Omega 3 - What Is It?
from Deena's "Nutritional Guidelines" Booklet
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four basic types of fat the body derives from food. (Cholesterol, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-3s, are increasingly recognized as important to human health.
Eating too many foods rich in saturated fats has been associated with the development of degenerative diseases, including heart disease and even cancer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, are actually good for you. Omega-3s (found primarily in cold-water fish) fall into this category, along with omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in grains, most plant-based oils, poultry, & eggs.
Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are termed essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are critical for good health. However, the body cannot make them on its own. For this reason, omega-3s must be obtained from food, thus making outside sources of these fats "essential."
Although the body needs both omega-3s and omega-6s to thrive, most people consume far more 6s than 3s. Hardly a day goes by, however, without reports of another health benefit associated with omega-3s. For this reason, many experts recommend consuming a better balance these two EFAs.
Different Types of Omega-3’s
Key omega-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both found primarily in oily cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Aside from fresh seaweed, a staple of many cultures, plant foods rarely contain EPA or DHA.
However, a third omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed oils, and certain vegetable oils. Although ALA has different effects on the body than EPA and DHA do, the body has enzymes that can convert ALA to EPA. All three are important to human health.
Health Benefits of Omega-3
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s and human health while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in the 1970s. As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain diseases (coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, psoriasis) than their European counterparts. Yet their diet was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon. Eventually researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.
Researchers continue to explore this exciting field. They've found that without a sufficient supply of polyunsaturated omega-3s, the body will use saturated fat to construct cell membranes. The resulting cell membranes, however, are less elastic, a situation that can have a negative effect on the heart because it makes it harder to return to a resting state.
In addition, nutritionists have come to recognize the importance of balancing omega-3 fatty acids with omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Because most people on a typical Western diet consume far more omega-6-rich foods (including cereals, whole-grain bread, baked goods, fried foods, margarine, and others), the ratio is out of balance for almost everyone. This means for most Americans the emphasis now needs to be on increasing omega-3s to make the ratio more even.
Specifically, omega-3s in fish oil or other forms may help to:
- Improve rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Raynaud's disease, and other autoimmune diseases.
- Improve depression and symptoms of other mental health problems.
- Aid cancer prevention and cancer support.