There’s a lot of talk about healthy fats these days. People are including more fat in their diets and forgetting about the fat-free diet crazes of the past.
You’ve probably heard about omega fats in the mix, but what exactly are they?
What are Omega Fats? Do they all perform the same function in our bodies?
Omegas are a group of fatty acids known as Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9. They’re numerically named based on their chemical composition.
The body is capable of producing some fatty acids on its own, like Omega-9 – meaning you don’t need to get them from food.
However, the fatty acids the body can’t create on its own must be obtained from food, and therefore, are considered essential. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (EFAs) and both are needed for good health. This being said, MOST of us are overloaded with Omega 6 EFAs due to an abundance of it found in our foods/prepared food, meanwhile our bodies are crying for Omega 3 EFAs as these EFAs are limited to certain types of foods that unfortunately many of us tend to avoid. In order for our body to function properly on the cellular level we must maintain proper ration of Omega 3 to Omega 6. When the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 is out of balance, it creates inflammation that can lead to heart attack, stroke and autoimmune disorders (to name a few).
A 1:1 ratio (Omega 3 to Omega 6) is ideal for keeping inflammation at bay, but it’s estimated that most people have a ratio closer to 1:20 (this means we are consuming about 20 times more Omega 6 EFAs than needed and not nearly enough Omega 3 EFAs!
Low intake of Omega-3’s means most people are missing out on the major health benefits of this essential fat.
The protective qualities of Omega-3’s include:
- Improved immune system function
- Decreased inflammation
- Skin health (think eczema, psoriasis, acne etc)
- Decreased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, and depression
- Improved triglyceride and cholesterol values
- Critical role in human development – the brain and retina contain lots of omega-3 in the form of DHA
Which foods are the best sources of Omega-3’s?
To make this even more complicated, Omega-3’s is composed of:
- ALA (alpha linolenic acid) – found in plants, like nuts and seeds
- DHA/EPA – found primarily in fish
The best sources of ALA include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Canola and soybean oil are also good sources of ALA, but these oils aren’t the healthy options since they quickly oxidize and turn rancid, which promotes inflammation and cancels out any beneficial effects of the omega-3s they contain. AVOID THESE OILS!
While meat and dairy aren’t a great sources of omega-3s, it’s worth noting grass fed meat and dairy contain higher amounts of omega-3s than conventional grain fed meat.
ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA by the body for it to be utilized. Unfortunately, the conversion process is only capable of converting 1-20% of the ALA we consume into a usable form.
Although it would be hard to meet all your omega-3 needs only with sources of ALA, flax, chia, and walnuts are still healthy fats with lots of other good-for-you vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Since fish contains the ready-to-use EPA/DHA form, it is recommended that most people obtain their omega-3’s from fatty cold water fish, like salmon, herring, and sardines.
How much Omega Fats should we be eating? Do I have to eat fish or take fish oil?
While there are no official recommendations for daily omega-3 intake, it’s thought most people can meet their basic (please note if you are living with an autoimmune disorder, Cardiovascular condition, or any chronic inflammation you will require more Omega 3 oils in your daily intake) omega-3 needs by consuming fish 2-3x/week.
To avoid taking in too much mercury, a toxic heavy metal in fish, I recommend sticking to fish that is smaller than tuna and to alternate the types of fish you eat and avoid the varieties known to be high in mercury. Environmental Working Group (EWG) does ongoing research and posts the updates for the best seafood to consume, check them out here: https://www.ewg.org/research/ewgs-good-seafood-guide
If you choose not to consume fish because of mercury or other concerns, it’s best to supplement with fish oil or, if you’re vegan – try algae oil.
It’s generally considered safe to consume up to 3 – 6 g of fish oil per day. If you include a high quality fish oil supplement and a variety of sources of healthy fats in your diet, you don’t have to worry about counting omega-3s.
People who are managing symptoms of heart disease or other illness may benefit from even higher, therapeutic doses of omega-3’s. Please speak to your nutritionist or other qualified health care practitioner to determine the best dosage for you.
Please note that high doses of fish oil have blood thinning effect. If you’re currently taking blood thinners or have surgery scheduled, you should check with a healthcare provider before supplementing.
Healthline – Omega 3 Fatty Acids: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide
National Institutes of Health – Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Precision Nutrition – All About Fish Oil
Precision Nutrition – All About Healthy Fats