A detailed article on what are Omega-3 fatty acids, their benefits, dietary sources, how much to eat, how to incorporate in our diets and more!
In the past couple of years, I have dived deeper into understanding Omega-3s and incorporating them into our diets. While I knew that “flax seeds,” “fish oil,” and “walnuts” are healthy, now I appreciate the “why” piece of it.
Therefore, I write this article hoping that we all make informed choices related to Omega-3 in our diets. To give you an example of choices, roasting and storing ground flax seeds have become a part of our weekend meal-prep routine. Soaking walnuts is a daily ritual, and my three-year-old does it frequently. Moreover, both Flax seeds and Walnuts are on our list of 10 healthy foods to eat every day, predominantly due to Omega-3 content.
I think I have brought home the point that Omega-3 essential fatty acid is vital – so let’s jump right in.
Disclaimers: Nuts and seeds can cause allergy – if starting for the first time, please speak with your doctor/dietician. Too much of anything can be harmful, moderation is the key for even good foods. For seafood, it is recommended to have wild-caught than farm-raised to avoid contaminants. Please speak with your doctor if you are pregnant/any medical condition before changing your diet, or if you have any concerns.
What are Omega-3 fatty acids?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, “fat!” Right fats are good for the body, help build healthy skin, and absorb many vitamins [Prime-time health, Sears et al., 2010]. Also, they provide energy and help make certain hormones.
Fats are made of triglycerides, which are, in turn, made of Fatty acids. If naturally occurring, these fatty acids can be unsaturated or saturated, depending upon which type of fatty acid is found the most in that food. Unsaturated implies that in the fatty acid chain, there are one or more carbon double bonds (no hydrogen on them!)
Omega-3 is a “polyunsaturated” fatty acid (see figure above) implying there are multiple double bonds in the fatty acid chain. Lastly: The word Omega stands for the Greek letter “ω” and “3” means that the first double bond in the carbon chain is on the third bond from “ω” or the tail end of the fatty acid chain.
Other commonly known Omega fatty acid is Omega-6, which we will discuss a bit later.
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Benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for brain and heart health, help reduce chronic inflammation, improve learning, and elevate mood [The omega-3 effect, Sears et al. 2012.] Since our bodies don’t make these, one needs to consume them either in diets or supplements.
Do we need Omega-6 fatty acids too?
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential because they help in the inflammatory response, but too much Omega-6 can cause chronic inflammation. Junk food, processed vegetable oils, etc. can have Omega 6: Omega 3 as high as 70:1! And that is where the problem rests these days: too much of Omega-6!
The same enzymes metabolize omega-3 and omega-6 into nutrients, so for good absorption, we want to be as close to a ratio of 1:1 between them [Prime-time health, Sears et al., 2010].
What are the dietary sources of Omega-3 fatty acids?
Sea-food, especially Tuna and Salmon, are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based foods rich in Omega-3 are Flax seeds, Chia Seeds, Walnuts, and leafy greens! Among the above, Flax and Chia seeds are the best sources for two reasons: (a) their Omega-3 fatty acid content is high, (b) Omega 6:Omega 3 is low (4:1 and 3:1 respectively).
On the other hand, Walnuts have a higher Omega 6:Omega 3 of 4:1; therefore, moderation is key. Vegetables too are rich in Omega-3, but per serving size is not enough for Omega-3. [Top 10 foods highest in Omega-3 fatty acids.]
What is the difference between seafood and plant-based Omega-3 fatty acids?
There are three Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) from seafood, and ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid ) from plant-based foods. While our body absorbs EPA/DHA, it needs to convert ALA into EPS/DHA for absorption.
The success of this conversion depends on a lot of factors like activity levels, gender, etc. Therefore, as useful as it is to include Omega-3s in our diets, it is vital to take care of our activity levels and overall health.
What, how much to eat and what to avoid?
- If you eat seafood, it is recommended to eat 12 oz fish (salmon or tuna) weekly[Prime-time health, Sears et al., 2010]. There is no dietary requirement (RDI) regarding Omega-3 for now, but ISSFAL recommends 600 mg of Omega-3s (DHA/EHA) per day.
- If on a plant-based diet, please be mindful of the following:
- For ALA or plant-based Omega-3s, the U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women. So, say, if Flax seeds are the only source, 1 tbsp per day meets this requirement. However, I wouldn’t go above 1 tbsp if consuming almost every day.
- You may choose Chia seeds or Flax as your primary choice of Omega-3 source. Walnuts can be the secondary source.
- You may roast and grind flax seeds and add them to flour for the dough, rice, and smoothies. Preparing them is a part of our weekly meal-prep routine. Also, here is a flax-seed rice recipe, if interested.
- You may sprinkle Chia seeds occasionally on salads, or have chia pudding.
- Soak 1-2 walnuts per person overnight and have them in the morning.
- Eat leafy greens.
- Avoid junk foods or certain oils like sunflower oil and canola oil, which have very high Omega 6 content. Please check before buying. A high Omega6: Omega3 ratio should raise the alarm.
- Walnuts are a rich source of Omega 3 but have an Omega 6 to Omega3 ratio of 4:1, so they should be consumed, but limited.
- “Hydrogenated” and “trans” oils should also be completed avoided.
- Keep activity levels high because overall health may increase Omega-3 absorption.