Review of “The Queen of Fats” by Susan Allport
This book is highly recommended. It outlines the history of the scientific study of fats, leading up to the current understanding that both Omega-6 fats and Omega-3 fats (PUFAs, polyunsaturated fatty acids) are essential to body function, and that the optimum ratio of intake of these fats is thought to be about 4:1. Neither of these fats can be manufactured by our bodies, and must be supplied by our diet. The key message of the book is that the modern diet is much higher in Omega-6 fats than Omega-3 fats (upwards of 20:1). One of the main reasons for this shift is that foods high in Omega-3 spoil quickly (because of oxidation) and thus food processors and sellers prefer foods with lower Omega-3 content. However, an unbalanced intake of Omega-6 fats can lead to significant health problems. She also makes the important point that the supplementation/addition of fish oils will not significantly affect the ratio unless the amount of Omega-6 fats consumed is also significantly reduced.
One of the first studies to highlight the importance of the Omega-3 fats was a research expedition to Greenland to take and analyze blood samples from the Eskimos living there. The death rate from heart disease was one tenth that of Denmark, yet the Greenlanders were known to eat large quantities of seal and whale blubber. The analysis showed that the Eskimos’ blood contained very small amount of AA (arachidonic acid, an Omega-6 fat) and very large amounts of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, an Omega-3 fat) compared to the Danish population. The Eskimos also took longer to stop bleeding after the taking of blood samples, and were known for having frequent nosebleeds.
There is a wealth of information about fats, and the story of how various researchers have made advances in the field is outlined in a relatively clear and understandable fashion. The book presents a lot of somewhat technical information in a very readable manner. One of the significant aspects of fats is that the parent Omega-6 fat is LA (linoleic acid), while the parent Omega-3 fat is LNA (alpha linolenic acid). These fats are found in plants in various amounts. In animals, these parent fats are converted to more specialized fatty acids. LA is converted into AA ,while ALA is converted into DHA and EPA. Wild animals that eat food with lots of LNA will end up with higher ratios of LNA, DHA and EPA in their bodies. Domesticated animals fed food with lots of LA (like grains), end up with lots of Omega-6 fat in their bodies, and very little Omega-3. In the modern diet, fish (excluding farm fish) are the only remaining animal food source that live wild and as a result have high Omega-3 ratios in their bodies.
The same effect is seen in the human body. The best ratio of LA to LNA consumption is 2.3:1. Higher ratios of LA lead to higher conversion of LA to AA (an Omega-6 fat). Consuming foods with high amounts of LA also inhibits the conversion of LNA to the specialized Omega-3s, and leads to a deficiency of DHA and EPA. When the human diet contains foods with the optimum ratio of LA to LNA, the body converts the most LNA to DHA and EPA (Omega-3 fats). The end result this conversion process is that humans can ensure that their bodies are creating an optimal amount of the Omega-3 fatty acids (like DHA and EPA) by eating a balanced diet of plant foods that contain the optimal ratio of LA to LNA. In addition, we can supplement the amount of the specialized Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) by eating animals who have been raised in the wild, and thus have a more optimum amount of specialized fatty acids in their flesh (like fish).
One of the reasons DHA is such an important fatty acid is that it makes up, on average, 25% of the brain, while EPA makes up only 10% of the brain. (This is likely the reason fish are considered “brain food”.) EPA helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and the inflammatory response in human tissue. Recent news reports also link fish oil consumption to alleviation of depression symptoms.
A large part of the book discusses how saturated fat consumption and cholesterol levels were initially linked to heart disease. While this association is not disputed, the author believes that reducing saturated fat alone (without ensuring an optimal ration of Omega-3 consumption) will not lead to improved health. The importance of Omega-3 fats in the diet has been embraced by the news media, but food processing companies are still resistant to making changes that would result in a significant increase in the Omega-3 fats in their products. With regard to cholesterol, many of the scientists whose research is discussed in the book dispute the well-accepted theory that high cholesterol is a reliable high risk indicator for heart disease. One study in particular, outlined in the notes of the book, suggests that people with high levels of serum cholesterol (200 mg and above) score better on a variety of tests measuring mental ability. (A more interesting study might measure whether the levels of DHA in the blood (or brain) are correlated with increased mental ability(and/or are more significant than the cholesterol levels).)
While the book is not focused on diet suggestions, she does outline 10 suggestions, the first being to eat lots of green vegetables (since they contain alpha linolenic acid, the parent Omega-3) and lots of all vegetables and fruits, (since they contain anti-oxidants, which protect the fats in your body against oxidation). I would personally suggest (if you find salads get boring after a while) eating a healthy portion of flexseed (1/2 cup of flaxseed freshly ground in a conical burr grinder with fresh or frozen blueberries and lots of almond milk) in the morning, along with freshly made vegetable juice throughout the day. Although flaxseeds apparently contain cyanogens, their toxicity is not confirmed. I also like lox on bagels, sushi and waldorf salad (fresh walnuts are relatively high in LNA).
A review at Amazon.com [http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Fats-Omega-3s-Removed-California/dp/0520242823] suggests that, in the book, low-carb high-fat diets were ridiculed from start to finish as destructive and a fad, despite overwhelming evidence that they are not [destructive]. I think it would be fairer to say that the central theme of the book is that current research has identified particularly Omega -3 (as well as Omega-6) as fatty acids which are essential to health and intake of these essential fats must be balanced in a relatively well known ratio. The EFAs cannot be manufactured by the body. Unfortunately, the modern (North American) diet is dangerously overweighted with Omega-6 fats, and good health requires that intake of Omega-6s be decreased and Omega-3s increased. The book also suggests that a diet which is only focused on increased fat intake and does not ensure an EFA balance will inevitably lead to health problems (even if the change from a high refined carb to a high fat diet results in a short-term improvement in health). The review also says that Allport’s recommendation to eat large amounts of fruit (p139) could be a disaster for diabetics. This criticism is a bit akin to criticizing mothers everywhere from time immemorial who have encouraged their children to eat more fruits and vegetables. It may be true that eating (high glycemic index) fruits could cause a spike in blood-sugar levels. However, relatively speaking, refined carbs and milk fall into the most toxic food category, while fruits have unquestioned beneficial antioxidants. The book actually notes that (of all fruits and vegetables) green vegetables are to be preferred because they are full of the parent Omega-3, LNA.