What are Omega-3’s and why are they important?
Omega-3’s are a type of fatty acid, specifically one of the long chain unsaturated fatty acids, making it a polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA. It is important that we consume enough of them through our diet because they are essential fatty acids, meaning that our body cannot produce them itself and so it is essential they come from our diet.
Omega-3’s come in different forms which are used differently by our body. This includes:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which can be converted to the other forms of omega-3; EPA and DHA, however the conversion rate is often very poor.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are most efficiently used by our bodies and so have more direct health benefits.
Where do we find omega-3’s?
The main sources of omega-3’s are:
- ALA sources : mainly found in vegetable sources such as flaxseed, soybean, canola oil, walnuts, chia seeds, pecans and hazelnuts, as well as green leafy vegetables.
- EPA and DHA sources: oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout, whitebait, kippers, pilchards and herring. White fish contains some omega-3’s but at much lower levels than oily fish and so are not seen as a rich source of omega-3. The variation in total amount of fat as well as omega-3 content is due to the environment and diet of these fish with n-3 content being higher in cold-water fish and farmed fish.
Some other foods can be fortified with DHA and other n-3 fatty acids such as eggs, yoghurt, juice, and milk.
What are the Benefits of omega-3’s and oily fish and how much do we need?
Omega-3 intake has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Dietary recommendations are mainly based on this health benefit, although others do exist (such as healthy eye and brain development in babies and children, maintaining cognitive function as we get older and in the treatment of depression).
In most countries it is recommended that we have at least two portions of fish (1 or more being oily fish) in order to achieve an EPA+DHA intake of between 250-500mg/day. Unfortunately in most western countries omega-3 intakes do not meet these recommendations. Oily fish is also a good source of protein and other vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A and D, iodine, calcium, selenium. So plenty of reasons to choose an oily fish once or twice a week!
This blog was adapted from Claire Pettitt, a UK Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist who is passionate about health and food. Claire believes food, and our relationship with it, is the backbone to our health and wellbeing and a healthy relationship with food, and with our bodies, starts with being able to listen to and trust in our bodies. Claire has spent recent years in research looking at appetite and body composition changes and has previously worked in the UK National Health Service helping people with health issues such as IBS, supporting women with PCOS and fertility challenges from conception, through pregnancy and postpartum and her main love it supporting people with developing long-lasting health behaviours which will improve both physical and mental health through intuitive eating.