10 Tips to Better Understand Omega-3

Omega-3 has been a hot buzzword in the food space for the better part of the last decade. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that omega-3 is important for a healthy diet.

But not all omega-3′s are created equal. Which means you may be buying a product fortified with omega-3 that has almost no health benefits for you. Be sure you will be paying more than you would have for the standard, un-enriched version.

In order to better understand what’s going on, here’s a quick primer on omega-3, in 10 bullet points.

What you need to know:
1. Food can be broken down to three categories – protein, carbohydrate, fat. Our bodies need all three to function.

2. Fats can be broken down into the “good” and “bad” fats (though this is an over-simplification). The bad fats are “saturated” and “tran-fats” – they increase the risks of heart disease, for example. Again, this is highly simplified, not all saturated fats are bad.

3. The “good” or “heart healthy” fats are called unsaturated fats. They are further divided into polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats. They can be found in olive oil, walnuts, avocado, and fish.

4. Fats are actually composed of different types of fatty-acids. It is the fatty acids that are saturated or unsaturated. For example, Canola oil is regarded a relatively healthy oil because it is composed of 90% unsaturated fatty acids – oleic acid, linoleic acid and linolenic acid, and only 10% saturated fats.

5. Fatty acids are further broken down into groups based on their chemical makeup. The omega-3, omega-6, omega-9 classification of fatty acids is based on position of certain carbon-bonds inside the fatty acid molecule. This is the most difficult part of today’s post, so hang in there. Omega-3 and omega-6 are also called “essential fatty acids”; this means our body does not manufacture them on its own, so we need to get them from food.

6. If you’re still with us, omega-3 is actually a family of fatty acids which includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All three are polyunsaturated (reminder: that means good).

7. Studies have proven unequivocally that omega-3 consumption is good for our health, in an all round sort of fashion. From raising the IQ of unborn babies, to better heart health, and even more mental stability.

8. But not all omega-3 fatty acids yield the same benefit. They are further classified into 2 groups -  “long chain” such as DHA and EPA, and “short chain” such as ALA (alpha linolenic acid). The long chain fatty acids are the ones that are considered most beneficial. They are readily available from oils of cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel.  The short chain ALA is found in flax seeds and chia seeds for example.

9. The human body does know to turn ALA into the more useful EPA and DHA, but only at a 10-15% efficiency. The omega-3 health claims have  regulatory organizations in a tizzy, because manufacturers are fortifying foods with cheap (read vegetable) sources of omega-3 in order to plaster health claims on them, when in fact they may prove less beneficial than omega-3 sourced from fish oils.

10. To complicate things even further, it appears that consumption of foods high in omega-3 is not enough. The proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our bodies also plays a role in improving health outcomes. The modern diet has raised our consumption of omega-6 (through soybean and corn oils) to levels that way too high compared to our omega-3 levels. This imbalance needs to be rectified by either consuming less omega-6, or more much more omega-3.

What to do at the supermarket:

As you can see from the above example, nutrition is quite complex. Scientists are discovering new interactions every day. And while a better understanding of how our body works with nutrients is important, let’s keep in mind that food itself has been, for thousands of years, a pretty straightforward affair: Grow, harvest, prepare. And somehow, humanity survived.

The modern supermarket has changed our relationship to food. Now it’s pretty much just one verb -  “buy”.

While fortification of processed foods with omega-3 won’t cause harm, and in some cases be healthy for you, the naturally good sources of omega-3 are sardines, salmon, flax oil, with other seeds and nuts to some extent.

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  • Eward

    Wow, Hemi, that is an exhaustive and great description of omega-3s. 

    I often tell people who are confused about omega-3s that, while plant sources are beneficial, the preformed omega-3s, which include DHA and EPA, are the form the body prefers and uses far more efficiently. Including seafood twice a week (8 ounces total) is a great way to get the omega-3s you need and eating foods fortified with DHA, such as eggs and milk, is another way to supplement your diet. 

  • cm

    So if I am a vegetarian (and don’t eat fish) how can I incorporate long-chain omega-3′s into my diet effectively? Flax oil, seeds, and nuts only? Or because I don’t eat meat do I not need to worry so much about my ratio because I intake less omega 6′s? I typically don’t eat refined, processed, or fast food either.

