What are omega-3 fats?
There are two groups of fats that our bodies can’t make, omega-6’s and omega-3’s. These two groups have very different properties. Most omega-6 fats promote inflammation, while omega-3’s decrease it. For that reason, taking more omega-3’s might help prevent or treat health problems that are associated with inflammation. Our ancestors probably ate about the same amounts of omega-3’s as omega-6’s. Now on average, we eat about 25 times more omega 6’s than omega 3’s. Fast foods, partially hydrogenated fats, most meats, and dairy products can all increase the inflammation in our bodies.
national intake of polyunsaturates has changed dramatically. Intake of Omega-6 polyunsaturates from seed oils (sunflower oil margarine is a good example) and other sources has doubled. Over the same period, the consumption of Omega-3 has halved and we are eating less seafood and dark green leafy vegetables. There have been changes to the diets of the animals from which we obtain meat, milk, and eggs which has further reduced the Omega-3 supply in our diet. As a result, there is likely to be plenty of Omega-6 in the average diet, but less than half the Omega-3 we need.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is one of the body’s natural ways of protecting itself. It includes many chemical reactions that help to fight off infections, to increase blood flow to places that need healing, and to cause pain as a signal that something is wrong with the body. Unfortunately, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. A number of medical conditions are linked to too much inflammation in the body.
How much do you need omega-3 fats?
There are three key omega-3 fats— EPA and DHA (primarily found in fish) and ALA (primarily found in plant foods such as flax meal or canola oil).
When you hear news studies touting the health benefits of omega-3 fats, they are usually referring to EPA and DHA. These potent omega-3s are bioactive and regulate mood, inflammation, heart rate, blood flow, and affect learning, just to name a few benefits. By contrast, ALA is a building block that helps create EPA and DHA in the body, but only when the conditions are right, and even then it’s a very inefficient process. In terms of power and potency, if EPA and DHA were considered to be the biological equivalent of a car battery for your body, then ALA would be the equivalent of a flashlight battery.
The best sources of Omega-3
Experts agree that we need more Omega-3 for good health however significant amounts of Omega-3 are found in a very limited number of foods. Seafood and fish oils are the only nutritionally significant source of DHA and the major dietary source for EPA. Fish and shellfish are overwhelmingly the major sources of long-chain Omega-3.
There are now some other sources of long-chain Omega-3. New food and beverage products enriched with long-chain Omega-3 oils have emerged such as milk-based
products, juices, table spreads, salad dressings, sauces, breakfast cereals, baked beans, infant formulas, and baby foods. In addition, adding long-chain Omega-3 oils to animal feed (in the form of fish oil) increases the amount of Omega-3 in eggs, beef and pork.
How much fish oil for various health conditions?
Unfortunately, Americans only eat an average of 57 milligrams of DHA and 28 milligrams of EPA. Together that is only 85 milligrams of the needed 650 milligrams, so most Americans are deficient in EPA and DHA! But, you can get the essential omega-3s by eating fish at least twice a week. As for the plant-based omega-3, ALA, the recommended amount is 2200 milligrams/day—the amount in almost one ounce of walnuts.
The chart below lists the amount of omega-3 fats recommended for different conditions. Remember to always check with your physician before taking fish oil, especially in amounts exceeding 3000 milligrams.
What does the research tell us?
There is a good chance that omega-3 fats can be helpful with any illness involving inflammation. Some diseases have been studied more than others.
Good research supports their use for:
- Prevention of heart disease
- Management of heart disease in patients who already have it
- High triglycerides o High blood pressure (can give a drop of 4-15 for the top number and 2-8 for the bottom)
- Rheumatoid arthritis, especially managing symptoms o Healthy infant development in pregnancy
Fairly good research supports their use for:
- Cancer prevention, especially colon, esophageal, oral, rectal, breast, and prostate cancers
- depression (especially associated with bipolar disorder)
- Prevention of dementia o Management of ADHD
- Hereditary allergies (e.g., eczema, allergic dermatitis—an inflammation of the skin) o Prevention of infections in children (in a small study)
While more research remains to be done, omega-3 fats can also be considered for: o Autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus o Cystic fibrosis o Chronic pain o Osteoarthritis o Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (e.g., emphysema, chronic bronchitis).