All fats are not created equal. Learn why omega-3s reign supreme, and how to reap the benefits of these essential fatty acids.
In the heyday of 1980s low-fat dieting, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering why human beings cannot thrive without consuming essential omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Today, research continues to reinforce that these fats are important to many aspects of our well-being.
The skinny on essential fats
Omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) make key hormonal messengers that regulate a number of body functions: how sticky our blood is, how much inflammation is plaguing us, and even how well our immune system responds to potential threats.
At the cellular level, these fatty acids soften cell membranes, changing the way cells communicate with each other. ALA is also the parent fat to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), two other omega-3s with well-known brain, eye, and heart benefits.
All three types of omegas have been researched for cardiovascular and blood sugar benefits; however, not all omegas are created equal—or essential.
Omega-3, -6, and -9 decoded
Unlike ALA and LA, omega-9 fatty acids are not strictly required in our diet. Since our bodies can make this type of good fat, omega-9 is not essential.
We also don’t need to fixate on getting enough LA, even though it’s essential. Without even trying, we receive plenty of omega-6 from vegetable, seed, and nut oils, as well as the grain products that use these oils and the grain-fed meat that dominates in North America.
What’s more, omega-6 has a Jekyll and Hyde personality in the body, explains clinical nutritionist Josh Gitalis. It’s the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that affects our levels of inflammation. More omega-6 in a body that already has a high omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio can promote development of heart disease, certain cancers, and inflammatory autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
Conversely, in someone with a lower ratio, omega-6 seems to encourage improvement in these disease states. For example, a four-to-one versus a 10-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has been associated with a reduction in mortality from heart disease.
Bottom line—it’s the omega-3s that we need more of on a regular basis.
Salted mackerel tops the charts for omnivore sources of omega-3s, providing roughly 3,430 mg of omega-3 DHA and EPA per 2 1/2 oz (75 g) serving. But what if you’ve decided not to eat meat?
You can still get enough parent omega-3 ALA from plant-based foods (see “Vegan Sources of Omega-3s” sidebar). Still, meat-free folks need to be cognizant of the low conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA. Only about 3 percent of ALA may be converted into the other important omega-3 fats, says Gitalis. Hence, he discourages vegetarianism or veganism if a therapeutic dose of omega-3 is needed to combat inflammation.
Fortunately, food technology has allowed supplement companies to concentrate the amount of DHA coming from vegan-friendly algal oil. Gitalis notes, however, that a large number of pills may be needed to achieve the amount of omega-3s per day that he typically recommends.
Taking omega-3s for your heart? Perhaps you’ve noticed some of these other bodywide health benefits.
Dry eye happens when the meibomian glands in the corner of your eyes produce tears that are lacking in fatty acids. Fatty acids, including omega-3s, mix with the water and mucus in tears, keeping them from evaporating too quickly. Anecdotal and scientific evidence continues to link fatty acids with healthy eyes. For example, one recent study found that consuming a 500 mg omega-3 supplement twice daily for three months significantly improved dry eye symptoms.
Omega-3s work the same way as Aspirin, sulfasalazine, and corticosteroids that are used to help medically manage colitis or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), explains Gitalis. In some studies, use of fish oil or other sources of omega-3s have helped reduce inflammation in those with colitis and IBD. Meghan Telpner, noted nutritionist and director of the Academy of Culinary Nutrition, used flaxseed oil on steamed veggies as one of her first steps toward recovery from Crohn’s disease.
Omega-3s are also associated with the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis, as well as reduced use of puffers in asthmatics who experience exercise-induced shortness of breath. Bouts of infection make breathing even more difficult for cystic fibrosis patients. Increasing omega-3 intake can increase the anti-inflammatory essential fatty acid content of the white blood cell membranes that lead the fight against such infections.
Diet-induced nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a precursor to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, might also be reversed by omega-3 DHA, as opposed to EPA, conclude researchers from Oregon State University. Giving rats the equivalent of 2,000 to 4,000 mg of DHA per day resulted in a 65 percent drop in measures of proteins that signal liver fibrosis.
About 20 percent of our brain’s total weight is polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 DHA. So it’s no wonder there’s such strong evidence linking low DHA levels to lower cognitive and neurological function in children and adults. However, mental health studies are as yet inconclusive about a dose-response relationship between omega-3s and various forms of depression, mania, and affective disorders. Be sure to check with your health care practitioner for dosing information specific to your individual health needs.
As their accolades show, omega-3s are an important part of the solution to many health conditions. Although these fatty acids don’t displace the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, getting enough sleep, stressing less, being active, and nurturing healthy relationships, they are essential for our overall well-being.
Vegan sources of omega-3s
|Food||Amount of omega-3 ALA (mg)|
|flaxseed oil, 1 tsp (5 mL)||2,580|
|ground flaxseed, 1 Tbsp (15 mL)||2,460|
|walnuts, 1/4 cup (60 mL)||2,300|
|sacha inchi seeds, 1 Tbsp (15 mL)||2,000|
|chia seeds, 1 Tbsp (15 mL)||1,900|
|hempseeds, 1 Tbsp (15 mL)||833|
|cooked soybeans, 3/4 cup (180 mL)||760|
|cooked Brussels sprouts, 1 cup (250 mL)||270|
|cooked broccoli, 1 cup (250 mL)||190|
|cooked spinach, 1 cup (250 mL)||170|