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Omega-3 Fat – What is it and where does it fit into a healthy diet?
Omega-3 fat is deemed to be a ‘healthy fat’ and is made up of 3 different types of fatty acids: Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are essential fatty acids (meaning the body cannot make them and must obtain them through diet).
What are ‘Healthy Fats’
The term ‘Healthy Fats’ refers to dietary fats that have been shown to improve overall health due to the beneficial effects they have on:
· Blood triglycerides & cholesterols,
· Artery health,
· Inflammation and metabolism.
Healthy Fats include Omega and monounsaturates (all unsaturated) fats.
Omega-6 fats and effects
The Omega-6 fats linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA) liberate eicosanoids which promote: blood vessel constriction, inflammation, blood clotting, pain, airway constriction etc. Whilst each sounds like something we would wish to avoid, each is critical to overall health when operating in a controlled state. Issues occur however, when Omega-6 fats dominate and the previous actions operate unchecked. Sources include: cereals, whole-grain breads and most vegetable oils.
Omega-3 fat and effects
As mentioned in the introduction, the key Omega-3 fats are: ALA, DHA and EPA. Sources of ALA include: flax, walnuts, fish oils and algae (also rich in EPA and DHA). Fish oil can be considered a good source of all 3: ALA, DHA and EPA as algae is a predominant food source for fish.
The positive benefits attributed to Omega-3 fat:
- Improve fluidity of cell membranes.
- Improve insulin sensitivity.
- Reduced inflammation helping with: joint pain associated with arthritis, muscle soreness, lung inflammations (such as asthma) and improved exercise recovery.
- Reduce the pain associated with PMS and menstruation.
- Improve mental health by helping to insulate nerve cells in the brain.
- Improve cognitive performance and memory functions.
- Reduce incidents of depression.
- Improve cholesterol levels by lowing triglyceride’s and elevating good cholesterol (HDL).
- Prevent weight gain.
- Assist with fat loss.
- Increased muscle protein synthesis.
- Colon, breast and prostate cancers have all been correlated with low intakes of Omega-3.
Omega-6 : Omega-3 ratio
Fat balance is important for overall health, humans evolved consuming diets of marine life, wild game and plants which provided abundant Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. This resulted in a healthy Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of 1:1. Unfortunately, the modern Western diet has become skewed, typically being in the range of 16:1 – 20:1 in favour of Omega-6 fats. This is wildly out of balance for optimal cellular health. High Omega-6 intake arises from ingesting corn oil, safflower oil and meat from animals which have been fed a lot of corn rather than allowed to graze naturally.
How to re-address the Omega-3 : Omega-6 balance
Rather than concentrating on eliminating Omega-6, the preferred approach is to look to moderate the intake of Omega-6 fats and increase intake of Omega-3 to ensure a healthy ratio is achieved.
Natural Sources of Omega-3 Fat
When possible, try to get omega-3 fatty acids from foods rather than supplements. Aim to eat fish high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids two to three times a week. If this isn’t practical or possible then you can look to achieve the intake via Omega-3 supplementation.
Natural fish sources of Omega-3 fat include:
- Salmon (wild has more omega-3 than farmed)
- Lake trout
Natural plant based sources of Omega-3 fat include:
Oil from the seeds of plants such as: flax, hemp and canola contain ALA. However, as the body has to process and convert ALA into EPA and DHA it is more efficient to use natural sources or Supplemental Omega-3.
Omega-3 enriched eggs
Another source of Omega-3 is to use enriched eggs. The eggs are enriched by the feed of the chickens that laid them having had flaxseed or algae added to it. This produces eggs which provide approx. half the recommended ALA and one quarter of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of EPA and DHA.
How much Omega-3 fat should I be getting?
Try to consume at least one good source of Omega-3 per day. This can be achieved by consuming fish, Omega-3 rich eggs, plant sources or via supplements.
As an example, you could use:
2 tablespoons of flaxseed (or 1 of flax oil) to meet your daily target.
2 or 3 servings of the natural fish sources listed above.
2 caps of MyProtein Omega-3 supplements.
Bottom line on Omega-3 Fat
As outlined, there are a multitude of health benefits to be achieved from including healthy Omega-3 fats into our diet. Where possible, it would be best to achieve their intake via natural plant or fish sources, if this isn’t possible, chose a high quality Omega-3 supplement that is stated as being pure of contaminants.
As always, it is advisable to consult your physician if you are planning to make significant changes to your diet – this is especially relevant if you are being treated for bleeding disorders or taking blood thinning medication (blood pressure control medication). Whilst Omega-3 can have a positive effect here, it would need to be considered alongside any medication.