On the benefits and the best foods that offer this polyunsaturated fatty acid
So you’ve heard about this Omega-3. You’ve been told that you should eat fish oil capsules. You’ve also been told that flax and walnuts are rich in Omega-3. Well, that’s good but, like most things in the nutrition realm, you’ve been told half-truths. And that means you’ve also been told half-lies. So let’s kill the fluff and educate ourselves, shall we?
Firstly, Omega-3 stands for omega 3 fatty acid which is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. It refers to a group of three fats called Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is a plant-based fatty acid while EPA and DHA are animal based.
It is true that Omega-3 consumption can greatly benefit health conditions like cardiovascular disease (CVD), high cholesterol levels, depression, rheumatoid arthritis and potentially, cancer.
That’s the half that is true. But what you’ve not been told is that all the benefits of omega 3 consumption comes from EPA and DHA and not ALA.
Since not everyone is open to consuming animal products, flax and walnuts are recommended as a substitute, especially to vegetarians. But here’s the issue — these, though rich in Omega-3, are only rich in ALA and not in EPA or DHA. ALA can be converted to DHA but the conversion rate is extremely poor in humans making it a worthless effort.
How about fish oil capsules? It is true that fish oil is extremely rich in EPA and DHA in addition to Vitamin A. But there is a certain amount of EPA and DHA you need per day and the amount per capsule is so minimal that you’ll need to wash down 15-25 capsules a day, which is of course not a good idea. Just so we’re clear, the 1-2 capsules you reluctantly swallow everyday is doing you absolutely no favors.
So what is the solution then? Two words — fish oil. No capsules. No nuts. Just plain oil. An average adult will need about 1 gram of EPA + DHA which is present in about 1 teaspoon of Seacod fish oil. You can get this oil at your local chemist (ask them to source it). But, this will by far be the worst thing you’ve ever put in your mouth.
So, drink 1 tsp of fish oil every day and you’re set? Well, not yet. The part I didn’t touch on is the Omega-6 Omega-3 ratio. Very simply, we need to consume Omega-6 and Omega-3 acids at a 3:1 ratio. Eating wholesome food as intended by Nature automatically ensures this but due to the sad nature of our current diets the ratio is 30:1. This is why we’re asked to supplement with Omega-3 in the first place — to skew that ratio.
But here is the issue — if we continue consuming plenty of Omega-6, we’ll need to consume ridiculous amounts of Omega-3 to balance out the ratio. The smarter way to balance this out is to reduce consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids which reduces the requirement for Omega-3. This can be done by removing vegetable, nut, grain and seed oils (which are very high in Omega-6) from your diet and replacing them with healthful stable oils like coconut oil, butter and ghee.
So if you want to reap the benefits of Omega-3 supplementation (and you should), drastically reduce using vegetable/nut/seed oils, replace them with butter, ghee or coconut oil and supplement with 1 teaspoon of fish oil per day.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids which means our bodies are incapable of making them, hence, they must be provided for though the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are mad up of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fatty fish, such as salmon. Alternatively, ALA is found in flaxseed, walnuts, and soybeans. Typically, vegetarians depend on flax seed oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, flax oil only contains ALA and does not consist of EPA or DHA. Even though ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA, this conversion is extremely ineffective. In fact, only 5% of ALA is converted into EPA and only 0.5% of ALA can be converted to DHA. This is terrible news for vegetarians that depend on flax as their source of omega-3 fatty acids. The reason this process is inefficient is because the enzyme doing the conversion, delta-6-desaturase, is rate limiting. Delta-6-desaturase also competitively binds to omega-6 fatty acids, thus, making it less available to bind to ALA.
The good news is that algae oil is a very strong source of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids. How is algae oil a good source of omega-3 for vegetarians? Marine algae, such as zooplankton and phytoplankton are actually the primary source of DHA and EPA. The marine fish eat the algae and then store the omega-3’s in their fat, which is why fish oil has such a high amount of both DHA and EPA. DHA derived from algae is now commercially available and has similar health benefits as DHA derived from fish oil. Some algae are also high in EPA, ie. Nannochloropsis sp. and Spirulina, but, EPA-rich microalgae oil is still limited. DHA-microalgae oil is obviously a better source of DHA, compared to flax seed oil. This is because there are two more enzymatic conversions your body must perform to get to DHA from ALA.
Vegetarians with low levels of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, supplemented with 1 gram of algae derived DHA per day, and significantly elevated their levels of both DHA and EPA after eight weeks (Lipids 40 (8): 807-814). This is evidence that DHA derived from microalgae is a much more potent source of DHA and EPA compared to ALA derived from flax oil. So now that you know DHA from algae oil is an exceedingly better vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids, does it have the same health benefits as fish oil?
The answer is yes. Several studies that have shown that eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid derived from fish oil both have cardiovascular benefits. Similarly, DHA from algae oil also has the same cardiovascular benefits. In one study, vegetarians that supplemented with 1 gram of algae oil a day, decreased their triglyceride levels by 23%, after eight weeks (The British Journal of Nutrition 95 (4): 779-786). Microalgae oil is such a great source of omega-3 fatty acids for all vegetarians.