When exploring the coast I like to look for garbage piles. Between Waldport and Florence where the beaches are rocky and the bluffs erode away are the best places to explore. I don’t enjoy finding modern trash like plastic that may someday join with an island the size of Texas floating in the Pacific. I prefer to find the ancient garbage piles left by the people who lived here for thousands of years. These piles, called middens, are mainly broken shells and bone mixed with rock and charcoal accumulated from countless meals. I imagine the large camps of people who explored the rocks at low tide to collect shell fish. Along with the wild game they hunted and the fish they netted, this diet must have provided exceptionally high levels of omega-3 fats.
Modern researchers are discovering that perhaps it is our current diet that is exceptional throughout human history. We are consuming far too few ancient foods and replacing them with modern substitutes that do not deliver the same levels of healthy omega-3 fats.It may be a good time to look back into the middens of our ancestors.
It seems strange that while modern people are eating too many calories as fat, at the same time we can be starving our bodies of beneficial fats. The key to this puzzle lies in differentiating among the fats available and finding a healthy balance between them. A typical diet rich in omega-6 fat from corn, soy and canola along with factory farmed meat and highly processed trans-fats or hydrogenated oils can trigger chronic inflammation in our bodies. Long term inflammation will aggravate many disease processes like high blood pressure and cancer.
Two omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA have an opposite effect in our bodies. Studies have repeatedly shown that these fats can lower high blood pressure, reduce arthritic inflammation and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. The best dietary sources of these beneficial fats are wild fish such as sardines, anchovies and salmon. In his book, In Defense of Food, Author Michael Pollan offers some helpful advice we can use to avoid harmful fats: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Our great-grandparent’s garbage piles would probably resemble those that I find on the coast more closely than our modern collective midden pile at the dump. In just a few generations our diets have dramatically changed while our nutritional needs have remained the same.
Having adequate levels of DHA and EPA available is quite possibly most important before we are even born. Our brains are mostly fat and mothers must supply developing fetuses with DHA for proper brain, eye and nerve development. Low intake of omega-3 fats during pregnancyincreases the risk for premature birth and low birth weight. It can also put the mother at a greater risk for postpartum depression. Studies of children whose mothers took codliver oil during pregnancy and while nursing showed higher IQ’s at age four than those whose mothers had taken a placebo. Unfortunately, it was reported recently at an international conference on fatty acids that pregnant women in the U.S. have the third lowest levels of DHA in the world. Only those following a vegan diet and women from Sudan have lower levels.
Children require optimal levels of healthy fat in their diet for proper memory, learning and focus. Boys diagnosed with ADD and ADHD often have low levels of DHA and EPA in their diets. I recently received lunch menus for my son’s elementary school. Fish appears as an option only twice this month in the form of tuna. Unless these students are being fed seafood or omega-3 supplements at home on a regular basis, they may be at risk for deficiencies.
Adulthood is a great time for an oil change. Most countries recommend that adults consume at least 1 – 2 grams of omega-3’s per day. To achieve therapeutic doses that can lower triglycerides, reduce hypertension or reduce arthritis pain a person will need to include fish in the diet and supplement with three or more grams of omega-3 oil daily.
While camping near the middens on the coast I read my children an old Celtic tale about Finn MacCool. Finn the Hero is strong and brave, but he doesn’t gain in knowledge until he eats a salmon. Once he eats the “Salmon of All Knowledge” he learns why the stars shine and why the wind blows. He knows how to make mighty and marvelous poems and can compose awesomely beautiful music. The ancient Celtic people didn’t understand omega-3 fats in the scientific way we do today, but it seems clear to me from this story that they knew salmon was powerful brain food. I’m glad that modern researchers and story tellers are spreading the word to eat omega-3 rich foods for a healthier life.
Photo by FotoosVanRobin