Most of us are now well aware that Omega 3 fatty acids are good for our health or at least we should be when we consider the amount of information being bombarded at us by the press, television, magazines and health-promoting leaflets. Supermarket shelves have a growing number of products claiming to have it, and even government health departments are telling us to eat more fish in order to get it, but what exactly, are the best sources of Omega 3?
First of all, it might help to have an understanding of what Omega 3 actually is. To put it very simply, Omega 3 is a family of essential fatty acids that we must have to survive, and they are Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). As we cannot synthesise these fatty acids in the body, we have to rely on our diet in order to get them. However, for various reasons, our diets are just not good enough anymore, and it is now estimated that a massive 85% of the population are not getting enough. This is particularly shocking when we consider that we need these fatty acids for our brain and our body to function properly on a daily basis.
Omega 3 has anti-inflammatory properties so helps to limit inflammation in the body. It also thins our blood and lowers triglycerides and levels of bad cholesterol. It balances our hormones, boosts our immune system and even helps to improve our mood and cognitive functions. So it should come of no surprise that nutrition experts have associated a decline in Omega 3 consumption with a rise in health problems including heart disease, arthritis, depression, allergies, skin problems, certain cancers and countless other conditions. Therefore, most of us could benefit from upping our intake of Omega 3. However, there are some important points to consider regarding the best sources of Omega 3.
Plant sources of Omega 3
Plant sources provide only the Omega 3 fatty acid ALA. We can find ALA in dark green leafy vegetables like Spinach and Broccoli, Walnuts, Canola Oil, Pumpkin Seeds, and Perilla, but the most significant source of ALA is probably Flaxseed oil. According to the Vegetarian Society, 14 gr of Flaxseed Oil will provide 8.0 gr of ALA compared to 1.3 gr for the same amount of Walnuts. Now here’s the important part.
In theory we can convert ALA into EPA and DHA but our capacity to do this is severely limited and can be as low as 5%. Research by G. Burdge and colleagues from the Institute of Human Nutrition in Southampton, found that men have even less of an ability to convert ALA than women. Effective conversion of ALA depends on several factors including, diet, our state of health, stress levels, age and even our genes. Furthermore, an increasing amount of research is identifying EPA as the fatty acid responsible for most of the ongoing health benefits of Omega 3, which means it is even more important that we get adequate amounts of it. We need DHA too, particularly for healthy development of the brain and vision during pregnancy and in the first few years of life, but the rest of the time we can produce the DHA we need if we get enough EPA. So if our ability to convert ALA is not good, where can we find direct sources of EPA and DHA?
Fish sources of Omega 3
Both EPA and DHA are found in oily fish such as Salmon, Mackerel, Tuna, Herring, Anchovies and Sardines. The main problem with fish sources is that fish are contaminated with toxins like Mercury, Dioxins, and PCBs. Over time, these can build up to unhealthy levels in the body and basically undo any of the health benefits to be gained from eating more fish in the first place. Consequently, the current recommendation is not to stop eating fish, but to eat two portions of oily fish a week and certainly no more than four. So if we have to limit our intake of oily fish because of toxins, where else can we find EPA?
Fortunately, EPA can also be found in fish oil supplements, but again, lower grade fish oil supplements can also contain toxins as whatever was present in the fish at the time it was caught, is also transferred into the oil. But all is not lost. There are available high-grade fish oils that have been processed in such a way that the toxins have been removed. These very same processes also allow for much greater concentrations of EPA, for example, as much as 70 to 90%. As the oil is so concentrated, fewer capsules are required per day, making it a very convenient and cost-effective solution to getting enough EPA in the diet to make a difference.
Unless you have a fish allergy or you are a strict vegetarian, then getting Omega 3 from plant sources cannot be considered the best option. Bearing in mind the poor conversion of ALA, and the toxicity problem with too much fish, an excellent way of ensuring that you get enough Omega 3 in your diet is to supplement with quality fish oil that is high in EPA.