Why do we need omega-3?

By Amanda Tesser

Some time ago, I explained the benefits of incorporating flaxseed into our diets. Flax is linked to blood cholesterol lowering. This benefit is related to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids.

As the full name suggests, omega-3 is a type of fat, more specifically an essential fatty acid. By definition, essential fatty acids are vital for our health, but our bodies aren’t able to produce them, so we need them through food.

Omega-3 can boost our brain and heart. What a perfect combo, eh? It helps to prevent heart diseases, by reducing high blood pressure, high triglycerides and bad cholesterol.

Some studies have linked omega-3 to better immune systems. It plays a role in decreasing the rate of people suffering from diabetes, stroke and some types of cancer, such as breast cancer. Not enough, it helps control overweight and obesity.

As our bodies don’t produce omega-3, we need food that contains high levels of this fat. If you’re omnivore, the best sources are cold-water fish, such as tuna, sardines, salmon and cod (they’re also low in mercury, a major aquatic contaminant).

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can obtain omega-3 from certain types of seeds and nuts, including chia, flax, walnuts and Brazil nuts. Some vegetal oils are good options too: go with canola, flax or olive.

I’d say that vegetarians, vegans and omnivores who don’t eat fish regularly would have a higher chance to need supplementation. Make sure you’re getting tested often, and ask your family doctor or nutritionist if that’s your case.

The best supplements generally come in dark-glass packages or non-transparent plastic to avoid the light. Like I explained on my post about flax, fatty acids can oxidize and lose their properties in contact with light.

When buying supplements, you should always confirm the amount of EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 fats (another is ALA). Opt for supplements higher in both. EPA and DHA benefit cardiovascular function and fetal development, among many other advantages.

Omega-3 deficiency can cause visual loss or limitation, skin rashes and delayed growth in children. To prevent any health issues, it’s recommended a daily intake of up to 1,000 mg. If supplementing, start with a lower intake and gradually increase it.

By now, you might be asking, “What about the other omegas?” First, let me tell you that every fat is made of fatty acids, which are formed by chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

The difference between all omegas is basically their structure — the connection between carbon atoms. The polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 and -6) have more than one double bond in the chain. The monounsaturated fatty acids (omega-9) have only one double bond.

Both omega-3 and -6 can prevent heart diseases, besides reducing cholesterol. The latter is one of the reasons omega-3 became so popular, added to its role in fighting inflammation. Omega-9, for example, is also important, as it helps reduce glycemia — sugar in the blood — and, consequently, prevent diabetes.

Myths and truths

Omega-3 helps put on weight: Myth. Although fatty acids are high in calories (9 Cal/g), the daily intake isn’t high enough to change your weight.

Omega-3 fights acne: Truth. Acne is caused by inflammation. As omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties, if consumed regularly, it can help.

Every fish is a source of omega-3: Myth. Only fish found in cold and deep water (e.g., salmon, tuna, sardines and cod) have a significant amount of this nutrient. Disregard the farmed fish and the ones fed with prepared foods.

The best way to consume omega-3 is through supplementation: Myth. The best way is through a balanced diet. If you eat fish twice a week, it’s enough for the daily intake. But if you’re vegetarian, vegan or don’t eat much fish, you can look for products fortified with omega-3, besides supplementing. Yes, supplementation is an option, but it doesn’t have to be the first one.

How is your consumption of omega-3?

Photo credit (chia seeds): © Stacy Spensley under Creative Commons via Flickr

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