These days everyone has heard of Omega 3. However, most people although knowing it's of great value to their health, have no idea how the mechanics of this nutrient work. More importantly, many seem not to know which foods are the best sources of EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids). I want to delve a little deeper into this and help clarify some things for everybody out there.
Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3 & 6) are not produced or synthesized by the body, and because they are necessary for our overall health and well being we must obtain them from dietary sources to reap their benefits. Hence, they are called essential fatty acids.
There are two types of EFA’s. Omega 3 & 6. Now many of you probably know little about Omega 6. The reason is most people are rarely lacking in the lesser known and understood Omega 6. Another EFA referenced often is Omega 9. However, Omega 9 is not an Essential Fatty Acid. If the human body is in need, it can make it’s own. So although it's sometimes referred to as an EFA, it is in fact not an essential fatty acid (EFA).
(ALA) Alpha-Linolenic Acid / (EPA) Eicosapentaenoic Acid / (DHA) Docosahexaenoic Acid
All three of these are in essence Omega 3 fatty acids. When we eat plant based Omega 3’s they are ALA’s which are then converted by the body into EPA and DHA. Many sea-based sources such as fish and oysters are sources of EPA and DHA.
Omega 3 fatty acids are vital for human health. They aid and contribute to a litany of bodily functions. Their importance cannot be overstated. Because the body cannot synthesize it, it must be procured through dietary means. The general guidelines for adult RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) are 1.5-1.7 g/day for men and 1.1-1.3 g/day for women. 1 gram is equal to 1000 mg. In my opinion, these numbers are a little low. We are predominantly not dealing with people in perfect health sporting Spartan physiques and therefore must overcompensate to offset as well as combat the many overwhelmingly negative influences on our health and wellbeing that we are surrounded by and exposed to on a daily basis. So a little bit more is preferable. I would suggest something in the range of 2.5-5 g/day for men and 2-4 g/day for women. Keep in mind that when eating Omega rich plant-based foods you have few worries. However, when eating Omega rich foods such as eggs, oysters, and fish, there are other factors to consider. Such as; fat content, calories, cholesterol, etc. So when eating these foods don't go crazy solely because of the Omega 3 content. You must always consider the food as a whole.
A few food sources which contain the highest levels of Omega 3’s are; Mackerel, Salmon, Herring, and Sardines. Each of these possesses Omega 3 levels which per serving are between 2-6 grams. Some wonderful plant-based sources are; Spinach, Walnuts, Chia Seeds, and Lentils to name but a few. One of my personal favourites is cold pressed Flaxseed Oil. Just one tablespoon contains between 5 and 7 grams of Omega 3 fatty acids. I usually just put a tablespoon worth in 100 ml of orange juice, and I’m good to go. Another great thing about flaxseed oil is that it is relatively tasteless and odourless. So I highly recommend flaxseed oil to everyone out there.
One of the most important things one must understand concerning Omega 3 and 6 is that their balance between one another dramatically affects their ability to achieve optimal function within the human body. Therefore, if through your dietary intake you are consuming far more Omega 6 than Omega 3, it creates a situation where the Omega 3 fatty acid is rendered virtually useless. This has become a significant problem and concern within countries that have adopted the westernized diet. Which as we all know is full of processed and unhealthy cuisine. The only solution is to minimize processed, fried, and low-quality foods. Adopting a diet that is rich in plant-based foods is critical. EFA’s are crucial to the healthy function of virtually all tissues within the human body. They also help with the functioning of both the heart and brain. Omega 3’s are also well known for their anti-inflammatory properties as well as their ability to raise HDL levels (Good Cholesterol), which often has the added effect of lowering LDL (Bad Cholesterol). They also do a great job of keeping the hair, skin, and nails looking strong and healthy. Often when individuals begin supplementing with Omega 3, one of the first things they notice between 4-8 weeks is an improvement in the look and feel of their hair, skin, and nails. Individuals who are exceedingly deficient may need more time to begin seeing and feeling the positive effects. Indeed, there are such a vast number of bodily functions that are aided by EFA’s that for the purpose of this article I felt it may be a bit redundant to start listing them all. So, to keep it simple I will merely state that their role in the human body is vital.
(LA) Linoleic Acid
Omega 6 is the lesser known essential fatty acid, and although far fewer people are found to be deficient in this nutrient, it is none the less of almost equal importance. Omega 6 like it’s better-known brother Omega 3 also plays a crucial role in brain function, optimal growth and development of various tissues and organs, including the heart, as well as helping to regulate the body’s metabolism. It also plays a role in the health of our hair, skin, and nails.
The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is 15-17 g/day for men and 10-12 g/day for women. Children also need an adequate amount of this nutrient on a daily basis. Depending on their age the RDA fluctuates. Toddlers need 7 g/day and children between the ages of 4 to 8 need 10 g/day. Babies are also in need of Omega 6 but obtain what they need through breast milk or formula.
Vegetable cooking oils are one of the most commonly used sources of Omega 6.
Safflower, Sunflower, and Corn oils are all rich sources. They range between 7 and 10 grams of dietary Omega 6 per tablespoon. However, I would recommend staying away from corn oil because most corn and corn-based products found in supermarkets these days are genetically modified. The same goes for Soybean Oil which is also rich in Omega 6 but due to other dangers including it often being genetically modified, make it an oil to be avoided. There's no need to take a chance when there are so many different options out there. Other sources of Omega 6 fatty acids include Hemp Seed Oil, Brazil nuts, Pecans, and Pumpkin Seeds.
A frequent issue with Omega 3 and 6 is their ratio. Their ratio is suggested to be 1:1, but more and more we are finding that people are getting 15 to 20 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3. This essentially causes Omega 3, and it’s health benefits to become inert. The ratio between these two is far more important than how much Omega 6 you are taking in because if the proportions are off, you are causing harm to your body instead of reaping the numerous health benefits. This is something I teach to all of my clients. The most effective way to ensure you do not fall prey to this ever-increasing problem is to avoid or to reduce your intake of junk food, fried food, and of course processed food. Another trick I’ve learned over the years is when eating out to ask for any sauce or dressing on the side. These dressings are ordinarily full of unwanted calories, fat, etc. I have been doing this for years, and it has served me well. So, start implementing these tips into your daily eating routine, and you will find it to be worthwhile.
As we age our bodies ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA becomes impaired, this is why it is important for people over the age of 50 to consume rich sources of EPA and DHA such as fatty cold water fish like salmon.
Lastly, I would like to address the issue of Omega 3 supplements that come in pill form. Many people rely on this to obtain their RDA of Omega 3 fatty acids. While I am not against anyone doing this, I would recommend reading the labels carefully. Make sure that the quality of the ingredients are what they should be, and look at the dosage. Often, these types of supplements are underdosed and not made of top quality ingredients, yet they still cost quite a bit. I would still recommend eating a diet rich in EFA’s and if needed or desired to consume anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of flaxseed oil daily.