Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen September 3, 2002
Original Title: The Fat of the Land
Everyday the news bombards us about the latest nutrient or food that will add years to your life, save your skin, hair, heart and promote longevity. This information overload with its weekly contradictions is confusing to the average consumer.
You will read many articles that use the term essential nutrient. Although the human body can synthesize many nutrients from scratch, others must come preformed in our food. An essential nutrient is one that the body cannot make for itself. For example, amino acids are the building blocks the body uses to make protein. There are ten amino acids the body can make for itself and ten that must come from food sources. The latter ten are essential amino acids.
Research into several underappreciated nutrients is arriving at some potentially dramatic conclusions. These essential nutrients are Omega-3 (Linolenic Acid) and Omega-6 (Linoleic Acid) fatty acids. Linolenic acid is found in canola oil, leafy green vegetables, some fatty fishes (e.g. salmon) and some nuts and seeds, Linoleic acid is found in vegetable oils and animal meat.
At the beginning of the 20th century, our consumption of omega fatty acids changed. We now consume more grain-fed fish, vegetable oils and fats from grain-fed animals and fewer vegetables and eggs. Grain-fed animals cannot produce omega fatty acids. Margarines (not Becel) and many packaged baked goods contain trans-fatty acids or “hydrogenated” oils that block the body’s ability to convert the omega fatty acids into important nutrients.
In 1960, certain deficiencies became apparent in infants fed skim milk and fat-free intravenous nutrition. These children did not develop as well as their breast-fed counterparts. A growing body of scientific research seems to implicate omega fatty acid deficiency with an increased incidence of common diseases. These diseases include heart disease, Crohn’s disease, asthma and certain kidney diseases among others. (Essential fatty acid research is still in its infancy. Many questions remain about these diseases and their relationship to fatty acid deficiencies or imbalances.)
The omega fatty acids are part of the picture. Research continues to find new nutrients within breastmilk that have dramatic infant health benefits not seen in formula-fed babies. These infant nutrients called arachidonic acid (ARA) and decosahexanoic acid accumulate in every organ and cell in the body. These are essential newborn nutrients because babies cannot make it for themselves. Premature infants seem to benefit more from these nutrients than term babies do
A worldwide study looking at the breastmilk concentration of DHA and ARA found a wide range of values. Women in societies consuming large quantities of fish had the greatest concentration of these breastmilk nutrients. How much of these nutrients do infants need to promote the advantages to the brain and eyes?
Several studies looked at the effect different concentrations of DHA and ARA in formula and breastmilk had on the infant’s visual development and intelligence. Interestingly, breastmilk analysis in some parts of Canada, the United States, Africa, Australia, Germany and France did not meet these minimum levels.
The study found that brain and eye development were given a boost especially for premature babies (further research will determine if there are other benefits). Indeed, at specific nutrient level, the babies had better coordination, problem-solving skills and sharper vision. In all cases, the breastfed babies did the best.
In order to increase breastmilk nutrient levels mothers should consume wild salmon, anchovies, or eggs (some are omega-3 fortified) at least three times per week before and after their pregnancy.
It is critical to balance the intake of these nutrients. Some mothers will use fish oil capsules containing DHA but little ARA or will add it to their infant’s diet. Parents should never give their infants fish oil capsules or DHA drops. It will stunt an infant’s growth and development. There is little chance of any imbalance if real food is eaten.
Many countries other than Canada have approved the use of these nutrients in formula. Health Canada approval is expected in the next few months.
Although there may be many other unknown beneficial nutrients in breastmilk these two nutrients provide another reason to breastfeed. Those who choose to formula feed will have an option to choose a formula with these nutrients.
Omega fatty acids are indeed an exciting area of nutrition science research. It may be an important area in our understanding of development and health of the immune system, brain, eyes, heart, kidneys, intestines and other body processes.
Pass the smoked salmon.