Fat has a history of being the bad guy in the nutrition world (remember the fat-free craze of the ’80s?). Thankfully, the advice and discussion around dietary fat has become much more nuanced, and there’s one type in particular that has garnered much of the attention — for good reason.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been touted as a health magic bullet, with experts pointing to their ability to improve everything from your heart health to your mood. But how much do you really know about the omegas? Do they truly live up to the hype, and should you be getting more? Here, simple answers to all your omega-3 questions.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
At the molecular level, all dietary fats consist of a chain of hydrocarbons with an acid group on the end. Omega-3s fall into the polyunsaturated fatty acid group, which means each molecule has multiple double bonds holding together its chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms.
All those double bonds create multiple “kinks” in the chain, so the individual molecules never really fit together. That’s why these fats are liquid not only at room temperature, but also when chilled. Think about how salmon, which is rich in omega-3s, is oily even when served out of the fridge.
Now compare polyunsaturated fat to monounsaturated, which is the predominant type in olive oil. These molecules have just one double bond, which makes them liquid at room temperature, but they become more viscous and tend toward solid when cooled.
The third type of fat, saturated fatty acids — which is what’s most prevalent in red meat, butter, and coconut oil — consist of one long straight chain of single bonds. They’re solid at room temperature, because the single bonds allow the molecules to lie flat and tight against each other.
There are multiple kinds of all three types of fat; for instance, omega-3s, omega-6s and omega-9s are all types of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The numbers indicate the location of the first double bond in the chain. That’s important, because the location of that double bond allows the body to use each of the omega fatty acids differently and for different things.
You can drill down even further to the individual omega-3s acids. They include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the type in flax and hemp plants, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which you get from fish and other marine sources.
Why Are Omega Fatty Acids Considered “Essential?”
They’re called essential fatty acids because your body needs them but cannot make them on its own, so you must get them from your diet. And, along with being used for fuel, fats serve other important functions. They make up the protective outer membrane of a cell, which acts as the cell’s gatekeeper, allowing nutrients to pass in and byproducts to pass out, while also protecting against free radicals and other damage.
If you primarily eat a healthy balance of omega fatty acids and monounsaturated fat, cell membranes tend to be flexible and fluid — like the fats themselves. On the other hand, if your diet is loaded with viscous saturated fat, cell membranes will be thick and stiff — certainly not how you want your cell membranes to be!
Your body also needs fats for signaling agents, which help cells and your body’s various systems communicate and function. Omega fatty acids in particular are the raw materials that go into specific types of chemical messengers known as prostaglandins. Although the body uses prostaglandins for many different things, they’re best known for their role in the immune system and immune responses.
What’s the Difference Between Omega-3s and Omega-6s?
Omega-3s are used to make prostaglandins that moderate or reduce inflammation, while the body uses omega-6s to make prostaglandins that promote inflammation. In other words, omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6s contribute to inflammation.
You need both omega-3s and omega-6s for a healthy immune system: Controlled inflammation helps fight illnesses, heal wounds, and break down old or damaged tissues, among other functions. However, if your diet contains too many omega-6s, you’ll have higher levels of inflammation, which can contribute to a whole host of conditions and hasten the aging of tissues and cells.
Unfortunately, omega-6 overload is the reality for many Americans. The ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is about 1 to 4 or 1 to 6. The ratio of the average American diet clocks in closer to 1 to 20 or even 1 to 30.
That’s because omega-6s are incredibly easy to get in food, especially those that make up a Western diet. They’re common in processed grains and other packaged foods, as well as in vegetable oils used in frying. Omega-3s, meanwhile, are plentiful in the types of food lacking in most Americans’ diets, namely fish, vegetables, and sprouted grains.
Are Omega-3s Really as Healthy as Everyone Says?
In short, yes. There’s loads of data and research confirming that these fats are an incredible tool for supporting good health, even beyond tipping the scale to balance the inflammatory effects of omega-6s. They’re also known to have antioxidant properties, as well as a range of other health benefits. Here’s a brief rundown:
1. Omega-3s Reduce Inflammation
Omega-3s’ role in controlling inflammation is responsible for many of its heart, brain, and joint benefits (more on that below). But reducing levels of inflammation has global health benefits given the myriad diseases and conditions that have an inflammatory component or are worsened by inflammation.
Keeping inflammation in check may also help slow down your overall aging process. One meta-analysis in the journal PLoS One showed that marine-derived omega-3 supplements reduced the three most common markers of inflammation: C-reactive protein, interleukin 6, and TNF-a.
2. Omega-3s Enhance Heart health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death here in the U.S., but among communities whose traditional diets included lots of fish — like in Japan and among Inuit populations in Greenland and Canada — it’s virtually unheard of. Recent trials of omega-3 supplements also show the fats reduce the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events by about a quarter and fatal heart attacks by half.
Other studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids help lower levels of triglycerides, a type of fat that circulates in blood and can contribute to heart disease. And research suggests omega-3s may even raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. Plus, the fats have blood-thinning properties that may help prevent or reduce the risk of blood clots.
3. Omega-3s Fend Off Mood Disorders
Multiple studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids could play a role in helping reduce, treat, or prevent mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. For example, research shows that people with anxiety disorders have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids, while higher levels seemed to protect against post-traumatic stress disorder.
