Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Essential for Health
‘Fat’ isn’t usually a term associated with a positive self-image, so it seems counterintuitive that omega-3 essential ‘fatty’ acids (omega-3 fats) should play such a major role in helping to keeping our bodies healthy. But, they do!
Many of our essential functions are dependent upon fat. Our body can synthesize most of the required fats on its own, however, not in the case of omega-3. Omega-3 fats are essential to our health and must be obtained from our food.
There are three primary omega-3 fats: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid(DHA) and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).(1) Both EPA and DHA are predominantly sourced from fatty fish like sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found primarily in leafy vegetables, nuts and vegetable oils. ALA is generally considered an energy source as it requires conversion into EPA and DHA before it can deliver longer term health benefits. As one of the most common and effective sources of EPA and DHA, fish oil has become synonymous with omega-3; particularly in the supplement world.
For optimal health it is vital that we ingest the proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Like omega-3, omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated,essential fatty acids (PUFA) that can only be provided to us through food and supplements. When it comes to fulfilling our omega-3 fats requirement, the typical North American diet does not fare so well.
Essential fatty acid proponents believe that many health issues could be avoided or minimized by balancing our intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. (1,2) Unfortunately, with its emphasis on foods such as meat, butter, cheese and pastries, health agencies like the American Heart Association are reporting that our North American diet is way off kilter when it comes to balance. The minimal amount of omega-3 that we typically ingest cannot be expected to stave off the inflammation inflicted by our poor choices. According to The University of Maryland Medical Centre the American diet “contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids”. Many nutritionally-oriented physicians consider that to be way too high on the omega-6 side. Studies suggest that higher dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratios appear to be associated with worsening inflammation over time and a higher risk of death among certain segments of the population.
Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, while an excess intake of omega-6 fats can promote inflammation. (1) A ratio of roughly 1:1 is associated with healthier blood vessels, a lower lipid count and a reduced risk for plaque buildup. Fish oil may also decrease the risk of diabetes and several forms of cancer, including breast cancer.(3) The Mediterranean diet recognized for its consumption of healthy oils (unsaturated), fatty fish, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, is naturally rich in in PUFAs and well balanced in omega-3 and omega-6. It has become the poster child for the ‘new’ North American diet. Age related studies have repeatedly shown that people who follow this diet are less likely to develop blood clots, heart and vascular disease (1,3), rheumatoid arthritis and cognitive decline; among numerous other conditions. Ever experience a little brain fog? An article in Medical News Today refers to University of Edinburgh research that looked at the effects of “the Mediterranean diet in relation to brain
volume as we age.(4) It discovered that that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely.(5) A study referenced in The Journal of Nutrition reported upon the association of increased PUFA intake with a decrease in excess body fat and an increase in higher lean body mass. Isn’t that what we are after? (6)
What more do we need to convince us that a few small changes could provide some big results when it comes to our health? Not a fan of fish? No time to adjust your diet? No excuses. The availability, excellent quality, along with the affordability of omega-3 supplements today, negate the challenges that adopting a healthier diet may present.
Go fish! It doesn’t have to be further than the supplement aisle.
1. Misirli G, Benetou V, Lagiou P, Bamia C, Trichopoulos D, Trichopoulou A: Relation of the traditional Mediterranean diet to cerebrovascular disease in a Mediterranean population. Am J Epidemiol. 2012, 176: 1185-1192. 10.1093/aje/kws205 2. bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-12-112?version=meter+at+null&module=meter-Links&pgtype=Blogs&contentId=&mediaId=%25%25ADID%25%25&referrer=&priority=true&action=click&contentCollection=meter-links-click
3. Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, et al. Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis. Lancet. 2007; 369:1090-98
4. Researchers led by Michelle Luciano, Ph.D. - from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland - looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet (MeDi) on total brain volume, gray matter volume, and the thickness of the cortex. 5. http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2017/01/04/WNL.0000000000003559.shor
6. Micallef, M., et al., Plasma n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids are negatively associated with obesity. Br J Nutr, 2009. 102(9): p. 1370-
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