Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Essential nutrients

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have numerous benefits for your health. Learn about the sources of omega-3s and the rest of the omega family.

In 1971 two Danish researchers pondered why Greenland Inuit who consumed a high-fat diet of seal and whale meat had extremely low rates of cardiovascular disease. After studying blood samples of 1,000 Inuit, the researchers determined the diet—high in omega-3 fats—was the reason for their good health.

Since uncovering the positive health benefits that omega-3 fats have on Greenland Inuit, scientists Bang and Dyerberg set in motion an intense study of essential fatty acids along with hundreds of published articles. Forty years later, we are still learning about the distinction between good and bad fats and their effects on our health.

From heart health to reducing depression to maintaining healthy skin, the benefits of consuming healthy levels of essential fatty acids are well worth noting.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat, which, unlike saturated fats, are liquid at room temperature and remain liquid when refrigerated or frozen. Termed essential, the body requires omega-3 fatty acids for normal development, but they are only acquired by ingestion.

The three most nutritionally important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (found in flaxseeds, walnuts, hempseeds, soybeans, and some dark green leafy vegetables); eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA; and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA (both EPA and DHA are found in cold-water fish including salmon, tuna, halibut, and herring).

Health benefits

The Danish researchers unleashed decades of active discovery about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis, as well as for healthy cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioural function.

Heart health
The relationship between adequate omega-3 intake and low rates of cardiovascular disease has been exemplified in numerous traditional diets around the world. Diets such as those of the Greenland Inuit and of those living around the Mediterranean Sea are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

These large population studies have led researchers to conclude that getting omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, primarily from fish, helps protect against stroke caused by plaque buildup and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain.

EPA and DHA (the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) help reduce risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and lower levels of triglycerides. Fish oil also appears to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots, which can clog the arteries.

The other omegas

The discussion of fats would not be complete without mention of a few lesser known but noteworthy essential fatty acids.

Omega-5
An exciting article published in the International Journal of Oncology in 2010 reported omega-5 essential fatty acids found in pomegranate seeds have a potential role in cancer prevention.

Although little is known about omega-5, or punicic acid, its anticancer effects on breast cancer cells will offer even more insight into the tremendous benefits of essential fatty acids.

Omega-6
Also termed essential, omega-6 fats are found in borage and hemp oil. High amounts of omega-6 in the diet, however, can have negative effects, and close evaluation suggests that North Americans consume excessive amounts in the form of corn, safflower, and cottonseed oil found in processed foods.

To counter the potentially harmful effects of excess omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, a balanced ratio of 4 to 1, omega-3 to omega-6 is recommended. Incorporating an omega-3 supplement into the diet can help achieve an ideal balance.

Omega-7
Also referred to as palmitoleic acid, omega-7 is another lesser known essential fatty acid found in sea buckthorn oil, which seems to be particularly helpful in lubricating membranes, offering relief to dry eyes, and may also have anticarcinogenic properties.

Omega-9
Not deemed essential, as they can be manufactured from unsaturated fat by the human body, omega-9 fatty acids are a component in animal fat and vegetable oil. Interestingly, under essential fatty acid deprivation, the body will elongate omega-9 fatty acid to make mead acid, which has been associated with breast cancer.

In a 2004 survey by the US Food and Drug Administration, researchers found most people were quite confused about the different types of fat. Understanding these differences is crucial for preserving health.

Fats

Health effects

Found in

Trans fats

increase LDL cholesterol; decrease HDL cholesterol; increase risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancers, and coronary heart disease; avoid packaged and processed foods such as crackers, cookies, doughnuts, and chips

Saturated fats

may contribute to higher LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart attack and stroke; consume only in moderation animal sources: meat, poultry, butter, and cheese
Monounsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol, ease inflammation, and benefit other health systems; consume moderate amounts  
Polyunsaturated fats (including essential fatty acids) cut risk of coronary heart disease; consume moderate amounts

vegetable oils (olive, peanut, sesame) and macadamia nuts, almonds, and avocados

Weight loss

Despite the low-fat craze of the 1990s, researchers have now established that omega-3 fats are important for heart health—and weight loss. In fact, a 2006 study found that incorporating 1 g of fish oil as a single capsule containing 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA daily for six months led to significant weight loss.

The researchers also noted an improvement in the cardiovascular risk profile of the patients as well as decreases in inflammation and autoimmunity.

Depression

An often underdiagnosed and dismissed problem, depression has been shown to respond well to treatment with omega-3 supplementation. Researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy found significant decreases in depression experienced by elderly patients when given
1.67 g of EPA and 0.83 g of DHA for eight weeks.

This finding seems to support evidence that low omega-3 levels in plasma and red blood cells are associated with depression.

Skin health

Though an estimated $2 billion was spent on antiaging cremes in the year 2000 alone, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids is a much more affordable and effective
way to maintain smooth, luminous skin.

In fact, omega-3s may be able to combat the effects of UV damage without surgery, according to scientists at the University of Liverpool. Further studies indicate that omega-3s are an effective treatment for acne, atopic dermatitis, and even melanoma.

Sources of omega-3s

  • Wild salmon
  • Fish oil supplements
  • Flaxseeds and flax oil
  • Walnuts
  • Cauliflower
  • Sardines
  • Mustard seeds
  • Cabbage
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Winter squash
  • Tofu
  • Summer squash
  • Halibut
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Soybeans
  • Shrimp
  • Cod
  • Strawberries
  • Green beans
  • Snapper
  • Scallops
  • Tuna
  • Raspberries
  • Miso
  • Herring
  • Rainbow trout
  • Kippers
  • Mackerel
  • Omega-3 enriched eggs

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