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Not all fats are created equal: understanding omega-3s

Saturated fats, unsaturated fats, omega-3s, omega-6s… there are many different types of fats to know and learn, and each of them is important to include in your diet in the pursuit of maintaining optimal health.

Introduction: know your omega-3 basics

Fats are a necessary source of energy, and they support healthy cell growth and proper nutrient absorption as well. It is better to eat more unsaturated fats than saturated fats, but not all unsaturated fats are equal. Here we’ll be taking a closer look at omega-3 and omega-6s, two common forms of polyunsaturated fats.

Omega-6s, which are found in things like refined vegetable oils, are necessary. However, if you eat too many of them they can cause inflammation, that can then lead to a range of chronic medical conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Omega-3s on the other hand are anti-inflammatory, and can help lower your risk for these medical conditions and others, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, and depression.

If you’re a wellness buff, you’ve probably heard a fair bit about omega-3s, most likely in tandem with the phrase “fish oil.” Eating a fish-heavy diet has been shown to be beneficial to health, and is believed to be one of the main reasons for longevity among individuals in Japan, where diets have been historically rich in fish and seafood, and therefore also omega-3s.

What are omega-3s?

Without wading too deep into the science, it is helpful to know that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the two main sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are termed “essential” because we can only get them by eating foods or supplements that contain them.

Humans lack the enzyme to break other, more common fatty acids (eg: saturated fatty acids) into these PUFAs. While both are necessary to our health, Americans’ diets on average tend to have far more omega-6s and fewer omega-3s than is optimal. Health professionals recommend that people intake omega-6s and omega-3s at a ratio of 2:1, but it is estimated that the “average” American diet can have up to 15 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.

When we refer to the omega-3s necessary for optimal health, we are talking about the three most researched types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Since we cannot simply create them in our bodies, we must find these necessary fatty acids elsewhere: through our diet or by taking supplements. ALA is only found in vegetables and plants and while our bodies can convert it into EPA and DHA, it is more efficient to get EPA and DHA directly through sources such as fish oils.

How omega-3s can improve health and decrease the risk of certain diseases

Omega-3s are integral to good health, and the closer you are to getting the recommended daily intake (RDI) of omega-3s, the more likely you are to avoid a number of different diseases and health-related problems.

1. Cardiovascular disease (triglycerides)

Early clinical research supports the theory that omega-3s lower the chance of cardiovascular disease (CVD). This is likely due to the fact that omega-3s can help lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, two things that can contribute to CVD.

2. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

Taking omega-3s regularly has been shown to decrease the symptoms associated with RA, a chronic condition that causes swelling and pain in the joints. Due to its natural anti-inflammatory properties, adequate omega-3 dosage in patients with RA has also been shown to lead to a decrease in the need for corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs.

3. Depression

While a range of studies support the finding that a diet higher in fish leads to a decreased risk of depression, the same findings have yet to be confirmed for taking an omega-3 supplement. However, follow up studies did find a decrease in depressive symptoms in those taking omega-3s, but further studies are needed to know how effective omega-3s specifically are in decreasing the risk of depression.

4. Fetal and Infant development

DHA is found in high concentrations in the brains and retinas of infants, and numerous studies have shown that babies with mothers who eat seafood containing DHA during pregnancy have better birth outcomes (such as healthier birth weight and stronger visual and cognitive development) than those who do not. While pregnant mothers do have to be aware of mercury levels in seafood, numerous studies have shown that the benefits of eating seafood during pregnancy outweigh the risks.

5. Asthma

Since omega-3s tend to lower inflammation, a key factor in asthma, taking omega-3s could help lower the amount of medication asthma patients must take to treat the condition. However, clinical studies have yet to provide reliable outcomes for asthma patients.

6. ADHD

In some studies, parents of children with ADHD reported an improvement in their children’s behavior after they began taking an omega-3 supplement.

7. Alzheimer’s & Dementia

Likely due to the important role DHA plays in neural function,a number of findings have shown that diets high in omega-3s can help decrease the chance of illnesses associated with cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Foods that contain omega-3s

As mentioned earlier, there are three common types of omega-3s: DHA, EPA, and ALA. Since ALA must first be converted into DHA or EPA by the body before it can be useful, sources that provide us directly with DHA or EPA tend to be more effective. However, getting all three types of omega-3s from a variety of sources is probably the healthiest way to go.

As a simple approach to consuming enough omega-3s, the FDA recommends eating seafood twice a week, but the type and variety of seafood you are eating also matters. Mackerel is the best source of omega-3s, and the next best source is salmon. There are some omega-3s in tuna, but eating canned fish (salmon or tuna) will give you less omega-3s per ounce than eating the cooked fish either fresh or frozen. If you are consistently getting the proper amount of omega-3s from animal sources, you are probably eating a lot of mackerel, salmon or herring, or taking a fish oil supplement.

For those who would prefer to avoid seafood and fish oil supplements, there is a vegetarian source of DHA and EPA that is gaining popularity. Algae is rather unusual, as it is both vegetarian and an excellent source DHA and EPA. Algae actually originate the DHA and EPA that continues up the food chain to shellfish and fish.

ALAs typically come from plant sources, such as chia seeds, flaxseed, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and brussel sprouts, and nuts including Brazil nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts. The best sources of ALA are walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed respectively.

Guide to supplementing omega-3s

If you are not getting enough omega-3s from your diet, you might want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Omage-3 supplements come in the form of capsules.

The recommended daily intake for omega-3s is different for men and women, and higher for women who are pregnant or lactating. According to guidance published by the National Institute of Health, the “Adequate Intake” (AI) for omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) for men is 1.6 grams and for women is 1.1 grams, or 1.4 if they’re pregnant, and 1.3 if they’re lactating.

Fish oil supplements are a common way to get those omega-3s. When selecting a fish oil supplement, you may want consider the risk of pollutants that are commonly found in fish. Although it is well-known that contaminants can accumulate in fish, it is less clear how much of that actually ends up in fish oil supplements. To limit your potential exposure to toxic chemicals, choose a high-quality fish oil supplement from a company that is transparent about their sourcing. Generally speaking, wild fish are preferable to farmed fish. The environmental impact of fishing may also be something to keep in mind.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can get your omega-3s from vegetarian supplements derived from algae. Just look for Algae oil or Algal oil. Omega-3 supplements from algae are both vegetarian and a good source of EPA and DHA. They are also less likely to contain the environmental pollutants associated with wild fish and can be produced in a more environmentally-sustainable fashion.

Conclusion

Omega-3s are important for maintaining optimal health and have been shown to decrease the risk of diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s. You can consume an adequate amount of omega-3s from diet alone by regularly consuming seafood, vegetables, and oils. If you diet is lacking in these foods, you should consider taking an omega-3 supplement.

If you’re not certain whether you’re getting enough omega-3s, consider taking an online health assessment or speak to your healthcare professional.