Omega-3 fatty acids (n-3 FAs) are considered essential to human nutrition.
Normally, our bodies are able to synthesize fatty acids from raw materials available, but this is not the case for the omega-3’s. Diet is the only provider of omega-3 fatty acids
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (Alpha Linolenic acid), of which ALA is the most common. ALA comes from a variety of foods including vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseed, and some animal fats. EPA and DHA, however, predominantly come from fish and other seafood (nicknamed the “marine omega-3’s”). Omega-3 fatty acids integrate all throughout the body and have health benefits pertaining to the heart, brain, and circulation.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats:
Many have a hard time figuring out why some fats are healthier than others, and rightfully so. The science behind it can be complicated. To keep it simple then, let’s put fats into two main categories, the healthy and the unhealthy.
Most healthy fats come from plant sources and are referred to as unsaturated. Examples include olive, grapeseed, and certain vegetable oils. These fats are liquid at room temperature and are typically a safer option than most animal fats. There are exemptions to this trend, however. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are healthy unsaturated animal fats (not from a plant source).
Certain frying oils are also an exemption. This is because chemically engineered (man-made) unsaturated fats are less chemically stable than those found in nature. At high and shifting temperatures (such as deep frying), the carbon chains can flip from a cis- to a trans- configuration (1). Ever hear of trans-fats? These fats are very unhealthy and contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the hardening of the blood vessels and formation of plaques). A better option is to stick to unsaturated fats found in nature.
Most unhealthy fats are saturated fats and come from animal sources. These fats are packed with hydrogen molecules, making them more dense and solid at room temperature, like butter and lard. In large amounts, saturated fats contribute to cardiovascular disease and obesity, both now worldwide epidemics. Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, while the rates of obesity continue to rise each year affecting younger individuals.
The Use of Omega-3s:
N-3 fatty acids are major building blocks for the brain. A developing human should have a steady supply of DHA from the 3rd trimester to the 2nd year of life. This is necessary for brain and nervous development (2). Omega-3’s also decrease inflammation by reducing the number of cytokines (inflammation signaling molecules) in circulation.
Here are some of the well-known health benefits of n-3 fatty acids:
- Help control arrhythmias, irregular heartbeats.
- Fight atherosclerosis, the hardening of blood vessels and plaque formation that leads to heart disease.
- Helps with non-alcoholic liver disease, less fat deposition.
- Improves mood and helps with psychiatric conditions such as major depressive disorder (MDD) and schizophrenia.
- Slight reduction in blood pressure.
- Helps prevent kidney disease, dealing with glomerulus (reducing hypertension).
- Helps with inflammation-based pathologies: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and osteoarthritis.
Great Food Sources:
Fish and other seafood are great sources of n-3 fatty acids. Especially (dark meat) oily fish. Sardines and tuna are good sources/options to obtain the weekly servings of omega-3 fatty acids. If you use canned fish, try to buy it in water; not in oil. If in oil, the healthy nutrients (n-3 fatty acids) diffuse into the oil solution and subsequently become discarded.
A common concern with eating fish is the presence of contaminants such as mercury and PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A good rule of thumb for minimizing the ingestion of contaminants includes eating lower in the food chain. Large, carnivorous fish, such as swordfish and shark, are more likely to be exposed to toxins from other fish they eat. Sticking to fish lower in the food chain ensures that toxin/contaminant exposure remains minimal. Furthermore, when comparing the health benefits of n-3 fatty acids to the potential drawbacks of contaminant consumption, the good outweighs the bad–eat more fish.
If you want to learn more about how to maintain a healthy diet, come to CORE to talk to our certified Nutritionists! We’ve also recently brought on a Registered Dietitian to soon expand into “Functional Integrative Nutrition”! Don’t muddle along alone, hoping some diet or supplement will work for you–speak to a CORE nutritionist or dietitian to get help and recommendations tailored to you!
Adam, Maya. “Dietary Fats & Their Effects on Human Health.” Stanford Introduction to Food and Health. www.coursera.org/learn/food-and-health/lecture/G7kqN/dietary-fats-their-effects-on-human-health.
“Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution.” The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. CHAN School of Public Health, 15 Mar. 2018, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/.