For a long time I was more familiar with the hype than the facts. Omega 3s are everywhere; milk is fortified with them, hens are fed them (to produce Omega-rich eggs), and 922 books tell us to eat more of them. But why? And why are the 3s getting all the attention and not the 6s or 9s?
Here’s everything I didn’t know then, and all you need to know now …
- Omegas are fats that the body uses to make hormone-like chemicals that regulate pretty much everything in the body.
- An Omega is either a 3, 6 or 9
- Omega 3’s are further divided into LNA (alpha linolenic acid*), EPA and DHA; the “parent” Omega 6 is linoleic acid (LA); there are two Omega 9’s.
- But don’t worry about the 9’s – your body makes them on its own and has this under control. Omega 3 and 6 though, it doesn’t; you need to get them from food, which is why these two are called “essential”.
- Foods high in Omega 3 are fatty fish (eg.salmon, sardines, tuna), flax seeds, walnuts; Omega 6 is found in corn and soybean oil and meat from grain-fed animals. (Grass-fed meat is also a pretty good source of Omega 3, but be sure it’s truly grass-fed (if you’re not sure if it is – it’s not), otherwise you’re getting a heavy dose of 6 and trace amounts of 3.)
- For optimal health we need all three Omegas in balance in our body.
- Problem is, most people are highly deficient in Omega 3 (hence the hype around the 3’s). This is because we eat too little seafood, flax seeds, walnuts…and too much corn oil and meat from corn-fed animals. We do want more 6’s than 3’s in our body, but the ideal ratio of Omega 6 to 3 is 2:1, not 10: 1 (or higher) which is what the typical Western diet provides.
- The benefits of getting Omega 3 levels in balance are many: enhanced brain functioning (our brain is 60% fat, and half of that is DHA – an Omega 3), improved blood circulation, strengthened immunity, lower incidence of inflammation and healthier eyes.
So fish oil and flax oil get all the attention because they have far more Omega 3 than any other food, but if you had to choose one? Fish oil. Flax seed oil has the highest of any plant based food, but contains only the Omega 3 LNA, which the body has to convert to EPA and DHA (the more valuable of the the 3’s) . Where fish excels is that the EPA and DHA is in pure form and does not have to undergo conversion. But LNA is needed by the body, so don’t not consume flax oil (squirt it into yogurt, smoothies or homemade salad dressing). Oh, and be sure to consume flax in oil or ground-up-seed form (the whole seeds pass right through you).
If you don’t want to have to remember any of what you just read, then simply take fish-oil capsules – ideally daily but “whenever you remember to” is a good start. My personal favorite is New Chapter (high quality ingredients and excellent customer service – super responsive to email questions.) I take 2 capsules (2 grams) daily (which is the rough equivalent of eating 4 oz of salmon/day). The New Chapter brand has zero fishy after-taste, an unpleasant side-effect of many brands, that I’m sure was the reason I used to “forget” to take my capsules. If you’re a vegetarian or can’t stand fish, try an algae-based Omega 3 supplement (many on the market now), or flax oil capsules.
(Update: Several people emailed me asking about cod liver oil. Yes! Is my answer. Here’s what it’s high in: 1) EPA and DHA – just like other oily fish oils, 2) Cholesterol. This is not a bad thing as our bodies need cholesterol and eating it will not raise your levels as your body will compensate by making less of its own. 3) Vitamin D. Vit D and cholesterol work together. Vit D is made from cholesterol in our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. Few foods contain Vit D and cod liver is one of the best sources. 4) Vitamin A. This is Vitamin A at its finest – in its pure state.)
Your take on Omegas?
*LNA is sometimes written as ALA (very confusing!), but they’re the same thing.
Photo: Omega 3 double-header. Copyright © Michelle Madden
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