The Ultimate Guide to Omega 3 & Fatty Acids
You can’t enter a health food store without seeing racks of Omega 3 supplements and product labels screaming in blaring font that their products are loaded with Omega 3. The craze for Omega 3 fatty acids is so intense that it is even wiping out the world’s oceans and is endangering species of sharks, which are slaughtered because their livers are rich in Omega 3 oil. Yes, Omega 3 is very important for the body but there is no reason that we need to reach for the fish oil to get it.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats. They are called “essential” because the body cannot produce them on its own. We must get essential fatty acids from food.
There are two types of Essential Fatty Acids:
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (Omega 3)
- Linoleic Acid (Omega 6)
Once consumed, the body is able to turn Omega 3 and Omega 6 into other types of fatty acids:
- Omega 3 -> eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Omega 6 -> arachidonic acid (AA)
Why Do We Need Fatty Acids?
The importance of essential fatty acids in our diets really can’t be underestimated. They are part of all cell membranes and are what make our cells flexible. They are also very important for the nervous system. Consider that 60% of the brain is made up of fats and you start to see how important they are. DHA is particularly abundant in the nervous system which is why it is considered a “brain food.” You also have high concentrations of essential fatty acids in the retina, so the fats are important for vision.
Essential fatty acids are also involved in regulating inflammation, but in very different ways. Omega 3 reduces inflammation whereas Omega 6 increases inflammation. Inflammation is the root cause of many health problems ranging from acne to arthritis, so getting these nutrients in the right balance is crucial.
Because of how important essential fatty acids are for health, they are linked to many health benefits. Note, however, that some of these benefits have been really exaggerated or hyped (especially by companies trying to sell you supplements). The studies on essential fatty acids can also be conflicting. For instance, one study showing that supplementing with essential fatty acid can drastically reduce risk of heart disease while another study shows that the benefits are negligible or nonexistent.
Some of the health benefits of essential fatty acid which are likely true (though often hyped-up) include:
- Better Skin, Hair and Nails: Supplementing with essential fatty acid can improve the appearance and strength of skin, hair and nails.
- Improved Mental Health: Various studies show that essential fatty acid (particularly Omega 3) are crucial for mental health and supplementing with them can reduce symptoms of depression, as well as other mood disorders like anxiety.
- Fetal Development: Studies have shown that the children of pregnant women who supplement with essential fatty acid (particularly DHA) are less likely to have developmental problems and the children may also have higher cognitive scores.
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease: Essential fatty acid supplements are commonly touted for reducing the risk of heart disease. One of the ways that they do this is by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular have shown to reduce risk of heart disease because they thin blood (reducing the risk of a clot), prevent inflammation (reducing blood pressure), and slow the buildup plaque in the arteries. By contrast, some studies have implied that Omega 6 can increase the risk of heart disease by causing inflammation in arteries. The American Heart Association contests this though, and instead says that people need to seek a better balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids.
- Reduced Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: In particular, DHA has shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as other old-age cognitive diseases such as dementia.
- Arthritis and Inflammation Disorders: Omega 3 fatty acids help block the immune system’s inflammation response, so they have shown effective as a natural treatment for many inflammation disorders such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and even (to some extent) asthma.
How Much Essential Fatty Acids Do We Need?
Omega 6 is found in many foods like the oils we use for cooking, seeds, nuts, and beans. So, Omega 6 deficiency isn’t a concern. However, the same can’t be said for Omega 3 deficiency. Many resources say that 60% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3 and others put the number at 90%. When Dr. Hyman appeared on the Dr. Oz show (who I wouldn’t exactly say is a credible source of nutrition information), he said that 99% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3. It is unclear where these stats are coming from since they don’t quote any scientific studies, but it is pretty clear that people on the Western diet do need more Omega 3.
The RDA for Omega 3 is 1.6g/day for adult men and 1.1g/day for healthy adult women. This amount of Omega 3 could easily be obtained by eating a ½ ounce of walnuts, or a handful of just about any other type of nut or seed. Beans, legumes, and wheat germ are also high in Omega 3. But the problem isn’t so much Omega 3. It is EPA and DHA.
*There are no established daily requirements for DHA and EPA. The American Heart Foundation recommends that adults consume 500 mg of DHA and EPA combined per day. However, most studies use a recommendation of 1000mg/day for DHA and 220mg/day for EPA.
Since our bodies make EPA and DHA out of Omega 3 fatty acids, one would think that eating more Omega 3 foods would help us get enough of these nutrients. Unfortunately, the body is not very good at turning Omega 3 into EPA or DHA. Women convert about 21% of Omega 3 into EPA and 9% into DHA. By contrast, men only convert about 8% of Omega 3 into EPA and 0-4% of Omega 3 into DHA.
Some evidence shows that too much Omega 6 blocks Omega 3 conversion into EPA and DHA.
There are very few food sources of DHA and EPA. They are almost exclusively found in fish, though some DHA can be found in seaweed. To make sure you don’t end up with a deficiency, you might want to consider supplementing with DHA and EPA. Or, you could try to help your body convert more DHA and EPA by improving your Omega 3:6 ratios.
Omega 3 and DHA Supplements
It is always best to get your nutrients from food first. But, if you are worried that you aren’t getting enough Omega 3 or DHA, you can use supplements as a fallback. Luckily, there are now a lot of vegan omega 3 and DHA supplements, like these three below. You can also check out our recommendations for the top vegan supplements here.
Full disclaimer that we get a kickback from Amazon if you buy these! So, if you were going to buy supplements anyway, it is like giving back to us 🙂 Thanks!