    • Eward, RD

      CM, are you willing to take supplements? As a registered dietitian, I can tell you that the oils we eat, including canola oil and soybean oil, as well as other fatty foods are probably the reason for the imbalance between omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats.  All fats are a mixture of fatty acids. When we say that olive oil is heart healthy, it’s because it contains  predominantly unsaturated fats. Likewise, butter contains some unsaturated fatty acids, but it should be limited because saturated fats are the predominant fatty acids in butter.  That’s why the amount of fat in the diet matters as well as the type of fat. 

      • cm

         I would take supplements of course but I want them to be sustainable. I’ve been taking omega 3′s from fish because I know I need it but I don’t eat animals for environmental reasons… Also, I only use EVOO cold and cook with natural etc. coconut oil.

    • Reedross

       I’d like to know about this too……. I’m not willing to take fish oil – but I thought flax seed oil was good enough.

    • Terence

      Hi CM,

      This was a great article and you have a great question. I also think “Edward, RD” definitely had some good points to add as well. I work in the customer service department for a company called Barlean’s Organic Oils and I get questions like yours all the time. You still should be aware of your Omega-3 ratio even as a healthy vegetarian. Since your diet is already pretty clean, you probably don’t need to supplement Omega-3 as much as others, but Omega-3 is an “Essential” fat that your body needs to function properly. With that said, flax oil, seeds and nuts are all great options for you. I would recommend at least one tablespoon of (fresh) flax oil or 2-4 tablespoons of flax or chia seeds daily to help supply you with enough Omega-3. I emphasize “fresh” because Omega-3 oils break down much quicker that Omega-6 oils. Check your dates and keep them refrigerated. If you have time, here’s an article that might help: http://sliwww.slideshare.net/barleans/flaxseed-oil-and-fish-oil-values-of-the-omega3-family. Also, if you want to try a sample of our tasty Omega Swirl supplement go here: http://www.barleans.com/store/sample.asp. Just make sure to use code “VV” to get the vegetarian version. Best of health! -Terence

      • cm

         I usually fresh grind about a tablespoon of flax for my morning smoothie… enough?

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      According to Andy Bellatti RD, who is mostly vegetarian, you can get the long chain Omega 3′s from their true source, not the fish but the sea algae and microflora (as supplements). More here - 

      http://smallbites.andybellatti.com/why-the-media-needs-a-vegan-101-course-stat/

  • Modmfun

    Good article!

  • Guest

    Thank you for giving an understandable explanation! I’ve been curious about this for awhile.

  • rich

    I’m on a mission to reduce plaque in my arteries. My diet for the last 6 months has been vegan, oil free, whole foods and no nuts or seeds……except for flax and chia. Based on this info, is 3 tbls of chia per day sufficient, since I don’t take in any oil?

  • Vijayht2000

    Eat natural food…vegetables fruit and wheat/rice…natural not refined/polished. Even meat if well cooked..
    NO CANS… NO PRESERVATIVES

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  • Brian

    Saturated fat is being exonerated in more and more studies. It’s not as “bad” of a fat as people think. See this study for an example: http://www.ajcn.org/content/91/3/502.abstract

    Another decent source of n-3 fatty acids is pasture raised organic grass-fed beef, and cage free eggs. (The best sources are wild caught cold water fatty fishes like salmon and sardines, like the article stated. A high quality brand cod liver oil supplement is also a good way to get your n3′s)

    Unfortunately for vegans, it is really hard to get decent levels of n-3′s unless you are willing to supplement with fish oils (or drink flax oil like it’s water… is that even safe? :)  ). I am guessing it’s best to restrict unnecessary n-6′s as much as in can in that case. 

    One problem from getting n-3′s from nuts is that they usually contain much more n-6′s, thus throwing off your balance.

  • Donna

    I use alot of Hemp powder and oil.  It is high in omega 3.  Is it the type that is good or not???

  • Leffnersteve

    I have been told that using Raw, unprocessed Coconut oil, not the way it comes in processed foods but in the jars sold at health food stores is the way to go in small amounts, but then I have also been told its terrible to use coconut oil..any thoughts, is bencol spread (which is what I am using ) better than or worse than coconut oil?
    any thoughts appreciated

  • Matt B

    Thanks for the breakdown!  But I don’t get No. 10.  Why is it bad to have more of one essential fat than another?  So is the best ratio 1:1 for Omega 6 to Omega 3 intake?  Thanks!

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