In this article we’re going to take a close look at Omega 3.
To properly understand them it helps to know a bit about the science behind Omega 3 so we’ll start here. At the end of the article we’ll give some specific recommendations, but I really recommend not skipping straight there – understanding how they work means you can make much more informed choices.
What are they?
Omega 3 belongs to group of compounds known as “essential fatty acids”. It’s hard to overstate their importance – we require them in order to function, and they effect a huge variety of systems and functions within the body. One of the most important is in reducing and controlling inflammation. We cannot make them, instead we need to obtain them from our diet.
Research has shown they have a role in preventing the following diseases:
- Heart disease and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- High blood pressure
- Inflammatory disorders (eg Rheumatoid Arthritis, IBS)
- Neurodevelopmental disorders (eg ADHD and Autism)
- Chronic pain conditions
- Pre-term birth
- Many types of cancer
How do we get them?
Before looking at where they are found, it’s important to know that not all Omega 3 fatty acids are created equally. To understand the differences, we need to look at their chemistry (if this sounds too daunting you can skip to the bold paragraph below!).
There are 3 main types of Omega 3’s:
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
- Alpha-Lineolenic Acid (ALA)
The first two, EPA and DHA, are the most important. These are the ones which have been most extensively researched and found to be responsible the many health benefits of Omega 3. They are also found naturally in wild game and seafood. Grass fed meat also has a slightly higher concentration of EPA and DHA, but still very small. The naturally occurring ratio of EPA to DHA is 3:2, hence we should aim to keep our intake similar to this balance
ALA is found in plants, particularly flaxseed – the reason for flaxseed being labelled a “superfood” in the last few years.
We don’t actually need ALA, and by itself it doesn’t do much. Rather, it can be converted to EPA and DHA within the body. Unfortunately, humans are very poor at this – we cannot convert it fast enough to provide an adequate supply. Therefore flaxseed and other plant-based Omega 3 sources are not a suitable replacement for fish or wild game.
In summary, the most important forms of Omega 3 that we need are EPA and DHA.
They are naturally found in sufficient quantities only in wild game and seafood, in a 3:2 ratio of EPA to DHA. Plant’s are neither a suitable nor sufficient source of Omega 3.
How much do I need?
Almost certainly more than you are getting at the moment! There is a growing body of research indicating that the vast majority of Westerners are deficient in Omega 3. Our modern diets contain far too little, and too much Omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 6 is the counterpart to Omega 3 – they promote inflammation. Although we do need some Omega 6, the ideal ratio is somewhere between 1:1 and 2:1 of Omega 6 to 3. Unfortunately the standard Western diet has resulted in many of us having a ratio of nearer 20:1! This results in a “pro-inflammatory state” – where the tissues of the body are slightly inflamed all the time, and any further inflammation (e.g. from injury) is significantly increased.
Talking about how much Omega 3 you need doesn’t make much sense unless you account for Omega 6 as well – and Omega 6 is very common: particularly in the following foods:
- Vegetable-based cooking oils (sunflower, canola, vegetable, sesame) and foods containing them
- Any processed food (pre-made sauces, microwave meals, store-bought sandwiches)
- Fast food
- Cheap grain-fed supermarket meat
- Sugary snacks
- Nuts and seeds
The more of these you eat, the more Omega 3 you will need. Bear in mind that restaurants will almost certainly use a lot of vegetable oils in cooking as they are cheap, so eating out will increase your Omega 6 intake as well. Cutting down on Omega 6 is just as important as increasing Omega 3!
Can you get enough from fish?
If we were to completely ignore Omega 6, the recommended intake of 2-3 portions of oily fish would probably just be enough for most people. Unfortunately the average intake of Omega 6 means this would still leave us with a ratio closer to 6:1.
And the other problem with oily fish is the problem of contaminants – mercury, PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls – about as nasty as they sound!) and other toxic chemicals have found their way into the oceans and are building up in the food chains, especially farmed fish. Getting an adequate Omega 3 intake solely from fish exposes you to higher concentrations of these chemicals as well. Also, to maintain a healthy balance of Omega 6 to 3 most of us would have to eat a portion of oily fish at least daily, which may be unrealistic or unappetising for many of us.
So where does all of this leave us?
Unless you make a consistent effort to manage your Omega 3 and 6 intake, you are almost certainly deficient in Omega 3 and overloaded with Omega 6. Here are some simple steps you can take to improve your health:
- Eating a couple of portions of wild caught (not farmed) oily fish per week will give you some but not enough of your Omega 3 requirements without too much exposure to toxins.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a source of wild (not farmed) game this is also a great source of Omega 3.
- Cutting down on fast/junk food, processed food and eating out will help reduce your Omega 6 intake. Home cooked fresh food is always a better option!
- Similarly, not using vegetable oils makes a big difference to Omega 6 intake. Olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil are safer and healthier alternatives.
- Take a good quality Omega 3 supplement. Whilst the Sevenoaks and Beckenham Chiropractic team always advocate natural dietary sources as preferable to any supplement, in the case of Omega 3 that is simply unrealistic for the vast majority of us.
Unfortunately, not all supplements are created equally. In the next article we’ll discuss what you should look for in a good quality Omega 3 supplement, and how to work out your dose.