Omega 3's have been a hot topic in not only the healthcare world but in general media for a few years now. So what's all the buzz about? What are these mysteriously healthy fats? Why are they so good for us? How do we get more?
What are they?
Omega 3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are needed for the proper structure and function of our cells. These fats are not made by our body in high enough quantities and are therefore considered essential parts of the diet (some technical debate over the use of the word essential here)*. There are three major types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA, with the latter two being the most effective.
Omega 3's have an anti-inflammatory effect on our bodies, which is why they have been proven to reduce chronic disease and maintain good health. There are several proven benefits to consuming these fats as well as continued research in their function in improving many conditions. The following is a brief list of some of the main benefits linked to omega 3 intake as well as topics of current research surrounding them.
Well-Researched Improvements in:
Mild Alzheimer's disease
Mental health (at ratio greater than 2:1 EPA: DHA)
Pregnancy and infant development
Other Researched Benefits:
How much do we have to consume to access these awesome benefits?
There is conflicting information on the amount of omega 3's needed in our diet because individual goals and needs vary. The American Heart Association recommends about 0.5g/day of EPA and DHA but for individuals with high triglyceride levels, the recommendation is 2-4g EPA and DHA per day. To have a positive effect on mood and behaviour in adults we are aiming for about 1g/day (2:1 Ratio EPA:DHA) and a minimum of 500mg for children. Those looking for a decrease in inflammation (joint pain, IBS, asthma etc.) the dosage should be about 2-4g/day combined EPA and DHA. An average value around 900mg/day is used for general health and disease prevention (EPA and DHA combination).
Despite their positive health roles and media attention, the average Canadian intake of DHA and EPA does not meet any of these recommendations. The estimated current intake of EPA and DHA in a North American diet is only about 0.13 g/day, about one tenth the recommended amount! A diet high in processed foods, hydrogenated oils, as well as vegan and vegetarian diets can put people at a greater risk for omega 3 deficiency which can lead to inflammation throughout the body and eventually causes chronic disease.
So how can we increase our intake and protect ourselves from chronic disease?
There are several solutions available to us to up our omega 3 intake. We add omegas into our diet through: naturally occurring omega foods, foods with omega's added in (functional foods), or through natural health products. Usually the omega 3's are listed under their different categories (EPA, DHA, ALA). Hint: make sure to read the EPA/DHA reading as this can often be low in products that still have high amounts of fish oil! Below are a list of some sources of omega 3 fatty acids.
Cod liver oil
Fish (best food choice)
Functional Foods (These will be labeled if they have omegas added in, not all do!)
Natural Health Products (NHP)
Concentrated omega 3s
Fish oil (Oxidizes quickly, make sure to store in dark place)
Algal oil (vegan)
Flaxseed oil (vegan) Not as effective as this is ALA
Some Extra Tips to Keep in Mind
When adding omega 3's into your diet make sure to look at the actual amounts of EPA, DHA, ALA per supplement or serving. Some supplements have such small amounts, people have to take about 8 capsules a day to reach their daily intake!
Keep in mind that EPA/DHA are more potent forms than ALA and have many of the beneficial functions explained above.
Some people can experience "burp back" which can be caused by a low quality fish oil supplement, to avoid this try taking a the supplement with food.
If taking any sort of blood thinner, consult your doctor before taking an omega 3 supplement as it may lead to excessive bleeding.
To increase absorption, look for supplements with free fatty acids (FFA), triglycerides (TG) or reformed triglycerides (rTG) rather than ethyl esters (EE).
Keep supplements in a dark place and preferably in the fridge to last longer, check expiry dates!
Take a supplement with a meal that includes fat to increase absorption!
There is debate over the use of the word essential for omega 3’s as their parent molecule is what is technically the essential molecule based on the clinical definition