All About Omegas
Fat, so often maligned, is actually an incredibly valuable nutrient. It’s a concentrated source of energy, providing more than double the energy of protein or carbohydrate. It’s also the carrier for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K . But, perhaps most importantly, it provides your body with fatty acids.
Fatty acids come in four flavours: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Diets high in saturated and/or trans fatty acids have been linked with a range of health problems, including coronary heart disease. But the other two types; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are considered ‘healthy’ fats:
• Polyunsaturated fatty acids consist of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, some of which are classed as essential* fatty acids.
• Monounsaturated fatty acids include omega 9 fatty acids – these aren’t essential* but they’re still important for health.
The difference between these fatty acids is in their chemical make-up, but you're probably not interested in carbon atoms and molecular chains.
Instead, here’s what you should know about omega 3s, 6s and 9s from a nutrition perspective:
* Nutrients are deemed 'essential' when your body can’t make them itself, so you have to get them from food or supplements.
Omega 3 fatty acids
There are three main types of omega 3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Unfortunately, many people may not be getting enough omega 3s for optimum health. According to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), intakes of omega 3s are lower than recommended (experts say one per cent of our daily energy intake should come from omega 3s).
If you don't eat much fish; you can get all the DHA and EPA you need from a high-strength fish oil supplement. Our Omega 3 Fish Oil capsules are high quality, great value and taste-free. (We would advise against using cod liver oil as a regular omega 3 supplement as it contains other nutrients that are not necessarily good for you in such high doses.)
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, it’s a good idea to eat plenty of foods rich in ALA, such as Hemp Seed Oil, for it's additional health benefits and to make sure your body is able to produce as much DHA and EPA as it needs.
ALA: Alpha-linolenic acid
ALA is an essential fatty acid, so the only way to get it is to eat ALA-rich foods and take ALA supplements. Once it’s in your system, a small amount of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA.
ALA is found in plant foods, with flaxseeds and flaxseed oil a popular source. You can also find it in Hemp Seed Oil, rapeseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Smaller amounts are also found in dark green, leafy vegetables and the meat or eggs of animals fed omega 3-rich foods.
ALA is a highly important nutrient, it has antioxidant properties, is crucial for digestion & absorption, and helps enzymes turn nutrients into energy. It also has also has many additional benefits after conversion to EPA and DHA.
EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) & DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)
These fatty acids are needed by all of your body’s cells including your nervous system, liver, eyes, kidneys and muscles.
EPA and DHA are among the most studied nutrients on the planet, with much of the evidence suggesting they help with heart health. But they have many other science-backed benefits too, including:
• Help to reduce inflammation and swelling.
• Can improve symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders
• Important nutrition for healthy pregnancy & brain development in babies
• Help to reduce the fat in your liver and reduce blood triglyceride levels.
• Slow-down the effects of brain ageing & protect against Alzheimer’s disease
• They may even help you manage your weight (though the best results have only been seen in animals)
Your body makes some DHA and EPA from ALA, but it's possible to get much larger amounts by eating oily fish such as salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout, pilchards, kippers, anchovies, sprats and whitebait.
Did you know? The NHS recommends eating two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily fish, as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Omega 6 fatty acids
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, as a population, we’re close to having the recommended level of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets already, especially if you eat a lot of meat.
In fact, it's more likely some people could be getting too much of them, with scientists claiming Western diets can include as much as 15 times more omega 6 fatty acids than omega 3s (the perfect 6/3 ratio is debatable, though some researchers propose it’s anything between 1:1 and 5:1).
Some health experts used to recommend cutting back on omega 6 foods to help improve an omega-6-heavy 6/3 ratio, as they believed high levels of omega 6 fatty acids could cause inflammation in the body.
However, scientists now argue omega 6s should be seen as beneficial rather than harmful, and that even in situations where omega 6 intake is high; it’s a much better idea to get the 6/3 balance right by boosting your intake of omega 3s rather than cutting back on omega 6s.
LA (linoleic acid)
LA is an essential fatty acid and is converted in the body to other fatty acids, the main ones being GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid).
LA is found mostly in seeds and nuts such as walnuts, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds, plus oils including sunflower oil, corn oil, avocado oil, soya oil and sesame oil. Other foods that contain LA include eggs and tofu.
GLA (gamma-linolenic acid)
GLA is found in starflower, evening primrose and blackcurrant oils, while AA sources include egg yolks and meats such as pork and the dark meat from chicken and turkey.
LA, GLA and AA help every cell in your body to function. However, unlike omega 3s, omega 6 fatty acids haven’t been researched widely. But there is some evidence GLA may help people with diabetes who have diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), can be useful in reducing PMS and menopausal symptoms, and that it may help reduce inflammation and keep skin clear.
One study into children with autism found they have lower blood levels of AA than other kids, and that giving them supplements can help improve their condition. Research also suggests taking AA supplements improves cognitive function in older people.
Meanwhile, many women take GLA supplements to help manage the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and the menopause.
If you fancy giving a GLA supplement a try, our new Enhanced Starflower Oil capsules are a fantastic supplement. We choose starflower oil because it delivers over 2x the GLA of evening primrose and flaxseed oil.
Omega 9 fatty acids
Unlike omega 3s and 6s, omega 9s are classed as monounsaturated fatty acids. They are not deemed essential, however studies indicate that there are some omega 9's that appear to have health benefits, the most important being oleic acid.
Oleic acid is an omega 9 found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, peanut oil, and (of course) Hemp Seed Oil, as well as peanuts, cashews, macadamia nuts and avocados. Starflower oil, a rich source of GLA, also contains oleic acid.
Numerous studies claim oleic acid is important for heart health while others suggest it reduces your risk of having a stroke or type 2 diabetes, and may also be good for your cognitive health. Many of these and other studies have focused on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil. In fact some researchers believe olive oil could be the reason people in Mediterranean countries have a lower risk of certain cancers.
Chewing The Fat
Whatever way you look at them, essential fatty acids are incredibly important nutrients; more important, arguably, than others that get far more attention. However, it’s fair to say that marine omega 3 fatty acids have hogged their fair share of headlines over the years.
However, despite the fact they are undoubtedly vital for human health – there’s so much more to essential fatty acids than just fish oil. Omega 3's are not the only fatty acids we need, there are many other omegas in foods that should be considered equally as beneficial as those in oily fish - not least seed oils, and in particular the omega 3,6,9 rock star that is Hemp Seed Oil.
The fact is, if you don’t get enough of these beneficial fats in your diet, it can affect your health and wellbeing in many ways - which is one of the key reasons oily fish and seeds are considered such important elements in a healthy diet.
Diets, of course, are rarely perfect... which is where good quality health supplements can come in handy. As always, if you're considering a new supplement, always speak to your GP beforehand.