in 1994, a study of 16 dogs given omega-3 fatty acids that included high levels of EPA showed improvement in itchiness, self-trauma, coat character, and hair loss compared with administration of ALA alone. [Ref 40] The dogs in the study had symptoms of idiopathic pruritus (unexplained itchy skin), confirmed atopy (inflamed skin due to allergies) and/or flea allergy. Fast-forward 20 years to 2014, to a study out of Munich, Germany that evaluated a spot-on formulation of essential fatty acids and essential oils on 48 dogs with canine atopic dermatitis [Ref 41].
- Controls intestinal diseases in dogs - reasons for inflammatory intestinal diseases in dogs are not well defined but studies have suggested that Omega-3 fatty acids play a big role in reducing the clinical signs of gastrointestinal diseases in dogs. They also promote repair of the intestinal tissues. So, include these fatty acids in the pet’s food and keep your pet’s intestinal problems at bay.
- Helps to manage chronic kidney disease (CKD). In a study of dogs with experimentally induced chronic kidney disease (CKD), researchers demonstrated that supplementation with omega-6 fatty acids accelerates the decline of kidney function, while omega-3s do the opposite [Ref 42]. A retrospective study of 146 cats with chronic kidney disease showed a survival time of 16 months for those on a diet supplemented with EPA, compared with 7 months for the control group. The cats receiving the highest amounts of dietary EPA had the longest survival times [Ref 43].
- Manage cognitive function & neurological health - A study published in 2012 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that feeding weaned puppies foods high in DHA improves several aspects of their development. The researchers found that diets rich in DHA and other nutrients known to support neurocognitive development improved cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in growing dogs. [Ref 44]. The puppies fed diets containing the highest levels of DHA showed significantly better results in reversal learning tasks, visual contrast discrimination, and early psychomotor performance than puppies eating low to moderate amounts of DHA. Interestingly, those puppies also had significantly higher rabies antibody titers one and two weeks after vaccination, and an improved ability to see in low-light or dark conditions.
How food, and its component molecules, affect the body is still a large mystery to us. In our minds, that makes the use of supplements for anything other than treating a deficiency questionable [Ref 45]. We also don’t believe taking a handful of synthetic supplements to be a substitute for wealth of nutrients pet parents get from eating whole food, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains; - biologically, specie appropriate, dietary building blocks for pet parents. Raw, unprocessed, whole foods for our fur kids; - biologically, specie appropriate, dietary building blocks for mutts, pups, masters, nobles and muggles.
If we consider the complex nature of whole foods, then we are advocating that you don’t need to fear whole foods such as our nutty examples, or the supreme pet cuisine we supply from Doggobone, Raw Love Pets, Simply Pets or Dogmatters, for they are undoubtedly healthy foods. Foods. See that word? Fear the isolated, super-heated, burnt fatty acids, if you like, in your and your fur kids diet instead. As per our nutty Omega-6 examples, whole FOODs are complex nutrient matrices teeming with as-yet undiscovered bioactive compounds. The single most important benefit of fooding your fur kids with real pet cuisine is “life energy”. Food that is whole, fresh, and uncooked, helps the body fend off ageing, improve cell oxygenation, metabolism, and renewal, helps fight off diseases, and are easily digested!
- A controversy over a dietary recommendation for omega-6 fatty acids shows no sign of resolving itself, by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay (Ref)
- Fish oil: friend or foe? By Dr Howard LeWine (Ref)
- Krill Oil vs Fish Oil: The Great Omega-3 Debate (Ref)
- Canola Oil vs Olive Oil vs Vegetable Oil vs Coconut Oil vs Almond Oil (Ref)
- Should You Be Concerned About Flaxseed? Despite the evidence that flax-seeds are a powerful superfood, they may be dangerous for certain people. (Ref)
- Best Omega-3 Supplement: Flaxseed Oil vs. Fish Oil (Ref)
References & Research
- Polyunsaturated fatty acid (WikiPedia)
- alpha-Linolenic acid (WikiPedia)
- Linoleic acid (WikiPedia)
- Omega-9 fatty acid (WikiPedia)
- Omega-3 fatty acid (WikiPedia)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (WikiPedia)
- Docosapentaenoic acid (WikiPedia)
- Omega-6 fatty acid (WikiPedia)
- Harmful, harmless or helpful? The n-6 fatty acid debate goes on (LWW)
- Trans fat (WikiPedia)
- Through ruminant nutrition to human health: role of fatty acids (Cambridge)
- The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between (Harvard)
- The Essential PUFA Guide For Dogs And Cats, C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D. (Chiro)
- Functional Roles of Fatty Acids and Their Effects on Human Health. (PubMED)
- Essential fatty acid (WikiPedia)
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA (WikiPedia)
- A systematic review of omega-3 fatty acids and osteoporosis (WikiPedia)
- Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on Diabetic Nephropathy Progression in Patients with Diabetes and Hypertriglyceridemia (PubMED)
- A New Insight to Bone Turnover: Role of ω-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PubMED)
- Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cancer Risk (Research Gate)
- Arachidonic acid (WikiPedia)
- Eicosanoid (WikiPedia)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes (PubMED)
- Omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes: nutrition or pharmacology? (PubMED)
- Oleic acid (WikiPedia)
- The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. (PubMED)
- Nutritional Facts for Almond Nuts (Nutrition Value)
- Magnesium deficiency-related changes in lipid peroxidation and collagen metabolism in vivo in rat heart. (PubMED)
- Vitamin E function and requirements in relation to PUFA (PubMED)
- Flavonoids from almond skins are bioavailable and act synergistically with vitamins C and E to enhance hamster and human LDL resistance to oxidation. (PubMED)
- Prebiotic Potential Of Almonds (Science Daily)
- Nutritional Facts for Brazilnuts (Nutrition Value)
- Selenium in biology (WikiPedia)
- Selenium and the thyroid gland: more good news for clinicians. (PubMED)
- Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids for Your Pet (Mercola)
- An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity (PubMED)
- The effect of dietary long-chain omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on owner's perception of behaviour and locomotion in cats with naturally occurring osteoarthritis. (PubMED).
- Effects of feeding a high omega-3 fatty acids diet in dogs with naturally occurring osteoarthritis. (PubMED)
- Evaluation of a therapeutic diet for feline degenerative joint disease. (PubMED)
- Double‐blinded Crossover Study with Marine Oil Supplementation Containing High‐dose icosapentaenoic Acid for the Treatment of Canine Pruritic Skin Disease (Wiley)
- The effect of a spot-on formulation containing polyunsaturated fatty acids and essential oils on dogs with atopic dermatitis. (PubMED)
- Effects of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in early renal insufficiency in dogs. (PubMED)
- Clinical evaluation of dietary modification for treatment of spontaneous chronic kidney disease in cats. (PubMED)
- Evaluation of cognitive learning, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in healthy puppies fed foods fortified with docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil from 8 to 52 weeks of age. (PubMED).
- Potential Adverse Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Dogs and Cats (Wiley)