The Vanishing Youth Nutrient
Science writer Susan Allport unravels why the disappearance of omega-3s from our diet may be responsible for the epidemics of obesity, heart disease and cancer. Oh, and wrinkles, too. By Susan Allport, Prevention
When Lisa Kepp (her name has been changed to protect privacy) was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with a neurological condition. She had not said a word in her short life—and it wasn’t for want of trying. Lisa was so frustrated at not being able to form the words she clearly wanted to say that she flew into temper tantrums four or five times a day. The family was on pins and needles waiting for the next time the little girl would explode.
A pediatric neurologist diagnosed verbal apraxia, a speech disorder, and recommended that she receive intensive speech therapy. He suggested no other treatment. Lisa’s mother had heard, though, about studies linking omega-3 fatty acids to intelligence and healthy brains, and she thought she’d give them a try. She purchased a bottle of Nordic Naturals’ Children’s DHA in liquid form and began putting half a teaspoon in her daughter’s orange juice every morning. Within a week, the young girl was babbling and her tantrums stopped. Amazed, her mother spoke to the doctors, but none of them would engage her, as she puts it, in a conversation about omega-3s. So Lisa continued speech therapy—and her omega-3s—for a year and will be starting preschool this fall with her peers.
A happy anecdote, to be sure. Ask any scientist, though, and he will admit that without testing, we can’t be certain that omega-3s fueled Lisa’s recovery. But he can point to a growing body of scientific literature that touts the benefits of omega-3 supplementation. Studies show that these special fatty acids accumulate in the brain and can aid children with learning disabilities, reduce violence in prison populations, and even improve everyday mood.
We can only obtain these fats through our diet. They are essential to the development of healthy brains and other metabolically active tissues. Indeed, research from the world’s top universities shows that these fats do much more than regulate our brains: They can also lower risk of heart disease, arthritis, and cancer. They even help fight wrinkles and may block fat-cell formation.
How could omega-3s possibly be this powerful? Scientists believe it’s because Americans are suffering from a widespread deficiency. A recent study conducted by Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, found that the absence of these fatty acids in our diet is responsible annually for up to 96,000 premature deaths in this country. Scientists, however, are learning that fixing this nutritional deficiency is a bit more complicated than simply telling people to eat more fish.
Our collective omega-3 deficiency …
Every once in a while, a discovery comes along that changes everything about the way we see the world. In the early 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus had such a moment when he discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe. Our new understanding of essential fats is that kind of discovery, and I was lucky enough, as a science writer, to make a small-yet-key contribution. While researching a book on omega-3s, I realized that the essential fats—the omega-3s and their close cousins, the omega-6s—change with the seasons. It might sound like a small idea, but it may soon fundamentally change the way you think about food.
First, let’s start with omega-3s, what I’ll call the spring fats. These are likely the most abundant fats in the world, but they don’t originate in fish, as many believe. Rather, they are found in the green leaves of plants. Fish are full of omega-3s because they eat phytoplankton (the microscopic green plants of the ocean) and seaweed. In plants, these special fatty acids help turn sunlight into sugars, the basis of life on Earth. The spring fats speed up metabolism. They are fats that animals (humans included) use to get ready for times of activity, like the mating season. They’re found in the highest concentrations in all the most active tissues: brains, eyes, hearts, the tails of sperm, the flight muscles of hummingbirds. Because fish have so many of these fats in their diets, they can be active in cold, dark waters. These fats protect our brains from neurological disorders and enable our hearts to beat billions of times without incident. But they are vanishing from our diet, and you’ll soon understand why.