Contrary to what we once thought, it is now widely accepted by medical science that dietary fat isn’t the evil it was once said to be. And in fact some fats are not just beneficial to us, but vital to healthy body function. There are many kinds of dietary fat, and the one you’ve most likely heard of over and over again is omega fats.
So how mega are these fatty acids that everyone is talking about? If this is your first time seeing the term omega fatty acids, you might be more familiar with omega 3's or even fish oil.
What’s the deal and why does everyone talk about them?
You may be wondering what the different types are? Don’t walnuts have the same thing? What if I don’t like fish? Do I really need another supplement? Let’s clear up some of the questions.
An Introduction To Omega Fats
Fatty acids are what form the building blocks of all the fat in our body, and they are essential for many critical functions in our body, like forming the base of hormones, cell membranes, and carrying fat soluble vitamins around the body. They play important roles in inflammation, heart health, and brain function.
All fats form a long chain with hydrogens attached to the main carbon chain. This chain can bend in different ways depending on how many hydrogens are missing. There are three types of dietary fatty acids.
Saturated: a straight chain with no hydrogens missing. Saturated fats are most of the time solid at room temperature like those in butter, coconut oil, red meat and chicken skin.
Monounsaturated: a bent chain caused by a double bond, which means one of the hydrogens is missing. You’ll find these in avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds and some animal foods too.
Polyunsaturated: a chain that is bent two or more times because of two or more double chains, so it is missing two or more hydrogens. You can find these in various types of fish, nuts and seeds.
What’s important to know is that in any food source, although there might be one predominant type of fat, the one you’ll most likely already know, there is rarely just that one type and you’ll find trace elements of the other types of fat too.
When you see the terms omega 3, 6 and 9, the number refers to the location of the double bond, or where the bend in the chain is, on the carbon chain.
A Closer Look
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means that they have two or more double bonds. They are essential, meaning the body cannot produce them on
it’s own, and they must be consumed through diet.
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA is a plant-based acid commonly found in soybean, flaxseed, and canola oils. EPA and DHA are found in fish.
Despite all being omega 3s, they are not exactly the same. ALA is a precursor to DHA and EPA, however the conversion process is relatively inefficient.
EPA is anti-inflammatory and DHA is vital for healthy brain function. DHA is a star player in the brain, helping our cognition, learning, mental health and basic brain function, which as you can probably guess affects the rest of our health too.
In fact research shows that a deficiency in DHA is correlated with greater risk of learning disabilities, depression and age related dementia.
So, if the body cannot produce them, but you need them for essential functions, what do you do? Well, the only way to increase the amount of your omega 3 fatty acids is by eating foods high in them or taking a dietary supplement.
Foods high in omega 3s include fish, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and flaxseeds.
And these fats are anti-inflammatory, and since chronic low grade inflammation is associated with almost all disease states, including many mental health conditions, any food or supplement that is anti-inflammatory is always going to give you the best foot forward when it comes to health.
It’s important to know that when consuming ALA (this is the plant based omega 3), the conversion to EPA and DHA isn’t as efficient as getting these through a dietary source.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega 6 fatty acids are yet another type of essential fatty acid, although they are far easier to find in our diets than omega 3’s. You can find these in nuts and seeds which are a great healthy source.
But you’ll also find them in most processed and packaged food due to the refined vegetable oils used to cook or make these foods.
Now even though we need these, it can be proinflammatory to have too much of these and not enough of the omega 3s.
That said, there are some omega 6s that are shown to be anti-inflammatory, thus reducing risk of some diseases, most notable is GLA which can be found in hemp seeds and evening primrose oil.
Omega 9 Fatty Acids
These fatty acids are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, so they can have one or more double bonds. Unlike the other omega fatty acids, omega 9s are not essential because the body can produce them.
Foods high in omega-9s include olive oil, cashew nut oil, almond oil, avocado oil, almonds, cashews, and walnuts.
You may be noticing a theme here!
There are many benefits associated with all omega fats, which is why it is so important to make all three types a part of your diet.
Here is what some of the science says:
Risk of disease
- Current evidence suggests that an inadequate amount of omega-3s in the brain may be a risk factor for disorders such as Parkinson's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and depression. The reason for this is that omega-3s are a significant component of the membranes in our brain and play a big role in the development and function of the brain.
- Following a diet with a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may also decrease the likelihood of developing heart disease.
- A 2015 study discovered that a diet high in monounsaturated fats (of which omega-9 is one) showed an improvement in insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation.
- Another study found that a combined supplement of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids had a high potential in reducing inflammation.
- Omega-6s, on their own, help to stimulate skin growth. When combined with omega-3s in a 2020 study, it produced the highest potential of reducing inflammatory processes. One such inflammatory process is acne, but it also benefits other inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
- Studies with omega-3s and mental health conditions are numerous. Many studies have proposed that omega-3s can help alleviate or prevent conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and attention deficit disorder.
- The condition which has received the most research, and seen the most positive benefits, is depression. There are a few speculations on why omega-3s help to relieve depression. One is their ability to interact with mood-related molecules that are found within the brain. The other hypothesis is that their anti-inflammatory properties may help to relieve depression. Whatever the reason, multiple studies have proven the positive effect of omega-3s on depression. They can also help with the depressed phase of bipolar disorder, but not so much the manic phase.
- A 2019 study found that an imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids increases the risk of postpartum depression—specifically, a high omega-6 count and a low omega-3 count. So, evening out these variables by keeping the consumption of both these fatty acids similar can help reduce the likelihood of postpartum depression.
- As the body, and consequently the brain, ages, the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain decreases. However, a supplement of omega-3 fatty acids is found to help prevent or delay the cognitive delay found in those with early-stage Alzheimer's, which often causes dementia. Omega-9s also play a role in improving memory performance in those with Alzheimer's.
The benefits surrounding omega fatty acids are numerous, so let this guide be just a stepping stone into all the wonderful things omega fatty acids can do for your body and well-being!
So what should you do?
- Eat whole foods that contain these healthy fats, including oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel and even anchovies. Eat natural fatty fruits like avocado, coconut and olives - yes these are actually fruit!
- Eat a variety of nuts and seeds, specifically almonds, macadamias, walnuts, chia seeds and hemp seeds. Bonus that nuts are a delicious sugar-free snack with a great combination of protein, fat and fibre to keep you satisfied. And use the oils of these nuts and seeds too.
- Use good quality anti-inflammatory oils when making food, like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil. You can actually use flaxseed oil just as you would olive oil when making a salad. And as much as I love flaxseeds, for their omega 3 content, when we eat them whole, they are difficult to break so we can’t digest them very well. That’s why a flaxseed oil is a much better way to get access to those nutrients.
- And consider an omega supplement under the guidance of your healthcare practitioner.
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