What is Omega-3?

In general, fats have a bad reputation, so it’s important to remember that not all fat is bad!

There are three different types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are comprised of the omega-6 and omega-3 families, have received a lot of attention in recent years because they are considered “good” fats.

Our bodies can’t make these fats due to a lack of the appropriate enzymes, but they are necessary for the maintenance of good health, brain function, mood balance and even the development of the eyes and brain in children, so we must get them through food. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are therefore collectively referred to as essential fatty acids. A deficiency in essential nutrients, whether it’s vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, or essential fatty acids, will promote disease.

What foods are omega-6 fatty acids found in?
The principal omega-6 fatty acid is called linoleic acid, and it is found in vegetable oils, such as corn, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower oils. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is another omega-6 fatty acid that can be found in a wide variety of foods, notably small amounts are found in organ meats. It is also found in the plant seed oils of evening primrose, blackcurrant, and borage oils. Finally, dietary arachidonic acid (AA) comes primarily through the consumption of eggs and animal fats.

What foods are omega-3 fatty acids found in?
There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: those that come from fish, seafood, and those found in plant-based sources. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in green leafy vegetables, seaweed, and some nuts and seeds. Some of the top food sources of ALA include flax, chia, and hemp. ALA is also found to a lesser extent in some vegetable oils.

The other type of omega-3 fatty acid in our diet is referred to as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. This includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which come from marine-based sources, like fish and algae. It is the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA that confer many of the health benefits commonly associated with omega-3.

Are all omega-3 fatty acids the same?
The challenge is that while people may consume sources of omega-3 ALA mentioned above (such as flax and vegetables), many don’t consume fish or algae on a regular basis. Therefore, EPA and DHA are consumed at much lower levels. EPA and DHA are generally absent from plant food sources rich in ALA.  While the body can partially convert ALA to EPA and DHA, humans have poor abilities to perform this conversion, converting <5% of consumed ALA to EPA + DHA. This is important because although flax may contain a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids by weight, based on those researched estimates <5% of the ALA is converted to EPA and DHA. Therefore, consuming direct sources of EPA and DHA have a more potent effect on raising these long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid levels within the body than simply consuming high levels of ALA. The most direct way of providing EPA and DHA for the body is through the consumption of fish or algal oils.