What is Omega 3 and what is it good for?
By: Isabelle Nunn
From your heart health, joints and skin to the menopause, pregnancy and your brain function, Omega 3 is one of the most important nutrients your body needs. Some studies suggest more than two thirds of the world's population are deficient in Omega 3, so we explain what is Omega 3, why it's good for you and who's at risk of deficiency.
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3, also known as 'omega 3 fatty acids' are a type of fat needed for every cell in the body. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat referred to as 'essential fatty acids'. The body cannot make omega 3 fats and therefore relies on getting it from your diet or supplements. Learn more in 'Healthy fats and unhealthy fats explained'.
Omega 3 works in direct balance with omega 6 fats. The ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 intake is 2:1, however this isn't often achieved, with some modern diets having a ratio of only 15:1.
What's your diet missing? Find out in your free Diet Profile.
There are three types of omega 3 fats - DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha linolenic acids). EPA and DHA are 'long-chain fatty acids' and the active and most important forms, and the best sources of these are oily fish. There are no plant-based food sources of EPA and DHA.
ALA can be found in plant foods such as chia and flax seeds, and while the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, it is a very inefficient process, making it almost impossible to gain sufficient EPA and DHA every day on a balanced plant-based diet, or if you don't eat fish. This is why taking a vegan Omega 3 supplement with the optimal dosage of EPA (150mg) and DHA (300mg) is recommended for those on plant-based diet or if you don't eat fish.
Why is Omega 3 good for you?
Omega 3 fatty acids are needed for every cell in the body, particularly for the membrane of cells, helping cells communicate between each other and the rest of the body.
Omega 3 fats are found more abundantly in some parts of the body, including the nerves, your brain and skin, and it's also needed for the production of hormones, most notably anti-inflammatory hormones.
Signs of Omega 3 deficiency
Omega 3 deficiency can present itself in many ways including:
- Weak nails and weak hair
- Acne and skin conditions
- Difficulty concentrating
- Joint pain
Benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids
Given it's needed for every cell in our body, ensuring your diet is rich in omega 3, or taking an omega 3 supplement, has many benefits.
Arthritis and Omega 3
Benefits of Omega 3 for heart health
Omega 3 is beneficial for heart health by balancing the levels of other fats in the blood, helping to maintain good cholesterol levels, and reducing the development of arterial plaques. Omega 3 fats may also lower the risk of heart attacks. Learn more in 'How to keep your heart healthy'.
Benefits of Omega 3 for skin health
There are many benefits of fatty acids for the function of the body, but is omega 3 good for the skin? Omega 3 is needed for incorporation directly into the skin cell membranes across our body. Research shows additional omega 3 added to your diet or through a supplement can help with conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema. The best foods and vitamins for glowing skin are rich in omega 3 and antioxidants.
Benefits of Omega 3 for brain function
Our brain has the highest fat content in our body - 70% of our brain is made up of fat. Omega 3 'DHA' is needed for the brain structure, and omega 3 'EPA' is needed for communication between brain cells. Studies show omega 3 fats also support healthy moods, memory and cognition.
Learn more from our nutritionists in 'What supplements to take for brain health'.
Omega 3 for menopause
Some studies have shown omega 3 may help to lower excess testosterone in menopausal women, as well as decreasing hot flushes and supporting moods. Testosterone is an important and often overlooked hormone in women, with too low testosterone causing fatigue, low moods, reduced concentration and memory, and other symptoms.
Discover MenoFriend | Menopause Support
Pregnancy, breastfeeding and Omega 3
Omega 3 supplements are especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers as the infant requires omega 3 for brain, nerve and vision development.
If there is not enough omega 3 fats in the diet, the body takes them from the mothers brain to give to the infant, further creating risk of deficiency in the mother. Learn more in 'Is it OK to go plant-based while pregnant'.
Best foods for Omega 3
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or trout are the best source of omega 3. Omega 3 can be found in a variety of plant food sources, however it is very difficult to gain sufficient quantities.
Vegan food sources of Omega 3
There are many good plant sources of omega 3 that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. This includes flax seeds & flax seed oil, walnuts & walnut oil, chia seed and hemp seeds & hemp oil. Broccoli also contains omega 3, however you would need to eat a lot of broccoli if you were going to rely on it for your primary source!
As a result, a vegan omega 3 supplement is often the best choice for those who don't eat fish or are vegetarian or plant-based. Discover the mistakes to avoid on a plant-based diet or try our Raspberry Smoothie Bowl with Chia Seeds recipe.
Benefits of plant based Omega 3 sources
Whilst omega 3 fatty acids can be found in fish, there are benefits that come with consuming plant-based sources of omega 3 that aren’t applicable to animal sources.
- Fish can accumulate environmental pollutants whereas vegan sources of omega 3 are typically free of these contaminants
- Overfishing, marine debris and pollution are all environmental issues that are caused by the fishing industry whilst consuming plant-based sources can lessen the demand for fish and combat some of these issues
- Many vegan sources are lower in saturated fats compared to animal sources with a high intake of saturated fats being associated with high cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease.
How much Omega 3 do I need per day?
The official recommendation for omega 3 daily consumption is 250mg per day of combined EPA and DHA. However, if you are a vegan and relying on ALA sources only, a higher level would need to be consumed as the body loses some omega 3 when converting ALA into EPA and DHA. Most people on a vegan diet find a vegan omega 3 supplement from algae oil the most convenient way to get their omega 3 as it contains both EPA and DHA.
The difference between algae and fish Omega 3?
Fish get their omega 3 by eating algae, or by eating other fish which have eaten algae. Algae is the main starting point for omega 3 into the food chain.
Fish oil has a higher EPA content, whereas algae oil has a higher DHA content. However the problem with omega oil from fish is the fish can be contaminated with many pollutants and the oil needs to be intensively purified before it is used. Along with the damage to the environment of over-fishing, an omega 3 supplement from algae is the more sustainable choice!
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