Omega 3 has been in the spotlight many years for its importance in maintaining a healthy well being. The question is why are we constantly being told of the importance of omega 3 and the importance of eating fish containing omega 3 fatty acid, when most public health slogans and movements are trying to make us reduce the amount of fats we consume? But before we learn why omega 3 is an amazing fat, it should be briefly noted that there are 3 main categories of fats; saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. Saturated and trans fats are the two fats in which health authorities are trying to deter people from consuming. Unsaturated fats are considered a less dangerous fat compared to saturated and trans fat especially because within the unsaturated fat family is the very popular omega 3 fatty acid.
Structure of Omega 3
So what makes omega 3 so special? Omega 3 is an essential fat, which means that we must consume it through the foods that we eat because the body has no way of creating it for itself. Unsaturated fats have a unique ability which is that they will stay a liquid even in cold temperatures, unlike butter or lard which goes hard in the fridge
(which are saturated fats). Omega 3 is able to remain a liquid due to it’s molecular structure. Now if you don’t have any knowledge of molecular structure or molecules just think of them like Legos. Saturated fats (like butter and lard) are a lot like a long thin strip of Legos. They are very easy to stack on top of each other to create a solid block. However, omega 3s are more like the curved Lego pieces you would use to build an arch. The special and unique quality of omega 3 fats is that they contain something called double carbon bonds, which are what makes omega 3 molecules capable of bending, similar to the curved Lego piece. These double bonds make it difficult for the molecules to stack on top of each other and make a solid block like the straight Lego pieces.
The Importance of Omega 3
Omega 3 is vital for creating something called fluidity, at a cellular level. The best way to describe fluidity is to compare it to a concert with people crowd surfing. The fluidity is when people in the crowd put their hands up to support and move along all the crowd surfers. Without the hands of the crowd (fluidity) the crowd surfers would not go anywhere and would drop to the ground. Similarly in a cell, different molecules are trying to move around the cell, and without the fluidity the function in the cell would grind to a halt. Fluidity is also important in brain cells because it helps them move and create new links with other brain cells. Creating new links between different brain cells is a crucial especially during pregnancy when brain development occurs, which is one of the many reasons omega 3 is vital during pregnancy. Omega 3 has also been proved to lower the risk of heart attacks in patients who suffer from irregular heart beat. Furthermore, omega 3 has also been proved to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce heart attacks caused by chronic inflammation, and possibly lower the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis.
Sources of Omega 3
Omega 3 can be found in many different sources and come in various varieties. Omega 3 has three forms; ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid), EPA (EicosaPentaenoic Acid) and DHA (DocosaHexaenoic Acid). ALA can be found in plants and vegetables such as flaxseed, walnuts and soybeans. Unfortunately for vegetarians, ALA is the ‘inactive’ form and the body will have to convert this into the ‘active” form EPA and DHA. This conversion will depend on your diet as the amount of omega 6 you consume will inhibit this transformation. However, at best the conversion is still poor, due to the high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in western diets which is around 15:1, when it should be around 4:1.
Once the body has converted ALA to EPA and DHA it is stored on the wall of the cell for both structure and fluidity. But, instead of consuming and having your body convert it to EPA and DHA there is a shortcut- eating fish. Fish is possibly the best source of EPA and DHA. The table below contains a list of fish that contain EPA and DHA. The best fish available are Herring, Chinook, Salmon and Sardines. Tuna is another good source of omega 3 however, because of mercury contamination, it it not advisable to consume tuna no more than once a week for females and twice a week for males. There is a public concern about fish and mercury contamination. But good news, some of these fish contain some of the lowest mercury contaminates, to investigate further check out our mercury post to find a more detailed list.
Table 1: List of fish and their omega 3 concentrations
|Type of fish||EPA + DHA combined per 85g of meat (g)|
|Crab, Alaskan King||0.35|
|Canned in water, drained||0.73|
You can also take omega 3 in the form of supplements. Supplements are perfect for those who can not get a fresh source of fish. Some omega 3 supplements still contain some trace elements of mercury and contain PCBs. Our message at Mr and Mrs Nutritionist, is to promote food over supplements as the food offers so many more nutrients. In this scenario consuming the supplement over the fish means that you miss out on protein satiety, essential amino acids, vitamin B6, B12 and vitamin D. But if there is no other option, then an omega 3 supplement should definitely be considered.
So How Much Omega 3 Should We Consume?
Well just like kids with Legos everyone has different rules how to play. Some experts recommend 500mg a day, while some only recommend 250mg.
American Heart Association: Two sources of fatty fish a week for general heart.
American Heart Association: 1000mg a day for those with heart disease.
American Heart Association: 2000mg a day for those with high cholesterol.
European Food Safety : 250-500mg a day.
WHO: 250mg a day.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 250mg a day.
So who should you follow? We recommend that you should consume a minimum of 250mg of omega 3 per day while a target of 500mg would be optimal for healthy wellbeing.
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