Experts aren’t entirely sure of the mechanism by which omega-3s work. It may have to do with the fat’s presence or absence in the membranes of brain cells, and how they interfere with or modulate neurobiological processes, neurotransmitters, and inflammation.
4. Omega-3s Help Prevent Joint Pain
Arthritis and joint pain and stiffness are primarily caused by inflammation, so it makes sense anti-inflammatory omega-3s would help protect your joints. Indeed, an animal study published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage found that an omega-3-rich diet reduced the development of arthritis by half.
Human trials suggest that omega-3s help reduce inflammatory markers associated with osteoarthritis, while diets high in saturated fat and omega-6s increase pro-inflammatory markers. Omega-3 supplements were even shown to significantly improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis after 12 weeks, according to a study in the Global Journal of Health Science.
5. Omega-3s Improve Brain and Cognitive Function
Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids are especially important for the brain. In fact, the body works hard to preserve them in the membranes of brain cells, and it uses them to help facilitate communication between neurons and for protection against aging. Population studies confirm that people with low levels of omega-3s and low intake of fish are at greater risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, as well as the opposite — that those who consume more fish and take omega-3s supplements are at lower risk.
But there’s also direct evidence suggesting omega-3s help protect the brain as it ages. For example, research published in the journal Neurology found that, among people in their 70s and 80s, those who ate at least one seafood meal per week showed slower cognitive decline after five years.
What Are the Best Food Sources of Omega-3s?
Fish, hands down. You cannot significantly increase levels of omega-3s with food alone unless you’re eating some kind of marine source.
It is also important given that, unlike plant sources, fish contains the two fatty acids that seem to be most beneficial for health: DHA and EPA. So aim for at least two servings a week.
Salmon is the most popular and well known, and if that’s your pick, choose wild Alaskan salmon, which is lower in contaminants than farmed varieties. Sardines and anchovies are two other types rich in omega-3s that also tend to be lower in toxins and more sustainable. Additional good choices: Cod, herring, and lake trout.
Swapping out some of the processed grains you eat in exchange for vegetables may also improve your ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, but it’s unlikely you’ll significantly raise levels through plants alone. That’s true even if you take or consume flax and hemp oil: They’re the two most well-known plant sources of omega-3s, but they’re rich in ALA, which your body has to convert to DHA or EPA.
Grass-fed beef and omega-3 eggs are smarter choices than their conventional counterparts, however they also likely won’t give you much omega-3s on their own. Ultimately, it takes a substantial amount of foods with omega-3s to move the needle even a little.
Which Omega-3 Supplements Are the Best?
Because it can be difficult to get enough omega-3s through diet alone, and given the preponderance of evidence showing its benefits, it’s smart to take either fish oil or krill oil supplements daily. Both contain DHA and EPA, but krill oil — which is sourced from tiny crustaceans about two inches long — offers a number of benefits over fish oil:
1. Your Body Better Absorbs Omega-3s from Krill.
Most of the fat in our bodies are made of triglycerides — it’s the form fat takes when it’s transported in blood and stored. But that’s not what’s best utilized by cell membranes, which prefer phospholipids. The omega-3s in fish oil are primarily triglycerides, which your body must convert to phospholipids, while krill oil is already in phospholipid form, making it more bioavailable and more easily absorbed.
That means you don’t need to take as much krill oil as you would fish oil to get the same boost in EPA and DHA. One study measured levels of EPA and DHA after volunteers took either krill oil or fish oil, and found that it takes about a third less krill oil compared to fish oil to increase omega-3s to similar levels.
2. Krill Delivers Extra Antioxidant Power.
Krill oil is rich in astaxanthin, one of the most potent antioxidants on earth. The marine-sourced antioxidant has been shown to be especially useful for protecting the vascular system against free radicals in the bloodstream and preventing oxidation of cholesterol.
3. Krill May Have Additional Health Benefits.
4. Krill is a Highly Sustainable Source of DHA and EPA.
Fish oil sourced from sardines and anchovies is more sustainable than that from salmon, but Antarctic krill, which are even lower on the food chain, is the most sustainable. Still, when choosing supplements, it pays to do your research.
Quality companies will disclose the source of their krill oil and other information about their fishing and environmental practices. Aker Biomarine, for example, which supplies krill to a number of supplement makers, has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in Norway and other organizations and has implemented a number of responsible practices to ensure sustainability. It’s also been awarded an “A” by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.
How Much Omega-3s Should I Be Getting?
If you choose to take supplements, aim for 1,500 to 3,000 mgs of krill oil per day, which delivers 330 to 660 mg of omega-3s (although there’s little risk taking even higher levels, up to about 6,000 mg of oil a day). But because DHA and EPA can thin the blood, it’s to talk to your doctor first if you have concerns or tend to bruise easily.
You may even want to have your baseline levels tested before starting supplements, then again a few months later to see how your body is responding and whether you’re getting enough. You can order the tests online and do them at home.
Like many other things you do for your health, omega-3 supplements are an investment — but taking them is a simple and worthy one, indeed. Krill Oil in particular is incredibly safe and has few or no side effects, plus it has many proven benefits that will pay off big time down the road.
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