A frequent topic on my blog is the Omega-3 content of food and its affect on the human body. Many studies and articles regarding nutrition also discuss the value of Omega-3. Foods and products in the market are even advertised by drawing attention to their Omega-3 content.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. This means it cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through diet.
Omega-3 falls under the polyunsaturated group of fats. The chemical structure of these fats have multiple double bonds and are the least stable, putting them at risk of oxidation and rancidity. For this reason, Omega-3’s are best consumed fresh, with minimal heating, processing, or storing.
One of the most important roles of Omega-3 is in the development of the brain. They also contribute to proper functioning of cell receptors within cell membranes; signaling hormone release; change in artery wall consistency; and inflammation levels throughout the entire body.
Recent studies suggest that adequate Omega-3 intake may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and improve cognitive functioning throughout life.
There are two main forms of Omega-3:
- DHA / EPA. These are the optimal and most essential forms of Omega-3. They are found predominately in fish and other marine life, but are present in any living creature. They are also present in dairy and eggs.
- ALA is a form of Omega-3 found in plants, including seeds, nuts, and legumes. Unfortunately, humans convert less than 5% of ALA to the DHA form necessary for our bodies.
The distinction between these forms is crucial as it can lead to deficiencies and negative health consequences.
Very often, products with nut or seed oils are marketed as having a certain amount of Omega-3’s. Heck, I have a bag of ground flaxseed in my fridge right now that boasts “2800mg Omega-3 per serving”. Flax, along with other nuts and seeds, may be an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but ultimately provides no useable Omega-3 for my body.
The purpose of ALA, in nature, is to be converted to EPA and DHA by other creatures with different digestive systems. For example, pigs and chickens that eat nuts and seeds will contain more EPA and DHA than grain fed animals. Eggs and dairy from animals consuming a diet rich in ALA will provide more active Omega-3 as well.
The sun provides energy that only plants can use. Plants provide certain nutrients only animals can use. After the animals have played their role in converting these nutrients, humans are left with the most bioavailable nutrients in a tasty, healthy, and natural package.
For all you vegans out there – don’t fear! There is one plant source of Omega-3 EPA: algae. Fortunately, EPA can be converted to DHA, thus providing the essential Omega-3 fatty acids the human body needs. My favorite brand for Omega-3 supplements is Nordic Naturals…here is a link to their Algae Omega oil.
A final important role of Omega-3 is to counteract the inflammatory effects of Omega-6.
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential, polyunsaturated fats that, when consumed fresh and unprocessed, help maintain optimal health. However, the foods we eat most often in this country (seeds, grains, and processed oils) are exponentially higher in Omega-6 than Omega-3.
Below is a list of a few common foods, and how much wild-caught salmon would be necessary to counteract the inflammatory Omega-6 content of each.
Oatmeal (1 cup) = 2.5 ounces salmon
Canola Oil (1 tablespoon) = 4 ounces salmon
Quinoa (1 cup) = 7 ounces salmon
Soybean Oil (1 tablespoon) = 10 ounces salmon
Walnuts (1 ounce) = 15 ounces salmon
This is one of the primary reasons I recommend replacing most grains and processed oils with vegetables and healthy proteins. Salmon, grass-fed beef, and butter from grass-fed cows, will provide far more Omega-3, with less Omega-6, than modern, man-made alternatives.
Hopefully this summary of the importance of Omega-3 provides yet another reason to return to eating whole foods in the proportions nature intended. On weekends I usually go out for sushi so I know I’ll be enjoying a sashimi platter tomorrow!