We’re pretty sure you’ve heard us say it a thousand times: Omega-3s are essential to health. But why do you really need them? It’s a fair question, and one our in-house, registered dietitian and nutrition expert (not to mention personal trainer) Kate Turner is happy to answer. With a smile.
As an educator, I’m sure you’ve been asked before: Do we really need omega-3s?
The answer is 100% YES! Many people are aware that omega-3s are important for their health, but because they’re not sure exactly what omega-3s do for them physiologically, they question whether they really need them as part of their diet.
Can you break it down for us in simple terms here?
Our health starts in our cells. Healthy cells are the basis for everything we do, from eating and sleeping, to walking and thinking. Omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in keeping our cells healthy and functioning at their best in that they help make up our cell membranes, giving them the fluidity and flexibility needed to let vital nutrients in and push cellular waste out.* Just think of all the important nutrients we absorb through food each day that may or may not actually make it into our cells if our cells are not able to function properly.
Where can we get these omegas? Do our bodies make them?
Our bodies typically make most of the fats we need for optimal health. But our bodies are only able to produce very small amounts of omega-3 fats, which is why it’s essential that we get these fats from our diet. In contrast, most of us get far too many omega-6 fatty acids, another essential fat our cells need (in moderation) from processed foods and oils. And that can make it hard to achieve a healthy balance of essential fats, which is another key component to healthy cellular function.
Why is it that most people aren’t getting enough omega-3s?
The hard truth is that about 90% of Americans are deficient in omega-3s, making it one of the top nutrient deficiencies in the U.S. At the same time, the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio has increased to up to 20:1 or even higher in the past three decades. It should be a much more balanced ratio. The reason we find ourselves facing these drastic numbers is that our current diets are overloaded with omega-6 rich foods, and we aren’t consuming enough of the foods that contain essential omega-3 fats.
Can you explain a little bit more about this omega-6 overload?
The current Western diet is flooded with foods high in omega-6 fats, including our processed foods like fast foods, a lot of our sweets, cheeses, and most of our cooking oils. Keep in mind, this also includes foods we may not think of as processed like our “healthy” granola bars or breakfast cereals. (A good tip to remember: If a food is not in its form found in nature, then it’s considered processed.)
Now you may be saying, “I don’t eat any of these foods, so I don’t need to worry about an omega-6 overload.” But it’s not only our processed foods we have to think about when it comes to consuming excess omega-6 fats. Foods like avocados, eggs, chickpeas (e.g. hummus), brown rice, chicken, and walnuts are all high in omega-6 fatty acids. Yes, walnuts! Now this doesn’t mean we have to give up these foods, it just means that we have to increase our omega-3 intake to achieve a better omega balance and provide our cells with the fats they need.
So how do we know we’re consuming the right fats?
To achieve a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, you have to get enough of the right omega-3s, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA support our cell membranes and because of this they positively affect many processes and functions in our body. I like to think of DHA as the “neck up” omega-3, supporting our brain and eyes.* DHA is the most concentrated in our brain and eye tissue. It plays an integral part in keeping our brain and eyes functioning at their best, supporting a positive mood, learning, and memory in both children and adults.*
EPA is our “neck down” omega-3, supporting heart health, joint health, immune function, mood health, and a healthy inflammatory response.* There are two main sources for these essential fats: marine sources, like cold-water, fatty fish and algae; and plant-based sources, like chia and flaxseeds.
It’s important to note here that plant-based omega-3 sources offer far less omega-3 EPA and DHA per serving than marine sources. Plant-based sources of omega-3s contain the ALA form, which our bodies must convert to the EPA and DHA our cells need. Unfortunately, this conversion rate can be as low as 1–5%! To put this in perspective, you would have to consume a 10-ounce bag of flax or chia seeds just to get 1000 mg of EPA and DHA each day. Marine sources, however, do not need to go through this conversion process because they naturally contain EPA and DHA.
How much fish should you eat to get the omega-3s your body needs?
Even if you planned to get all your omega-3s from EPA- and DHA-rich marine sources, you would have to consume 3–6 ounces of cold-water, fatty fish (e.g. mackerel, lake trout, herring, tuna, salmon, sardines, and anchovies) every day! Now, who can realistically-and safely-consume this amount every day with the rising cost of seafood and presence of heavy metals like mercury? As a nutritionist, I’m always one to push food first, but omega-3s are one of those essential nutrients our bodies need that are extremely unrealistic to get through diet alone, and the research is there to back it up.
Adding a fish oil supplement to your daily routine can be a safe and easy way to meet your body’s daily need for omega-3 EPA and DHA. I’m a big believer in giving your cells the essential fats they need, whether it’s taking a high-quality fish oil or algae oil supplement, or taking supplements in combination with eating fresh, wild-caught, fatty fish.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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