Omega-3 Fatty Acids Explained

At this point, most people have heard about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. But what are they and why should you care? How much should a person consume? What are the best sources of omega-3s? If your family is vegetarian is there still a way to get them?  How about if you’re vegan? These are common questions that we will clarify here.

What are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids?

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids comprise the group of fats known as polyunsaturated fats. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential fats meaning that our bodies cannot synthesize them, so they must come from what we eat. Fatty acids are the building blocks of cell membranes, the flexible layer around the cells that make up every part of our bodies. They are crucial in regulating what goes into and out of our cells and are fundamental in blood sugar metabolism, blood clotting, inflammatory processes, neurological development, etc.

Where do they come from?

Omega-3s come from plants (algae mostly) and the animals that consume those plants (fish). In short, omega-3s primarily come from fatty, cold-water fish that eat algae. The best types of fish are salmon, artic char, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, rainbow trout and rock fish. Some omega-3s are also present in grass-fed meat and pastured eggs but to a lesser extent than fish.

In contrast, omega-6 fatty acids are found in seed and nuts and the oils extracted from them. Omega-6s are in refined vegetable and seed oils (corn, canola and soybean are a few examples) commonly used in snack foods, cookies, crackers, and fast food because of they are inexpensive and shelf-stable. Soybean oil is so prevalent in the modern Western diet that it is estimated that 20% of our calories come from this single source!

How much omega-3 and omega-6 do we need?

The ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s may matter more than the absolute quantity of either fat. Thus, too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3.

In general, we should minimize the omega-6 rich foods (which tend to be highly processed, snack or fast foods) and aim to eat 2-3 servings (12 oz) of oily ocean fish and seafood each week to ensure adequate omega-3 intake.

Why is the imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats a problem?

Some researchers believe the low levels of omega-3 and conversely high levels of omega-6 fats in the modern American diet contribute to many chronic diseases associated with the Western way of eating (i.e. lots of fast/processed food) because of the “pro-inflammatory” effect of omega-6 fatty acid and the lack of an “anti-inflammatory” contribution of omega-3s.

What’s the best way to get omega-3 fats in our diet? Should we avoid eating fish due to mercury, PCBs and dioxins? What about sustainability?

While dietary mercury, PCBs and dioxins (industrial contaminants that make their way into our environment and oceans) are concerning, according to a 2006 JAMA review article, most of the fish Americans eat pose little risk for these contaminants. The majority of commonly eaten fish species in the U.S. have more selenium than mercury which is important when evaluating mercury content. Selenium acts as a safeguard against mercury because it binds to mercury and prevents its absorption. If a fish contains higher levels of selenium than mercury, it is generally safe to eat. Additionally, compared to meat and dairy, fish are low in PCBs and dioxins.

Sustainability is certainly an issue. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App to assess sustainability practices when purchasing seafood. And, we recommend staying away from all farmed fish.

Can we rely on flaxseeds and walnuts to provide us with enough Omega-3 fatty acids if we’re vegetarian?

Unfortunately, walnuts and flaxseeds don’t provide enough usable omega-3 fats.

There are several types of omega-3 fats but those with the greatest health benefits are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenioic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Seafood and fish oil supplements provide us with EPA and DHA. Flaxseed and other plant oils are rich in ALA.

ALA is not biologically active MUST be converted to EPA and DHA. This conversion process is very inefficient in the body. In fact, less than 5 % of ALA is converted to EPA; less than 0.5% is converted to DHA. What does that mean? If you are looking for vegetarian sources of omega-3s, don’t rely on flaxseed and walnuts!

For those vegetarians wanting to avoid seafood, the best alternative is a microalgae supplement. Algae only synthesizes DHA (not EPA) but DHA can be converted to EPA so there is no need to take a separate EPA supplement.

Our family is not eating the recommended 2-3 servings of fish weekly. Should we take a supplement?

If you are not consuming about 12oz of omega-3 rich seafood weekly, it’s probably a good idea to take a fish oil or algae supplement.

Not all fish oil is created equally, however. Products can range greatly with respect to purity, freshness, potency, sustainability and cost.

All of the fish oil we carry at GetzWell is vetted for purity, freshness and potency! Ask us about dosing for your child as fish oil for kids should be based on their weight.

How can I get my child to take fish oil if even I don’t like the taste?!

Even the pickiest of children LOVE one of two fish oil products we carry: Nordic Naturals strawberry chewables or OmegAvail Smoothie. Ask us for a sample the next time you’re in!

Want to know more?

We are committed to providing the best pediatric care in the Bay Area. If you want to learn more about our practice, please contact us.