It is commonly known that omega 3 foods are great for a healthy body. As an essential fatty acid, omega-3 must be consumed through our food since it cannot be made in the body. Omega-3s are associated with reducing inflammation but the equation is not as simple as 'omega 3's equal anti-inflammation'.
Here are a couple of important things to understand when it comes to this amazing fatty acid.
1. Omega 3 foods are not created equal
It is well documented that walnuts and flaxseeds are an excellent omega 3 foods however it's important to know that omega 3 found in plant sources is not well absorbed by the body. Walnuts are healthy and nutritious when enjoyed in moderation but don’t consider this snack as an optimal source of omega-3.
There are three types of omega 3: ALA, EPA and DHA. Plant sources contain only ALA so in order to gain the anti-inflammatory benefits from ALA, the body needs to convert it into EPA and DHA. This process of conversion however creates only very small amounts of EPA or DHA.
This leads to many vegetarians and vegans being deficient in omega 3. Vegetarian sources of EPA and DHA include pastured eggs and grass fed full-fat dairy products. One potentially great vegan source of DHA is algae, although more research is needed to ascertain if algae DHA is as good as animal source DHA.
2. Omega 3 and 6 - it's a balancing act
Omega 3, just like omega 6 is an essential fatty acid that sends inflammation-mediating messages in the body.
- is consumed primarily in the form of linoleic acid
- it converts into gamma linoleic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA)
- once incorporated into a cell, AA signals the release of pro-inflammatory messengers
- GLA can be converted into DGLA, which signals the release of anti-inflammatory messengers
- Omega 6 is consumed in excessive levels in the typical western diet
- comprises three forms: ALA, DHA and EPA
- once incorporated into a cell, DHA and EPA signal the release of anti-inflammatory messengers
- Omega 3 foods are deficient in the typical western diet
It all comes down to the balance of omega 6 and omega 3 and the resulting inflammation. We all know inflammation is considered bad, but paradoxically the body must inflame in order to heal. It is when the body lacks the resources to combat the inflammation that the problems associated with chronic inflammation arise.
Omega 3 and omega 6 work against each other, competing for space within cell membranes. Too much omega-6, in the form of AA, promotes inflammation by attaching to cell membranes and signalling the release of pro-inflammatory messengers. When cell membranes become full up with omega 6 there is not enough room for DHA/EPA to find a space and signal to the cell to produce anti-inflammatory messengers.
This is why it's so important to balance the omega 3 to omega 6 ratio in the body - during the hunter-gatherer era our ancestors consumed roughly a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3, however researchers today estimate that we consume an average ratio of 20:1 omega 6 to omega 3.
However research suggests that it is not necessarily the altered ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in favour of omega 6 that creates the inflammation (and the subsequent health problems), but instead it's the lack of omega 3 in the diet that is the issue. In other words the problem with low ratios of omega 3 to omega 6 is the lack of omega 3 in the diet, not so much the abundance of omega 6 in comparison.
It might therefore be said that as long there is enough fish, pastured animal meat, animal fat and eggs in the diet then whole food sources of omega 6 should not increase inflammation. So keep in mind the ratio as a useful way to help monitor omega 3 and omega 6 intake.
3. Best sources of omega-3
It is widely documented that the best sources of omega-3 (i.e. foods containing absorb-able forms EPA and DHA) are wild-caught, cold-water fish. Pastured eggs and dairy also provide EPA and DHA.
The best sources of EPA and DHA include:
- Pastured eggs
- Grass fed dairy products, e.g. grass fed butter and ghee
If you are generally healthy, the best strategy is to consume about 350 grams of cold-water fish, fatty fish or shellfish each week.
If you don’t eat fish then try supplementing with a high-vitamin cod liver oil or alternative fish oil.
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.