It is in the news and just about every second advertisement seems to be all about spruiking the benefits of Omega-3 supplements for just about everything that ails you.
So what is Omega-3 and why is it so important that we need extra helpings of it?
According to the University of Maryland:
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids: They are necessary for human health but the body can’ t make them — you have to get them through food. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other seafood including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils. Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development. They have also become popular because they may reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least 2 times a week.
What makes omega-3 fats special?
They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation.
They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
All sorts of benefits are being ascribed to Omega-3 including its use for heart and joint health, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma conditions – even as a treatment for depression, ADHA and dementia.
Since the body doesn’t make Omega-3, it has to come from the food we eat.
The very best way of getting the optimum amount of Omega-3 fatty acids is through our foods, including fish – including herrings, sardines, tuna – krill, eggs and a variety of plant sources including kiwi fruit, chia seed, flax, walnuts, pecan nuts and hazel nuts.
This is where the Omega-3 story gets a little complex.
Omega-3 fats come in three varieties
ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) – found primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and a variety of vegetable oils. Dark green vegetables, freshly ground flax seeds, and raw walnuts are the healthiest sources of ALA.
EPA (EicosoPentaenoic Acid) – found primarily in cold water fish like salmon, cod, mackerel, and tuna, as well as in fresh seaweed. Also found in smaller amounts in organically raised animal products like free-range eggs, chickens, and grass-fed beef.
DHA (DocosaHexaenoic Acid) – found in the same foods that EPA is found in.
And this is the way Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids work:
Our bodies cannot make the “parent” molecule for omega-3 fatty acids, alpha linoleic acid (…), on its own. Therefore, this omega-3 — ALA — is considered an “essential” fatty acid. Downstream, the parent ALA gets metabolized into the two most beneficial fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It would be difficult to oversing the praises of EPA and DHA, which have powerful anti-inflammatory effects, along with playing a range of other crucial roles in the body.
While plant-based foods contain great amounts of ALA, the body is not as proficient in converting ALA into EPA and DHA.
The Department of Food Science at the Australian RMIT University has indicated that typical omnivores have higher Omega 3 blood levels than vegetarians.
Another study, performed at the Research Institute of Nutrition in Slovakia studied a group of children ages 11-15 years over an average length of 3.4 years:
10 were semi-vegetarians, 15 were lacto-ovo vegetarians and seven were pure vegans. This group was compared to a group of 19 omnivores. Whereas the lacto-ovo vegetarians and the omnivore group showed exactly the same amount of Omega 3 in their blood, the semi-vegetarian group was somewhat deficient. The vegan group was most deficient and was found to have substantially lower blood levels of Omega 3, compared to the later groups.
This is the reason why many people use mainly fish and krill-based supplements to boost their Omega-3 intake.
But that is not the end of the story for vegetarians and vegans.
Simply increasing the consumption of foods with the highest amounts of Omega-3 alone may be enough:
Walnuts and flaxseeds have the highest amount of omega-3 acids. Just a small increase in consumption can have health benefits. Walnuts and flaxseeds can be added to salads, breads and baked goods. Ground flaxseed can be added to almost any food, but it has to be used within 24 hours of being ground or it loses many of its healthy properties. Mustard seeds and clove have small amounts of omega-3.
Cabbage and broccoli are very good sources. Brussels sprouts, romaine, spinach, turnips, green beans and many types of squash have omega-3 as well. Even some fruits like strawberries and raspberries have some omega-3 in them. Make a healthy salad with all these ingredients and you will get enough omega-3 to satisfy your daily needs.
Omega-3s do not need to be consumed in large amounts. The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids recommends consuming 0.65 g or 650 mg of DHA and EPA from fish per day on a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Consume 2.22 g or 2,220 mg of ALA per day from plant and vegetable products. This totals 2.87 g or 2,870 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day.
The short answer to this very long tale is that omnivores – people who eat the widest variety of food – can more easily get the optimal amount of Omega-3 through food.
Vegetarians and vegans need to increase the amount of the plant-based sources that are rich in Omega-3 and ensure they eat more of a wider variety of these foods.
Via Miessence blog