Food is medicine: Why you need essential fatty acids in your diet and how to get them

Food truly is medicine. This is a concept I discussed with Dr Terry Wahls in episode 019 of my podcast, Unstress. When we eat food it breaks down into amino acids, glucose and lipids. These molecules are then used to fuel our body. They form the building blocks of cells, provide us with energy and support our immune system. We are literally what we eat. I think this quote sums it up beautifully:

“ The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison” – Ann Wigmore

The healing nature of food is something Dr Terry Wahls discussed throughout episode 019, especially in relation to treating and managing her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. I really encourage you to listen to this episode as you will discover how essential good quality food really is to our health.

Food as medicine is something I want to dive deeper into in the coming months. My message is very much about encouraging everyone to take control of their health and I believe that eating nourishing foods is an incredibly important part of that.

One nutrient we frequently hear about is the importance of essential fatty acids, especially omega-3 and omega-6.

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Why do we need them?

Both omega-3 and omega-6 are important for our health and because our body can’t make them ourselves we must obtain these nutrients through the diet. Furthermore they are important fatty acids for the body’s metabolism and building membrane structures.

Omega-6 helps to:

  • Promote inflammation
  • Constrict blood vessels
  • Support the formation of blood cell clots

Omega-3 helps to:

  • Have an anti-inflammatory effect
  • Relax the blood vessels
  • Protect against blood cells aggregating together into clots

How much do we need?

We need both these essential fatty acids in a balanced ratio to promote inflammation when we need it and support anti-inflammatory effects when we need that. For most people an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be 4:1, with some experts even suggesting a ratio of 1:1 is ideal. Unfortunately with our heavily processed diets that ratio looks more like 12:1 or even up to 25:1. We are consuming far too much omega-6 rich foods, resulting in too little omega-3.

Risks associated with too little omega-3 include:

  • severe inflammation
  • higher risk of heart disease and high cholesterol
  • digestive disorders
  • allergies
  • arthritis
  • joint and muscle pain
  • mental disorders
  • poor brain development
  • cognitive decline

While it is important to increase our consumption of omega-3 rich foods, it is also important to decrease our consumption of omega-6 rich foods. Therefore reducing our intake of processed foods and plant oils such as corn, safflower, soy and sunflower oils is essential.

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Omega-3 food sources:

  • flaxseeds
  • chia seeds
  • mackerel
  • sardines
  • kidney beans
  • wild-caught salmon
  • anchovies
  • natto (Japanese fermented soybeans)
  • hemp seeds
  • seaweeds (check your source)

There are actually three different types of omega-3 essential fatty acids including ALA, DHA and EPA. I’ll be writing another blog post in the coming weeks expanding on the role of each of these, so stay tuned!

Nutrition is something I explore in great depth in my new book, A Life Less Stressed.