I have a little radio which follows me about the house as I cook, clean, wash and do pretty much anything that doesn't require reading. The dial is always set to radio four (talk radio) and I look forward to the Food Programme each Sunday with something approaching religious fervour. The programming is pretty broad church, but often focused on local, seasonal and sustainable products, championing small producers and 'slow' food. I often find myself pausing dishcloth in hand with a knot of joy in my heart that this type of thing is mainstream now and not just for us hairshirt wearing types to bleat about as we wash our muddy veg.
This week the show strayed a little further into what I consider my territory - nutrition - so I hushed Nick and Fin from their daily business in order to immerse myself completely. It concerned the essential fatty acids Omega 6 and 3 - well known to parents trying to boost their children's brain power, arthritis sufferers aiming to reduce inflammation and countless baby boomers who were fed cod liver oil neat from a spoon before it got packaged up and sold as palatably chewy fruit flavoured supplements.
I'm not going to patronise you, because I'm sure that you already know that the western diet is too high in Omega 6 (found in vegetable oils, breads, cereals, poultry, eggs and nuts among others) and much too low in Omega 3 (found in fish, flaxseed, walnuts, grass fed meat, cheese and milk etc). Mostly because the foods that contain Omega 6 are widely consumed and Omega 3 containing foods much less so. The reason that this is a problem is because we need balance and when the essential fats are out of balance a whole host of health problems occur.
Omega 3 deficiency is thought to contribute to disorders as diverse as cancer, cariovascular health, ADHD, PMS, Arthritis, Mental Health Disorders, Skin problems and Immunity. With a list of related conditions due to inflammation caused by lack of Omega 3. See anything you like? Most of us have suffered from a deficiency of this nutrient at some point, to one extent or another and there just aren't enough cod in the sea to provide us with the amount we would need to correct it with supplements. In fact, there aren't enough fish in the sea for us to correct the imbalance that way either.
Before you rush off to scoop up a handful of cod liver oil pills, or swap to a brand of margarine that is higher in Omega 3 than all the others, remember that you should probably be beware packaged foods that claim to have health benefits - unless it's a bag of flax seed. Margarine is a good example of a food that manufacturers know is disastrously high in Omega 6. Knowing that Omega 6 is in for some seriously bad press, they have added a little Omega 3 to the mix and slapped on a label that screams, 'high in Omega 3!'. Yet if you were to consume enough margarine to get your Omega 3 requirement, you would ingest many, many, many times more than you need of Omega 6 (not to mention a disgusting amount of calories and processed food). Health claims on food packaging are rarely anything more than a marketing tool for something you didn't need to eat in the first place. Butter will always win out in my opinion - because it is a real food, unprocessed, something our body and tastebuds recognise with ease. Its not something you should eat with abandon (ok, maybe occasional abandon) but its not the bad guy of margarine advertising propaganda.
Not all Omega 3 fats are created equal either - or rather converted by the body equally. The fats can be broken down (chemically speaking) into long chain and short chain fats. I'm not going to go into this in detail here because you can go look it up if you're really interested. What you need to know is that the long chain fats which occur in animal and fish products are more easily assimilated by the body than the short chain version which generally occurs in plants (nuts, flax, vegetables and fruit). This doesn't mean that vegetarians have to eat huge quantities of organic cheese in order to get their requirement, but they do need to show a real commitment to eating green vegetables, nuts, wholegrains and eggs and reducing the amount of fried, baked and processed foods they put away.
The answer for non vegetarians is to eat free range animal produce, because Omega 3 is absent from meat, milk and eggs that have been produced without grass and insects. Isn't that amazing? We all know that it's wrong to keep hens caged, pigs in stalls and raise cows in barns, but did you know that eating these products was depleting you of one of the major nutrients you need to keep your heart, brain, joints, nervous system and skin healthy? Free range meat, milk, butter, poultry, eggs and of course - all oily fish are all good dietary sources of omega 3 fats because they have been raised with the sun on their back and a belly full of grass and insects, just what they need to be healthy themselves.
I'm not advocating eating huge quantities of any of this animal produce - if the vegetarians can get by without it, then the rest of us might just want to take a leaf out of their book and use animal products (even those rich in omega 3) as a complement to a diet rich in vegetables and fruit. A belly full of omega 3 saturated meat won't do you any good at all if it sits there undigested. Help it all along with life giving vegetables, salads and fruit to get the best results.
It's not complicated at all when you strip it back to basics. In fact, getting your essential fatty acids couldn't be more delicious. The more real food you eat, the less you'll need to worry about getting your complement of Omega 3 fats and you'll be supporting good farming practice at the same time. Pass the watercress, walnut and organic chicken salad will you?