An Interview with Susan Allport
An award-winning writer for publications such as the New York Times
, Susan Allport has spent the past decade exploring how food shapes behavior and health. UC Press recently published her book The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them
. Associate Director and Publisher Sheila Levine recently interviewed Allport What motivated you to write The Queen of Fats?
I became intrigued with the role of omega-3s in healthy diets when I learned that the leaves of plants and the brains and eyes of animals, tissues that perform the fastest cellular activities (photosynthesis and nerve transmission), are full of this same family of fats. What makes omega-3s so special, I wanted to know, and why are they treated like dietary supplements when they are such important components of cell membranes? Is eating salmon really the best way to get these nutrients? Why would humans, who evolved on the savannahs of Africa, require the fats found in cold-water fish? Are there any advantages in telling the omega-3 story from the point of view of a science writer rather than a scientist?
I didn’t think so at first, when I was struggling with all the chemistry I had to learn—or relearn. But by the time I finished the book, I realized there was a tremendous advantage. Scientists are most comfortable talking about those phenomena that they have directly observed. But omega-3s affect every cell in the body in a myriad of ways. It took an outsider, I think, to weave together all the different threads of the story and tease out the underlying message—that the fats of leaves (omega-3s) and the fats of seeds (omega-6s) compete for positions in the membranes of cells but affect cells in very different ways. And that the fats in plants help animals to prepare for the future: for periods of activity and reproduction, when the fats of leaves are available, and periods of hunkering down and survival, when the fats of seeds are more abundant. Do you think the developing interest in the food we eat will have a positive effect on diet and health?
As Samuel Johnson once said, “He who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.” We should
be interested in the foods we eat since eating is the most intimate way we interact with the environment and since good nutrition is the best way to prevent most diseases. The recent spate of interest in food stems, largely, from the fact that so many illnesses today are diet related, and one clear reason for this is that seeds and seed oils constitute such a large part of the American diet. If we come to an understanding of how important it is to have a healthy balance between the two families of essential fats, the omega-3s and omega-6s, we’ll be much better off. If we just tweak the diet, say to remove trans fats but to maintain the current imbalance, we could be in even worse shape. Why is that? I thought everyone agreed that trans fats were responsible for heart disease.
Trans fats are formed when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to make them more solid and stable, a process that eliminates all the omega-3s but leaves most of the omega-6s. The question is: are our health problems due to the presence of trans fats, or to excessive amounts of omega-6s and the absence of omega-3s? There is a great deal of experimental and epidemiological research to support the latter, and much less to implicate trans fats. What do you hope your book’s impact will be?
Enormous, I hope. The Queen of Fats
gives people a way of sorting through all the conflicting and confusing information that has been given out about fats over the years. What this dietary advice has been missing is the understanding that polyunsaturated fatty acids consist of two, competing families of fats, one of which speeds up the activities of cells and the other of which slows them down. By hearing the story of how scientists slowly came to comprehend this important biological truth, readers can see where we went wrong with the previous advice and how they can make the necessary changes in their diets to improve their health.