Omega 3 fats - Why your body needs them and are you getting enough?

Fats play an absolutely crucial role in our health but one type of fat, in particular, has been found to deliver extraordinary benefits.

Omega 3 fats are the ones found predominantly in oily fish. A useful way to remember your oily fish sources is SMASH, Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herrings. Forget cans of tuna as an oily fish, practically all the omega 3 will have been extracted. That said, a fresh tuna steak will deliver some omega 3’s.

You can also source omega 3’s from chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts but generally, the conversion of the fats obtained from vegan sources can be poor. The omega 3 fats from vegan sources come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid, which needs to then be converted up to the essential fats Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Some very long names that tested my spelling! But basically alpha-linolenic acid has to jump through quite a few hoops before it becomes the EPA & DHA that our bodies need. If you are vegan, I would suggest supplementing with a vegan omega 3.

Are you getting enough Omega 3's?

Unfortunately, the typical Western diet can be low in omega 3's and the reasons for this can be 1) not consuming enough omega 3 in the diet or 2) consuming too many omega 6 fats. Omega 6 fats, on the whole, promote inflammation whereas the omega 3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties, hence the lovely benefits found by research study after research study. Omega 6 fats generally come from meat, dairy and processed foods in the way of vegetable oils. It really all comes down to a ratio… the ideal ratio is 1:1, i.e one omega 3 to one omega 6, but with vegetable oils being so cheap and therefore widely used in food manufacturing, this ratio becomes easily distorted, in the favour of omega 6.

A quick note in the defence of meat, I have put this into the omega 6 laden category because most people eat conventionally raised meat products. If you opt for organic, pasture-raised sources, the nutritional profile of the meat produced under these circumstances is very different and can actually be a good source of omega 3’s. Is this why meat get such a bad rap in the headlines? Quite possibly so, but that’s a debate for a blog post all of it’s own.

The 1:1 ratio proposed as the ideal should keep inflammation nicely balanced. Inflammation is a good thing to some extent but many of us are struggling with chronic illnesses and therefore far too much inflammation. It’s thought that the ratio in the current western diet is about 16:1, that’s 16 omega 1 to omega 3, so heavily weighted towards the more pro-inflammatory omega 6’s! And to be honest, this comes as no surprise, with vegetable oil added to almost every processed or convenience food. Even the most health-conscious, can fall foul of this with vegetable oil being added to the so-called health gluten-free granola and dairy-free spreads. Consuming these products can sway the balance towards an omega 6 predominance, distorting the omega 3:6 ratio and promote more inflammation than we need.

Inflammation...okay but why do I really need more omega 3’s

  • Heart health - We know that Omega 3's are beneficial in keeping the heart healthy and are now recommended for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

  • Brain Omega 3's are critical for the structure and function of the brain. They are required at every stage of life, from conception and throughout pregnancy to support a growing baby’s brain, through childhood for learning and development, for a balanced mood at any age and right through into older age to preserve cognitive function and protect the brain against life stresses.

  • Joints, pain & inflammation - Studies have found that omega 3 oils can help support joint health, reduce pain, balance the immune system and help to calm inflammation.

  • Child health - Omega 3's are essential during the early years for brain, eye and nervous system development. There’s even evidence to suggest that omega 3s may be useful to support learning and behaviour and in problems such as autism (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

  • Gut bacteria Yep, back to the all-important gut 3’s have been found to be beneficial in promoting a healthy gut microbiome. In fact, fish as a whole is a more favourable protein in terms our improving our gut health.

Should I Eat More Oily Fish?

My answer would be yes, but there is one concern to discuss. Oily fish whilst being a great source of omega 3’s can also sadly contain harmful pollutants such as heavy metals, toxins, plastic residues and PCBs. UK government guidelines recommend that you should eat at least one portion (140g cooked weight) of oily fish per week. There are concerns around eating more than 2 potions if your pregnant and more than 4 portions for everyone else. Heavy metals can accumulate up the food chain, so it’s the bigger fish that will contain the higher amounts of heavy metals such as mercury and plastic residues, PCB can be an issue regardless of the size of fish.

So what do I do!!

I hear you… well, my advice would be to opt for the smaller fish so as to reduce your exposure to heavy metals such as mercury. Think sardines, herrings, anchovies. For salmon and mackerel, I would advise trying to get form non-farmed sources if possible. It would be nice to get all our omega 3 fats from the diet. However, with our sadly environment against us, it may be wise to consider a purified, stable omega 3 fish oil supplement as a more reliable source of omega 3’s minus the harmful heavy metals and chemicals, to help us your daily intake.

I personally eat oily fish, focussing on the smaller fish such as sardines, twice a week and then supplement with a high-quality omega 3 supplement, plus restrict my consumption of omega 3’s so that my ratio is more favourable to health.

Top Tips for selecting an effective omega 3 supplement

  • Pure - Choose an omega 3 fish oil supplement that has been thoroughly purified to be free from harmful pollutants such as heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and plastic residues.

  • Stable - Many high-quality supplements contain added antioxidants such as vitamin E to ensure freshness and stability, cheaper products are often rancid and will do you more harm than good. As a rule of thumb, if your omega 3 supplement repeats on you, it’s likely to be of poor quality and even rancid.

  • EPA & DHA - Choose a supplement that contains EPA & DHA – these are the essential fatty acids our bodies need.

  • Consistency – A product can be effective unless you take it. Make sure you choose a product that fits your taste and lifestyle; this is especially important for children. You can now get omega 3 supplements in liquid, capsule and even chewy jelly forms so pick one that you can easily fit into your daily routine.

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