All About Omega-3 Fatty Acids
All About Omega-3 Fatty Acids
DediKate Nutritionist Amy discusses Omega-3 Fatty Acids - what are they, how much do you need and what are the best sources?
Introduction to Omega-3’s
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The main Omega 3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). You get it...complicated, fancy science names, I think we’ll just use the abbreviations from here! The body cannot make these fatty acids therefore they must be obtained from the diet or supplements.
Where Do We Get Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
ALA is found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, soybeans and canola oils. EPA and DHA are found in fish oils, shellfish and algae. ALA can actually be converted to EPA and DHA in the body however the conversion rate is very low, only around 15% is converted to EPA and DHA. Therefore, eating oily fish or supplementation is recommended to reach your required intakes of EPA and DHA for health (1).
Why do we need Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in the structure of every cell in the body and are particularly important for eyes, brain and skin health. They have also been found to have a multitude of protective health benefits such as in the cardiovascular system.
- The main Omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA and DHA.
- We cannot make Omega-3 fatty acids so must ingest them.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are important for all body cells and protecting our health.
Omega-3 and Disease Risk
Omega-3 fatty acids have many different health benefits and have even been found to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of various diseases.
- Omega 3 can improve and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (2,3).
- DHA is important for eye health and insufficiency has been linked to macular degeneration which can cause permanent blindness (4).
- EPA and DHA improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as decreasing blood lipids called triglycerides and increasing ‘good’ cholesterol called HDL-C (5).
- DHA supplementation may reduce symptoms in those with age related cognitive decline (6).
- Omega 3 fatty acids may reduce symptoms of swelling and tenderness in joints in rheumatoid arthritis (7).
- Omega-3 fatty acids have positive effects on the brain such as decreasing depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can improve risk factors of cardiovascular disease.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have proved beneficial for eye and joint conditions.
Recommended Amounts and Food Sources
There is no defined recommended intake for EPA and DHA however it is advised to eat at least 2 portions of oily fish per week (8). Health organisations generally suggest to get at least 250-500mg (0.25-0.5g) of combined EPA and DHA per day for general health and over 1000mg (1g) per day for those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease.
Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
EPA and DHA compete with Omega- 6 fatty acids for the same breakdown enzymes in the body. Meaning that an overconsumption of one may affect the body's ability to breakdown and utilise the other. Omega-6 is found in soybean oil, sunflower seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Some researchers suggest that a low Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio can cause increased risk of some diseases (1). However a recommended ratio has not been established and since Omega-6 containing foods also have health benefits it is generally accepted that we should be increasing our Omega-3 intake but not necessarily decreasing our Omega-6 intake (9).
- It is recommended to eat 2 serves of oily fish a week.
- Health Organisations generally recommend 250-500mg for general health and greater than 1000mg of omega-3 fatty acids for heart health.
- Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio may be important for health therefore try to increase your Omega-3 intake where possible.
Omega- 3 supplements
Looking at the Label
Amounts of EPA and DHA
When looking at omega-3 supplements the main number labelled is usually the total fatty acid content but you need to look at the nutrition labelling on the back to check the specific EPA and DHA content. For example, 1000mg fish oil tablets may contain 270mg EPA and 180mg DHA. This adds up to 450mg and will put you in the intake range for general health.
Forms of EPA and DHA
For best absorption look for omega-3 in the form of Free Fatty Acids (FFA), Triglycerides (TG) or Phospholipids (PLs) and avoid in the form of Ethyl Esters (EE).
Choosing an Omega-3 supplement containing an antioxidant such as Vitamin E may help to reduce the risk of the oil going off (rancid).
Types of Supplements
Cod Liver Oil
Only around 30% of cod liver oil is EPA and DHA although it also contains fat soluble vitamins such as A and D.
Fish oil often contains high levels of EPA and DHA due to concentration in processing. This process also eliminates contaminants such as mercury. Fish oil may go off (rancid) quickly so check the use by date and store according to labelled directions.
Omega 3 capsules are popular as they provide fish oil in an easy to swallow capsule with limited fish burps. The capsule can mask rancidity so cut one open from time to time and check for the tell tale fishy smell.
Green Lip Mussel Oil
Green Lip Mussels are native to New Zealand. They provide Omega-3 fatty acids in well absorbable forms.
Omega-3 fatty acids are just as well absorbed from krill as from fish. They are more resistant to rancidity due to a naturally occurring antioxidant.
Algae is where Omega-3 fatty acids start before they are eaten by the fish that typically provide us with these fatty acids. They are particularly high in DHA. Algal supplements are great for those who don’t want to consume fish products and they are thought to be environmentally friendly.
- You should check supplement labels for EPA and DHA amounts and forms.
- Check use by dates, smell and for antioxidant ingredients for signs of rancidity
- You can get Omega-3 fatty acids from cod liver oil, fish oil, omega-3 capsules, green lip mussel oil, krill oil or algal supplements.
Can you have too much Omega 3 Fatty acids?
As of yet there is no safe upper limit established for EPA and DHA. By supplementing within recommended amounts you are unlikely to have any adverse effects providing you are otherwise healthy. However, omega-3 fatty acids can act as a blood thinning agent. Whilst this may be useful in protecting against cardiovascular disease it may not be helpful for those with blood clotting disorders or those on pharmaceutical blood thinners (10). Please consult your Doctor for individualised advice.
- If you have blood disorders or are on blood medications please talk to your medical health professional before supplementing.
Let’s Sum It Up
Omega-3 fatty acids are fats that our bodies can’t make therefore we need to ingest them. They are important for cellular health and have lots of benefits for the cardiovascular system, brain, eyes and possibly for inflammation. They are in particularly high quantities in oily fish, therefore it is recommended that we consume at least 2 portions of fish per week. We may need to supplement our diets to reach the general recommendation of 250-500mg per day of Omega-3 fatty acids. There are lots of different supplements to choose from however checking the label for quantity and quality of the fatty acids is important. If you have a blood condition or take blood medications please speak to your medical health professional before starting supplementation.
DediKate nutrition services include; weekly educational nutrition videos, ongoing email support for members and a live weekly question and answer session. All with our DediKate Nutritionist Amy.
Join DediKate for your FREE two week trial today to get the most out of our nutrition offerings!