Book Excerpt

The Queen of Fats

Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them

January 14, 2009

From Chapter 10: Where Have All The Omega-3s Gone?

Perhaps the most interesting perspective on how diets have been changing comes from a research tack taken by Artemis Simopoulos after the 1985 conference [chaired by Simopoulos on the role of fatty acids in the human diet]. The food tables that were available at the time of the conference listed the content of very few green vegetables. But those figures — for spinach, leeks, lettuce, kale, and broccoli — were surprising to Simopoulos.

These green leafy vegetables, it appeared, have significant amounts of fat. Not as much fat as seeds, grains, or the flesh of fish and fowl, certainly, but more fat than most people would have ever expected. And what fats they do have are mostly alpha linolenic acid, from the omega-3 family.

“All grains are high in omega-6s, and all green plants are high in omega-3s,” says Simopoulos today. This same realization led her in 1985 to hypothesize that a diet rich in greens might also be a significant source of the omega-3 fats.

Simopoulos, who was born in Greece but attended college and medical school in the United States, remembered how the animals ate in her native country. She recalled how goats scrambled up the hills to browse on bushes and how chickens scratched for insects and wild greens, and she wondered if those wild greens make a difference in the eggs, milk, cheese, and meat that is eaten in Greece, a country with very little heart disease.

The Greeks are also a fish-eating population with a high intake of olive oil, two aspects of the diet that are usually given all the credit for the low rate of heart disease, but Simopoulos became curious about the role of greens.

Simopoulos began by testing purslane, one of the most common wild greens in Greece (and many other countries). She was amazed to find that this ordinary plant, a weed in most of the world’s eyes, has an alpha linolenic acid content four times that of cultivated spinach (about 0.4 grams per 100 grams).

Purslane is not a cold-adapted plant like some other greens full of omega-3s, such as rapeseed (canola), spinach, and aquatic plants. It is not for that reason that it is full of omega-3s. Rather, botanists suspect, its high level of omega-3s works to compensate for light damage, since purslane grows in intense sunlight. (Linseed, or flaxseed, is another plant that is high in alpha linolenic acid and grows in a hot climate.)

purslane salad
Eat a purslane salad and get your omega-3s.

Then Simopoulos tested a Greek egg, which came from a Greek chicken that had feasted on purslane, insects, and only small amounts of corn. She found that this egg was extremely rich (1.78 grams per 100 grams) in all the omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid — as rich as, if not richer than, many species of fish. (One hundred grams of farmed Atlantic salmon have about the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines have more, and anchovies have less.) An egg purchased in an American supermarket, in contrast, had a tenth the omega-3 fatty acids as its Greek counterpart. The American egg had come from a factory-raised chicken, fed largely on corn.

In time, other researchers would find the same pattern in free-range versus grain-fed beef, lamb, and pork (and in the milk and cheese from these animals), and botanists would clarify the role played by alpha linolenic and linoleic acids in plants, the source of both these essential fats.

Alpha linolenic acid is the fat that plants use in the membranes of their chloroplasts (the thylacoid membrane), the fat that surrounds their complex machinery of photosynthesis and enables plants to capture photons and turn them into carbohydrates.

Linoleic acid, in contrast, is a kind of storage fat for plants, to be turned into alpha linolenic acid as needed by a special desaturase enzyme that only plants have. It is found in highest concentrations in seeds and has no other function in plants than to be the precursor of alpha linolenic acid. It is less prone to oxidation than its omega-3 cousin, as we know, and thus can be safely stored until photosynthesis is necessary at the moment of germination.

And so it seemed to Simopoulos that one of the most important ways that the diets of Western countries have been changing is that Western populations are consuming more seeds, and the fats of seeds, and fewer greens, and the fats of greens.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Jan 15, 2009 at 6:30 AM PST

I’ve come to love leafy greens over the last few years of tending a garden. Chard and kale and some oddball rapes I get from Seeds of Italy all grow better than just about anything else in my northern garden. I did not grow up with leafy greens at all -- they were considered too “ethnic” shall we say. But I’ve fallen in love with real greens, I put them up during the summer and eat my own greens all winter, sauteed, in soups, in stews. Yum. And buying chickens from a local rancher who lets them run free, eating bugs and weeds (apparently they like her creek too) has made it impossible to eat a commercial egg -- they’re pale and horrible in comparison. I guess my answer to “what we can do to replace them” in the subtitle is twofold: grow a garden, find a good chicken farmer (or put a few in your back yard).

2. by Syd on Mar 20, 2009 at 11:06 PM PDT

Why did we think that it wouldn’t matter what animals were fed? We knew it mattered what a woman takes in as it affects her breast milk but we didn’t extrapolate that to dairy and meats?

It matters too what’s going on in the soil as it’s the healthy soil which nourishes the plants that grow the animals that eat them (including the soil bacteria we know of as B12).

We literally turned animals into industrial garbage disposals. Living food processor factories we believe from some sorcery fabricate nutrients we can’t for some unknowable but unquestioned reason yet need to survive. Trying to spin gold out of crap (seriously as in feeding cattle used chicken litter). If we feed chickens arsenic as a growth promoter, we end up consuming arsenic with the chicken. There is no vanishing act. Just dangerous illusion.

On a nutritional scale though taking all vitamins, minerals, micro-nutrients and phyto-chemicals into consideration, calorie for calorie kale scores 1000. It’s rated so high in order to get Olive Oil on the chart as it comes in at 2. Most animal products are below 50. Even iceberg lettuce which is often held up as an example of nutritional emptiness comes in at 132.

Eating is about more than filling holes. If we don’t meet our nutritional requirements we’ll still be hungry. A calorie is not just a calorie.

Marketing works but it’s a black magic.

3. by Holly on Jul 9, 2009 at 1:31 PM PDT

Anon 8:30--how do you put up your greens? Freezing? My mom has done her own canning for years but I don’t know anyone who preserves leafy greens so there’s a gap in my knowledge.

4. by Rajiv Narayanan on Oct 19, 2009 at 2:11 AM PDT

This is just amazing. I have been eating greens but I didn’t realize it is a rich source of Omega-3.

5. by Ms Vesna Luketic on Feb 22, 2010 at 6:05 AM PST

Please assist.I have a genuine free range egg farm at Myrniong.
Where can I purchase the seed in bulk.

6. by on Feb 12, 2011 at 12:59 PM PST

I too would like to know how Anon, Jan 15,2009, puts up greens for consumption later in the year.
Since it’s unlikely Anon will check back, Does anyone else know?

7. by Syd on Feb 12, 2011 at 4:50 PM PST

It’s probably a manner of blanching and freezing. Though greens can also be pickled such as sauerkraut especially as another ingredient in addition to cabbage. Adding sea veggies is really great; tasty and gives that important iodine for thyroid health which is so endangered now from the various biocides (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, etc) and perchlorate contaminations as just a few examples.

However, looking up “preserving greens” on the google does come up with several answers.

8. by Syd on Feb 12, 2011 at 4:56 PM PST

Another thing to keep in mind, in many parts of North America (and elsewhere of course), hardy greens can survive most of the year growing fresh greens for consumption. Kale and collards especially and they even taste sweeter with a light freeze. However, cabbage won’t make good kraut after a heavy freeze.

On the other hand, it’s important to get a good variety of greens because the body needs the different nutrients that can be found in each. We are not meant to eat only kale, or only romaine or only spinach.

Cooking also destroys the delicate omega 3 fatty acids so fresh is best.

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