Omega-3 and Omega-6 in Common Foods and My Consumption

Here is a graph (source) of the omega-3 and omega-6 content of common foods. Although walnuts are relatively high in omega-3, they are much higher in omega-6. This may be why eating them reduced the performance of my lab assistants on a brain test.

When I’m in China, I eat 60 g/day of ground flaxseed. According to this graph, this provides 1.2 g/day omega-3, far more than I would get from any ordinary diet. For example, eating lots of fish would provide much less. I chose this amount based on balance and brain speed results. Flaxseed is hard to get in Beijing. Surely I am the biggest consumer in the China. I am pretty sure I am the only person ever to have optimized my intake. The best amount turned out to be surprisingly high.  ”We recommend one to two tablespoons [per day],” says a website that sells flaxseed. High consumption of omega-3 should protect me against bad effects of omega-6. For example, when I eat peanuts (high in omega-6), my brain test scores don’t change.

Experts say flaxseed is a poor source of omega-3 because it provides short-chain omega-3 whereas the brain needs long-chain omega-3. My results — plenty of brain benefit from flaxseed — suggest this is wrong. The experiments that measured short-chain-to-long-chain conversion did not take account of the effect of experience on enzyme production. If you eat more of a certain food, your body will produce more of the enzymes that digest it. The subjects in the conversion experiments may have had little experience. If your long-chain omega-3 supply is limited by what enzymes can produce, you will get a steadier supply of long-chain omega-3 from enzymatic production than you will from eating the same amount all at once. For this reason dietary short-chain omega-3 could easily be a better source of long-chain omega-3 than dietary long-chain omega-3 itself.

13 Responses to “Omega-3 and Omega-6 in Common Foods and My Consumption”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    Hi Seth,

    1) When I clicked on the link for “balance and brain speed results”, I got an errors that seemed to say “Access denied”.

    2) The HealthyFlax.com web site seems to only promote flax, not sell it. If they do sell it, I couldn’t find a link.

  2. Nick Says:

    The last paragraph on enzymes is interesting. Do you have any references?

    Seth: It’s basic biochemistry. Look at the experiments for which Francoise Jacob won a Nobel Prize:

    http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1965/

  3. Portlander Says:

    Apologies if you’ve mentioned this previously, but in what manner do you consume 60g of flax meal a day?

    Straight, mixed in yogurt, w/ pb&j???

    Ok, that last one might be self-defeating :-) , but I have 3 kids I have to deal with supplement.

    I’ve been giving them mega-EPA fish oil caps for a couple years now. They make a marked difference in my oldest’ behavior (& in my wife’s mood back when she was breast feeding), but they are not without concerns. I’m not sure on how much is hype and how much is truth as to the molecular distillation vs. tri-glyceride & EPA vs. DHA forms. There’s an enormous difference in cost among the types. So, all in all, I think I’d prefer a good whole food source if we can reasonably work it into our daily diet.

    OT: Its very hard to beat the convenience of a little magic pill. I can see why pharma is able to do so well for itself.

    Seth: I eat the ground flaxseed mixed with yogurt. Recently I’ve gone down to 30 g flaxseeds per day…I’m not sure which is better.

  4. Tuck Says:

    “High consumption of omega-3 should protect me against bad effects of omega-6. For example, when I eat peanuts (high in omega-6), my brain test scores don’t change.”

    From what I’ve read, it’s pretty clear that excess o-6 largely blocks conversion of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to long-chain o-3. Consuming more ALA doesn’t alter that. But regardless, I wouldn’t expect one day of o-6 consumption to have a significant effect on o-3 composition of membranes in the brain (which is why long-chain o-3 is required). If the conversion of ALA to long-chain o-3 is what’s driving your increased mental capacity…

    There is another explanation, however, for your experience. ALA is converted to ketones preferentially over o-6 fatty acids, and ketones are a preferred fuel for the brain. Ketogenic diets, as I’m sure you’re aware, are used to treat and cure several brain malfunctions, such as epilepsy.

    “For example, the oxidation of alpha-linolenic acid is twice that of linoleic acid or oleic acid. Therefore, alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are the most ketogenic fatty acids and enriching a highfat diet with those compounds increases its ketogenic potential. This is the reason that a diet high in flaxseed oil (which contains 60% of alpha-linolenic acid) is more ketogenic and offers more seizure protection than those using other dietary sources of ketones, at least in animal models (Likhodii et al., 2000).”

    “Assessing ketosis: Approaches and pitfalls”
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1528-1167.2008.01826.x/pdf

    Increased mental clarity and acuity is one of the benefits many cite from ketogenic diets, so this may be why you benefit from consuming a lot of flax-seed.

  5. Seth Roberts Says:

    “Increased mental clarity and acuity is one of the benefits many cite from ketogenic diets, so this may be why you benefit from consuming a lot of flax-seed.”

    Based on this explanation, what would you predict?

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    For the balance and brain speed results, go here:

    http://blog.sethroberts.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/2012-09-24-The-Growth-of-Personal-Science-Implications-For-Statistics.pdf

    something is strange about the embedded link.

  7. JRM Says:

    Check units. The chart gives more than 2 grams of omega 3 per 10 grams for flaxseed. 60 grams would be maybe 13 grams of omega 3 per day.

    This says flaxseed oil is 53% omega 3
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fats-and-oils/7554/2

  8. Tuck Says:

    “Based on this explanation, what would you predict?”

    I’d expect that any other source of dietary ketones would have similar effects (such as coconut or MCT oil). As would, after an adaptation period, a ketogenic diet. I’ve done this myself of late, and now associate carb consumption with fuzzy-headedness. I’ve not done the self-testing that you’ve done, however.

    Seth: Thanks. The Buttermind Experiment included a coconut oil condition. People who ate coconut oil did not become faster at arithmetic. I don’t know of any evidence that coconut oil improves brain function. That supports the idea that it is the omega-3, not the ketones.

  9. BRW Says:

    Seth, do you worry at all about toxicity and peroxidative stress?

  10. Tuck Says:

    “The Buttermind Experiment…”

    I was thinking that butter might actually be better, if you get high-quality butter. Butter contains butyric acid (named for butter) which is metabolized in beta-hydroxybutyrate, the primary ketone fuel source of the body.

    Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides, which are also metabolized into ketones. The evidence I’ve seen for mental improvement is limited to those with Alzheimer’s and a specific genetic marker (that predisposes to Alzheimer’s):

    “Study of the ketogenic agent AC-1202 in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial.”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19664276

  11. Shane Says:

    I’ve read your theory on why flax O3 is not an inferior form of O3 several times, but do not recall reading accounts of self-experimentation pitting flax O3 vs. more putatively bioavailable sources of O3, like any of the various fish oils. Have you done self-experimentation of this kind? If not, why not?

    Seth: Two reasons. 1. Busy studying less obvious things that seem to change brain function. 2. Problem of mercury in fish oil. The source of omega-3 is a kind of interaction (the omega-3 effect may vary with source), whereas there are still plenty of main effects to study.

  12. Shane Says:

    To be slightly more explicit, the other day, in a post, you said this:

    “As this article recommends, I used to eat plenty of fish. But I still noticed a dramatic improvement in my balance and cognitive abilities when I started taking flaxseed oil. The best amount seemed to be 2-3 tablespoons/day. Fish wasn’t supplying close to the optimum amount of omega-3.”

    So you point out that, through self-experimentation, you’ve found that taking a titanic amount of ground flax meal (“the biggest consumer in China.”) produces good results. So in your experiments you kept increasing flax O3 dosing until it produced efficacious results. Did you attempt a similar thing with fish oil, only to find there was no effective dosage that could do for you what flax oil did?

    Seth: No, I haven’t tried fish oil extensively. When I first started talking about the benefits of flaxseed oil on mental tasks, others tried fish oil and found similar results. No doubt fish oil works. There is nothing weird about getting omega-3 from plants, all of which contain small amounts of it. Lots of people flourish without eating seafood — see Weston Price. I have never heard that people need to get their omega-3 from fish.

  13. Peter Says:

    Chia seeds, any opinions?