Omega-3 fatty acids. We’ve all heard of them, but what do we know about them? I mean, what do we really know about them? Do we know what they are and where they are found? Are all these omega-3 sources even equal? And, does the evidence actually support the health claims we read and hear about? Below, we hope to shed a little light on omega-3 fatty acids, where to access them, and how to include them as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Which foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acids?
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids – EPA, DHA & ALA. EPA & DHA are mainly found in oily fish, including sardines, salmon, mackerel herring, tuna and anchovies. EPA & DHA are also found in algae. ALA is found in plant foods including flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soy.
What do we know about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
The omega-3 fatty acids, EPA & DHA are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Looking at the research regarding this, here are some examples of what it tells us:
- People who regularly eat fish and shellfish as part of a balanced diet are less likely to die of heart disease than those who rarely or never eat it. The evidence that omega-3 supplements can have the same effect is mixed, with some studies suggesting positive benefit and others, not.
- Some studies have linked the intake of omega-3 with a decreased risk of certain cancers, including breast and colorectal. For most other cancers, the results are inconclusive. In general, further research is needed in this area.
- Observational studies suggest that people who consume higher amounts of oily fish may have a lower risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
- Several studies have suggested that higher oily fish intake may reduce the risk of depression, but further studies are needed in relation to major depressive disorders in adults.
- Findings to date suggest an omega-3 rich diet may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis.
What is the best way to include omega-3 fatty acids in my diet?
For those of you who are familiar with the Bristol Whole Life Approach, you will know that we love to work predominantly through food to get all the nutrients we need. Not all of us eat fish, but for those who do, we recommend eating 2-3 portions of oily fish per week. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, oily fish is an excellent source of protein. It also provides vitamin D, iodine, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins. Eating the bones of smaller fish such as sardines or anchovies will also provide a good source of calcium.
Are there any downsides to eating oily fish?
Unfortunately, many fish now contain pollutants such as PCBs (industrial pollutants found in our oceans), or heavy metals such as mercury. The larger oily fish, such as tuna, will contain higher concentrations of these than smaller fish like sardines and anchovies. Our recommendation would be to minimise intake of these larger fish and vary your choice of smaller oily fish, two to three times a week.
To add another layer of complexity, if you are concerned about sustainability in fishing and farming practices, check out the Marine Conservation Society’s website for guidance. www.goodfishguide.org
I don’t like oily fish, what should I do?
If you do not enjoy eating oily fish, you may wish to consider taking an EPA/DHA supplement. As fish oils are prone to degradation, particularly when exposed to heat and light, it is important to choose a good quality brand for maximum freshness. At home, store your fish oil away from heat and direct sunlight, ideally in the fridge.
I am vegan. Can I get sufficient omega 3 fatty acids from plant foods alone?
ALA rich foods, including flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts are an important part of a healthy diet but our ability to make EPA & DHA from ALA is limited and will vary from person to person. For this reason, it is not ideal to rely upon plant foods as your main source of omega-3 fatty acids.
In recent years, vegan EPA & DHA supplements sourced from algae, have come to market. If you are a vegan and you wish to increase your intake of omega-3, you might consider supplementing with vegan EPA & DHA, following the manufacturer’s guidelines for dosage.
Is there any reason why I can’t take an omega-3 supplement?
Omega 3 supplements have the potential to interact with medications. If you are taking any medication, we recommend you seek medical advice before embarking on an omega-3 supplement programme.
OK, so, can you sum up for me?
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA & DHA are important for the health of the eyes, brain, heart and immune system. Since they cannot be made in the body, they must be obtained from our diet. The best way to do this is to consume oily fish 2-3 times per week, limiting intake of larger fish, like tuna. Eating walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and soy will provide you with the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, which the body can use to make a small amount of EPA and DHA. Since this conversion is limited, vegans and non-fish eaters may wish to consider taking a supplement to complement a healthy diet.
I would like to find out more about omega-3 fats, where should I start?
For a more in-depth look at omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fats in general, see the links below. Also, feel free to email us or contact us on Facebook and we will do our best to answer your questions!