One of the more well-known supplements, Omega 3, has been around the block a good few times and many of us have memories of it being dished out as children, just because “it’s good for you” – particularly around Winter time or if you were looking a bit pasty or pale. Thankfully, times have moved on and the fishy, gloopy syrup of old has been replaced with citrus flavours and capsules, easing the way for Omega 3 to get inside the body. Science and research has moved on too since then and omega 3 is one of those nutrients with a long list of health benefits, many of which, are yet to be fully understood. We now know for certain that omega 3 plays a role in keeping us well, particularly as we grow and as we age – for heart health, cognitive function, mood and joint health as well as being involved in foetal development and eye function. Every cell in the body has a need for omega 3 so it is no surprise that its benefits are far-reaching. The problem with Omega 3 is that we do not produce it ourselves, and therefore, must get it into the body through diet or supplements, on a regular basis for it to work its magic and keep us from falling apart.
The Science Bit…
Omega 3 belongs to a group of fats called Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs). These are referred to as “poly”, due to the many bonds that hold this fat molecule together. Having multiple bonds allow this type of fat to be more flexible, adaptable and fluid in the body – which is why omega 3 is so beneficial to blood vessels, heart tissue, brain tissue and joint tissue to name a few. However, the downside to having so many bonds is that this molecule of fat is also more susceptible to damage and breaking from heat, sunlight and harsh treatment. Omega 6 fat also belong to this group of PUFAs and likewise, do not tolerate much sunlight, heat or treatments either. Incidentally, saturated fat (animal fat, dairy, coconut) is so called because it has no bond – which makes it very stable to heat and light and monounsaturated (olives, avocado) just have one bond – making them pretty stable too. You can see these bonds at work when you look at saturated fat (solid at room temperature), monounsaturated fat (a bit opaque and thick) and then the polyunsaturated fats are completely liquid.
It is important at this juncture to point out that polyunsaturated fats should never be exposed to much heat, UV light or harsh processing – both omega 3 fat (oily fish, chia seeds, flax and walnuts) or omega 6 fat (nuts and seeds). The healthiest fats to cook with are either saturated fats (coconut oil, clarified butter) or monounsaturated oil (olive or avocado oils). The huge surge in cooking with rapeseed, sunflower and soy-based vegetable oils and the use of man-made trans fats in processed foods is an indisputable factor in the increase of inflammatory and chronic disease witnessed since their introduction to the food market in the 1970s. But that’s for another article!
The big difference between the two Omega fats (3 and 6) is when they are broken down into their end products in the body and the effect those end parts have on our cells. Simply put, these end products make up signaling molecules, messengers called eicosanoids which can switch inflammation on or off. Omega 3 becomes an anti-inflammatory messenger and Omega 6 becomes a pro-inflammatory messenger and both play a vital role controlling the way our body uses inflammation to fight disease, heal injuries and keep us in good nick. The problem now is that we are consuming far too much Omega 6 and not enough Omega 3, resulting in being in a chronic pro-inflammatory state, without enough anti-inflammatory Omega 3 to switch off the inflammation. Remember, we need to be able to turn on our inflammatory response (enter omega 6) for our immune system to kick in but also, we need to be able to switch it off once the danger has passed and that is where Omega 3 comes in.
Several studies suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of approximately 1:1 – equal amounts. Some populations thrived on 2:1 and up to 4:1. Western diets are now so deficient in omega 3 and overloaded with omega 6 that this ratio is now around 18:1. This high omega 6/omega 3 ratio promote the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune disease. In CVD, a ratio of 4:1 is associated with 70% decrease in premature death. In asthma a ratio of 5:1 is associated with reduced asthma attacks whereas 10:1 had adverse consequences. A ratio of 3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis and a lower ratio in women with breast cancer was also associated with better outcomes. In short, there is not one good reason to pursue higher omega 6 to omega 3 ratios…full stop.
What this means for you
To get the balance right and to ensure you are getting the active anti-inflammatory component of omega 3 (EPA and DHA) you need to consume 2-3 portions of oily fish per week. Omega 3 fat is visible in oily fish in the grey layer of fat inside the skin of wild salmon, brown layer of fat in mackerel, herring and tuna. If this is not an option – then find a supplement that will provide for you. Look out for top quality fish oils, sustainably produced and tested for quality – do not skimp when it comes to fish oils. If you want a vegan option, algae-sourced omega 3 is available too, but no matter which you choose – compare the EPA and DHA amounts and choose higher doses. Flax oil and hemp oil are also Omega 3 but come in the form of ALA and need to convert in the body to the active forms of EPA and DHA before they can be useful. This is tricky and not guaranteed, but better than nothing if you do not eat oily fish. To tip the inflammatory scales in your favour, cut out cooking with seed, nut and veg oils – choosing saturated or monounsaturated oils instead. Forget about the highly processed foods, they never loved you anyway! You can still enjoy whole/milled seeds and nuts because their fat ratios are perfectly balanced in their natural state.
I hope this article clears up the confusion and misinformation surrounding Omega 3 and help you get back into your groove, just as Nature intended.
Dive straight in with this deliciously simple recipe, add it to your menu today. Click the link to get the recipe for Sardine & Avocado Salad! Yum!