When all you hear about today is essential fatty acids – especially omega-3s> – it can be easy to tune out or dismiss as a health fad. But the truth is, omega-3 essential fatty acids are extremely beneficial to our health. This week’s featured article explains exactly why, and gives you a basic primer on its best food sources.
Diet is one way we can contribute to better health – and so is physical activity. Check out our featured fitness video for a new way to work out, or our complete library of fitness videos online. Whether it’s nutritious, omega-3-rich recipes or online fitness tracking tools, Fitness Republic has all the resources you need to help you achieve all your health and fitness goals.
Everywhere we look, it’s omega this and omega that. We’re told to take it in supplements and eat foods that contain it. But which ones are best? And where do we start?
Essential Fatty Acids, or EFAs, are needed to keep our skin and tissue supple, especially for our blood vessels and nerves. And since we can’t manufacture them in our own bodies, we must get them from our diet. These essential fatty acids are called Omega-3 and Omega-6.
It’s important to maintain a good balance of both – approximately 2 to 1 in favor of omega-3, according to the renowned authority on fats, Udo Erasmus (though some researchers say otherwise.) But the North American diet provides such an abundance of omega-6 – found in plant oils like canola, corn, peanut, safflower, sesame, soy, sunflower and walnut – that the correct balance can be difficult to achieve.
This imbalance is being blamed for many of the health problems we face today such as cancer, heart disease and inflammation. Research shows that omega-3s help with more than twice as many degenerative diseases as omega-6s. That’s why the importance of omega-3s has been emphasized so much recently.
Why take them?
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. And because they’re highly concentrated in brain tissue, they’re also important for memory and overall mental performance. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include weakness, mental deterioration, dry skin, high blood pressure, edema, and immune dysfunction.
Right to the source
The primary source of omega-3 in plant-based foods is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Sources include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, soy and walnuts, to name a few. ALA is the essential fatty acid the body uses to make the other omega-3’s – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are the most beneficial for lowering blood fat levels.
However, little conversion of EPA and DHA will take place if a person is deficient in ALA. The intake of essential nutrients – vitamins B3, B6 and C, plus the minerals magnesium and zinc – are believed to boost the conversion to above the normal rate of 2.7% of ALA to EPA and DHA.
You can also directly obtain EPA and DHA from seafood such as albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines and rainbow trout, but it’s important to know the source of your fish due to toxins and mercury levels. In addition to lowering blood fat levels, EPA and DHA are said to have even more anti-inflammatory properties than ALA.
Your daily dose
- If you’re not a vegetarian and you can choose safe wild sources, adding the seafood listed above in your diet will give you a direct amount of EPA and DHA
- You can also supplement with fish oil, but talk to your nutritionist or health care provider on brands and dosage
- As a preventative for cardiovascular disease, it’s recommended to eat a portion of oily fish 2-3 times weekly, or supplement with 500-1000 mg of EPA and DHA
- The fish should not be fried. It’s best to boil them whole so their oils aren’t destroyed by heat, light and air. Eaten raw as sushi is also optimal
- Check with your health care professional for exact dosage recommendations, as dosage will need to be adjusted based on specific concerns
- Add freshly ground flax seeds to your cereal, smoothies and any soup or sauce when serving. Cooking foods that contain EFAs will quickly deplete them. They’re also sensitive to light and heat, and can easily go rancid if not properly stored in a dark container, or in the fridge or freezer
- Two tablespoons of flax seeds contain two grams of protein, four grams of fiber, four grams of EFAs and important nutrients like calcium, potassium, magnesium, selenium, choline, and vitamin E
- If supplementing with oil, the typical recommended dosage is around one tablespoon, but can be adjusted accordingly
- Chia seeds pack a nutty, crunchy flavor, so they’re great on salads, and excellent in homemade energy bars
- An ounce of chia seeds gives you 4 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, 6 grams of EFAs and contains other important nutrients like calcium
Always check with your health care professional before beginning high levels of supplementation. EFAs can act as a blood thinner, so exercise caution – especially before any surgical procedure.