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They’ve been touted as a cure-all for everything from heart disease to ageing, but what are omega fats and why do we need them?

Buzzwords in the health industry don’t get much bigger than omega-3. In fact, if you pick up a packet of chia seeds, a tin of salmon or a bottle of flaxseed oil, it’s likely to be one of the first things you see on the label. It’s easy to see why. After all, omega-3 fats have been credited with a host of impressive health benefits, from protecting us against cancer, arthritis and inflammation, to promoting heart health, brain function and better eyesight – and even smoother skin. So what exactly are omega fats?

Omega-3

Omega-3s belong to a family of fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and are often referred to as “essential” fats. They’re necessary for our health, but our bodies are unable make them, so we have to get them from our diet. 

Along with playing a crucial role in cell membranes, studies have shown that omega-3s can lower blood triglyceride levels and blood pressure, promote bone health and prevent asthma and other forms of inflammation. They’ve also been linked to a host of brain benefits, from reducing the symptoms of depression to improving attention and memory. Omega-3 fats also play an important role in infant brain development and there are even studies that suggest they may help protect against dementia.

However, not all omega-3s are the same. There are 11 kinds altogether, but three are considered to be the most important. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are commonly found in marine-based foods like fatty fish and algae. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plant-based foods including soybeans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp, kale and spinach, along with some animal foods. ALA and DHA fatty acids are also found in omega-3-supplemented eggs, produced by hens that have been fed a diet containing flaxseeds. 

Our bodies are able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consult a dietitian if you’re considering a vegan diet. 

Omega-6

Like omega-3s, omega-6 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fats and they can be found in soy, seeds, corn, nuts and some animal products. Because they’re also found in many vegetable oils, most people in the developed world already get them in abundant amounts.

The purported health benefits of omega-6 fatty acids include pro-inflammatory functions, the maintenance of healthy blood sugar and cholesterol, and helping your blood clot.

However, there have been some concerns that a diet too high in omega-6 fats may interfere with the absorption of omega-3, so it’s vital that we get enough of both kinds of fats in our diet.

Omega-9

Unlike the others, omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated. They’re not essential, since our bodies can produce them, but they’re important. The most common omega-9 fat is oleic acid, found in olives (including olive oil), nuts and avocados. There are studies that suggest it may reduce blood triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol, while also raising “good” HDL cholesterol and eliminating plaque in arteries.

How much do we need?

A diet high in any fat can lead to weight gain, so it’s all about changing the kinds of fats you eat. As a guide, the Australian Heart Foundation recommends we try to incorporate more polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6) and monounsaturated fats (omega-9) in our diets, while limiting saturated and trans fats.

For omega-3, the Heart Foundation recommends eating two to three serves of fish (including oily fish) a week, which provides around 250-500mg of EPA and DHA per day, as well as 1g of ALA daily from sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola and soybean oil.

Want to find out more? Speak to our Fernwood Food Coaches for nutrition advice and guidance.

What about supplements?

Omega-3 supplements are a multi-billion-dollar industry. They’re commonly found in the form of fish oil tablets or vegan alternatives made from seaweed or algae.

While supplements may be beneficial for some people, it’s possible to get too much – there are concerns that taking too much omega-3 may carry potential health issues including an increased risk of bleeding. So consult a medical professional before taking supplements.

For most people, the best way to ensure you’re covering all your omega fat needs is through diet – two to three serves of fish a week, along with lots of seeds, avocados, nuts and healthy oils like olive and canola.

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