Review of “The Omega Plan” by Artemis Simopoulos & Jo Robinson
This book argues that Omega-3 fats, along with the antioxidants and phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are the missing ingredients for optimal health, and that consuming significant amounts of fat is healthy as long as the harmful fats are replaced with beneficial fats. The Omega Plan suggests seven dietary guidelines, starting with eating foods rich in Omega-3s such as fatty fish, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds and green leafy vegetables, or take Omega-3 supplements. Use olive oil and canola oil. Eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Eat more vegetable protein including peas, beans and nuts. Choose lean meat and low fat milk. Avoid oils high in omega-6, including corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils. Reduce your intake of trans-fatty acids. The book provides useful summaries at the end of each chapter. The book is highly recommended as a source of information about Omega-3s and their benefits, and includes a comprehensive table of the essential fatty acid content of many foods. However, while the book is very strong on outlining the benefits of Omega-3s, the book does not make clear that some improvements in health resulting from increasing the Omega-3 ratio may have a significant lag time, especially if consumption of Omega-3s has been deficient for many years. In “The Queen of Fats”, the author notes that humans store up significant amounts of fat, and it may take many months of increased Omega-3 consumption to significantly alter the Omega-3 composition of the stored fat. This factor may be an argument for overcompensating for the years of deficiency by increasing the intake of Omega-3 foods as suggested by “the Omega Plan” and in addition taking fish oil supplements until the body returns to balance.
The book cites studies which indicate eating a very low fat diet can signal the body to produce fat from carbohydrates, but (since the body cannot manufacture essential fatty acids, the body instead produces saturated fat (palmitic acid) that is linked to increased heart disease. The book hypothesizes that one major factor in the imbalance in the modern diet of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3 fats is that early humans got most of their nourishment from fish and meat, fruits and vegetables. The other two food groups (cereals/breads and dairy products) were a minor part of the Paleolithic diet. Grain based products were nonexistent until the agricultural revolution. Dairy products were virtually unknown until the domestication of animals about 10,000 years ago, (and the consumption of dairy products requires the enzyme to digest lactose). The fact that our ancestors ate more greens and less (or no) grains, helps explain the imbalance in the modern diet. LNA (alpha-linolenic acid, parent Omega-3) is concentrated in green leafy vegetables (and a few grains such as flaxseed and canola), and LA (linoleic acid, parent Omega-6) is concentrated in seeds, beans and grains (wheat, corn, safflower and soybeans). Reducing the amount of grains in our diet would help return to a more balanced diet. Wild animals ate lots of greens also, and thus have high ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6. However, domesticated animals are usually grain fed, and thus meat from those animal sources would also have to be reduced in our diet to arrive at a diet with a better Omega-3 balance. Many chronic diseases are related to an overproduction of Omega-6 inflammatory eicosanoids, such as asthma, allergies, psoriasis and colitis (and menstrual cramps), while Omega-3 eicosanoids have a much reduced inflammatory effect. An Omega-3 eicosanoid reduces artery constriction, and the inflammation reduction effect also helps prevent artery inflammation, a contributor to heart attacks. The book also suggests that consumption of monosaturated fats, (such as olive oil) will help lower LDL cholesterol, which is a heart attack risk factor. With regard to cancer, eating high amounts of fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of cancer, and a diet low in Omega-6 and high in Omega-3 reduces cancer risk. An improved Omega-3 balance increases insulin sensitivity. The brain has a high DHA content (an Omega-3 fat) and DHA improves brain function and low levels of DHA are linked to depression. An improved Omega-3 balance lowers the risk and lessens the severity of inflammatory and autoimune disorders. The last half of the book provides shopping and recipe and meal plan suggestions to put into practice the seven dietary guidelines mentioned at the beginning of the book.
The analysis of the Paleolithic diet in “The Omega Plan” is contrasted with the suggestion in “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon, that the problem is that our ancestors ate fruits and grains in their whole unrefined state. The author says that refining process strips food of its vitamin and mineral content, leaving “empty” calories. While whole grain foods are without doubt more nutritious than processed grain foods, “The Omega Plan” argues that eating whole grain foods (generally high inLA, the parent Omega-6) can still inexorably lead to an Omega-3 imbalance, absent a focus on ensuring the consumption of a balance of Omega-3 foods.