Most of us have heard of omega 3’s. They have been popular in the press in recent years, but don’t know why we need them or where to get it.
What is an Omega 3?
Omega 3’s are essential fatty acids. There are several kinds of Omega 3’s, but EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the two with the most studied health benefits. Omega 3’s are generally considered anti-inflammatory, and are important for a number of bodily functions, but most notably for heart health and cognitive function. Here are a few more as outlined by Nordic Naturals:
- Promotes joint health, mobility and flexibility
- Protects against oxidative damage (antioxidant)
- Promotes healthy eyes and vision
- Supports digestive health
- Supports circulation and blood vessel function
- Promotes positive mood and well being
- Promotes healthy immune response
- Great for hair, skin and nails
- Aids in recovery from physical stress (exercise)
Why are these Omegas most important?
The name omega 3 makes it seem like there should be an omega 1 and 2, or even 4, 5 and 6, and indeed there are. So what makes omega 3’s so special? Most of the omega fatty acids can be made by the body, making them less of a nutritional concern. Omegas 3 and 6 cannot be made by the body, therefore we must get them in our diet. In a perfect world, there should be an equal amount of omega 3s and 6s in the diet (1:1 ratio). However, with the typical American diet what it is, there is a heavy imbalance with the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 being 25:1.
This imbalanced ratio is a big problem since both compete for the same enzymes in the body. Omega 6 fats create a pro-inflammatory response while Omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory. This website has a great overview of 3 vs. 6, however it’s probably more science than you need to know (It’s a good read for us nutrition science nerds).
If science isn’t really your thing, try this football analogy. Both teams should have 11 players on the field. If Team Omega 6 has all eleven, while Team Omega 3 has only 1 (poor guy!), who do you think will win the game? Changing your diet and supplementing with Omega 3’s and putting more players on the field will give them a fighting chance.
Decrease foods high in Omega 6: Cereals and grains, vegetable oils, processed sweets and snacks (usually made with grains and vegetable oils). See a more inclusive list here.
Why take a supplement?
It’s recommended that we eat fish twice a week to meet our omega 3 requirement. Some people don’t like eating fish, and those who like it often don’t eat as much as they should. It seems there are a lot more sources of pro-inflammatory omega 6’s in the world, and considering the ratio of 6 to 3 is so off, any extra boost we can give to the omega 3 supply will help offset the omega 6. Also, there are concerns with high amounts of mercury in fish, which can cause neurological damage. Supplementation decreases mercury exposure.
What to look for in a supplement
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a minimum 500mg of EPA and DHA per day for health maintenance, for specific health issues recommended amounts increase. Pick a supplement that provides at least this amount from a well-established, trusted source. More on choosing a supplement here. Talk to your dietitian for more information.
You may also like: