PUFAs, Nutrition, and How we Make Decisions

When the topic of nutrition arises in conversation, most people will voice an opinion.


Maybe the easy familiarity we have with nutrition comes from it being a close and personal topic, as well as within reach of comprehension, unlike many other medical topics. Regardless of how close our opinions are to the reality, the constantly changing — and very visible — terrain of nutritional science abets our tendency to opine.


It’s well-established: the nutrition industry can’t seem to sit still. Hasn’t for well over a century. And it gives its manifold lectures loudly, through advertisement, marketing, and many other forms.


In any given field, it’s noteworthy how quickly conventional wisdom can change, and how suddenly we discover that something we knew all our lives may be wrong. Many fields have reached this amorphous status, and nutritional science appears to be at the forefront of that paradigm of rapid change — again possibly because it hits so close to home for those interested in improving their well being. Whatever the case, we constantly discover new revelations of how best to handle our nutrition, or learn that a fundamental fact of nutrition was in fact produced by a dubious lobbyist-funded study, or are told that a diet we thought might kill us might instead save us, or vice versa.


It’s all a little hyperbolic, but the underlying truth isn’t — nutrition, and health, and physiology remain evolving fields. The interplay of complex chemicals in a complex organic system, subject to environmental factors and changing lifestyle habits, nutrition, biological adaptation, and many more factors, produces an incredibly complicated and nuanced subject which science still struggles to subdue despite many very real insights and accomplishments.


My own most recent entry point to this chaotic field arose from the ongoing debate around fats, unsaturated fats, Omega-3s especially, and the negative, positive, or indifferent changes they incur in one’s body, depending on who you ask and when you ask them.


It’s all but certain that these chemicals do create changes in our bodies (beyond the obvious digestive and storage facilities) but the “known wisdom,” as it stands, keeps changing. It has been “known” for a reasonable amount of time now that saturated fats are a dangerous substance to put into your body in large quantities — this seems evident, anecdotally, as we can visually point to variances in the human bodies around us that seem to align with this understanding. But then, most of the foods that fall into certain categories will have more than one kind of potentially harmful product, which confounds the variables at play.


If you dig a bit more, you find that many eschew the notion that saturated fats are inherently negative. Just as we know people whose consumption of heavy saturated fats has lead to heart disease or other issues, anecdotally, we also know anecdotally those who never swerved from their dedication to the traditional foods so abundant with these fats, who seem to be doing just fine — thriving, even.


The debate swings around then to unsaturated fats and the potential problems they incur, possibly causing a number of undesirable changes to the body. At this point, many nutritionists and health experts will point to the difference within the category of unsaturated fats, specifically focusing on the health benefits of n-3 (Omega-3) fats as opposed to the possibly inflammatory n-6 PUFA. After all, we all have heard the again conventional wisdom of the benefits of fish oils and the like.


But even this is under debate, and the research keeps evolving. Of particular note is the relationship between n-3 and n-6 PUFA which is most certainly not yet fully understood.


Where does this land us? In a world of uncertainty, it would seem. For me, this shallow dive into fatty acid came via a recent paper discussing the effect of the ratio of n-6 to n-3, which has become a hot topic, of sorts. It’s a subject presenting complex interactions and complex outcomes. It appears challenging to even imagine constructing a stable basis on which to form any level of certainty — but that doesn’t mean we can’t glean some important conclusions, such as the potential harm of too much n-6, or the potential benefit of diets relatively high in n-3, or the moderation of the consumption of saturated fats, just for starters. None of this means we need to take any wild swings in our nutrition. But what we can absolutely do is combine this potential understanding with our own experiences, our own “experimentation,” in a mild way, with the foods that work for us and the foods that don’t. Nutrition is an evolving field, with a lot of experts from a lot of corners. In the end it’s your body and your life on the line, and your responsibility toward yourself.


And why did this obsess me enough to take rumination to postulation? Because the way we examine our own understanding, and the way we make decisions, must be rational and considerate in a time when the body of information is so massive and yet so in motion. It’s important that we embrace this efflux of knowledge into our lives, and learn the skill of integrating it smoothly into our decision processes, without incurring anxiety or skewing too much towards either ignorance or toward baseless dependency on any given self-styled expert.


Without a doubt my limited understanding of this topic, and all topics of healthful nutrition, is in flux. There are some artifacts of knowledge (we can informally call them “good sense”) which seem relatively stable over time (for now) and to which I adhere, and others which I take with more of a (conceptual) grain of salt. As always it’s possible to make a concrete choice in the face of uncertainty and be fairly certain that you’re making the most expedient and plausibly correct choice as possible given the knowledge at hand — certainly a better choice than wholely ignoring the adapting understanding provided by scientific research, even with the knowledge that new research may come around next week which stands our understanding on its head. Both reason and experience tell us that making such tentative choices is often the best course of action — and most often produces a worthwhile result.

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