What are Omegas?
There are three types of fats commonly found in a healthy diet: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat. Of these, the polyunsaturates appear to be most beneficial to overall health.1
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are the 2 most important types of polyunsaturates. Appropriate levels of Omega-6s are reached by eating certain oils (corn, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean), as well as nuts, meat, chicken, and eggs.1 Omega-3s, however, are even more important to health, but it can be hard to get enough in food.
The types of Omega-3s and why you
need them all
The Omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
- ALA is found in some nuts and seeds (eg, flaxseeds and walnuts), and in some leafy green vegetables like romaine lettuce and spinach. The main role of ALA is as an ingredient for making EPA and DHA.1
- EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and catfish; they are also made in the body from ALA, but the amount made varies from person to person, and can be quite limited.1
Omega-3s have a number of important biological roles in the body, but the most important of these appears to be in controlling triglycerides. As DHA and EPA can help maintain healthy levels of triglycerides in people with normal levels.2
EPA and DHA also play a role in blood clotting and can help regulate inflammation.2 Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of heart disease!1,3 In addition, DHA in particular is important for the production of brain tissue (so important that it is often added to infant formula!), eye tissue, and healthy sperm.3
The Omega-6s are also important to heart health, having been shown to decrease total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.1 But diets too high in Omega-6 can contribute to an inflammatory response and could contribute to an adverse impact on health, unless a certain amount of Omega-3s are included in the diet. Since Omega-6s are found in so many of the foods we eat, it's important to add the right amounts of Omega-3s to your diet.
So, how much should you eat?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that people eat Omega-6 and all 3 types of Omega-3s every day1:
- Omega-6: <22g (about 4 ½ tsp) per day1
- Omega-3 (ALA): 1.3–2.7g (less than 1 tsp) per day1
- Omega-3 (EPA/DHA): 500mg per day1 (or 8 ounces of fish per week)1,5
Notice that you should aim to eat an overall diet that is 1 part Omega-3 for every 5-8 parts Omega-6, a proportion that has been associated with supporting health.2 But most people today consume 1 part Omega-3 for every 15-20 Omega-6s, because they don't get enough Omega-3s in their diet.2,6 So the goal, as stated in the National Dietary Guidelines, is to increase the amount of Omega-3s eaten every day.5
Where to find Omega-3s
Naturally occurring ALA Omega-3s are found in seeds and nuts low in saturated fat such as flaxseeds, walnuts and almonds; they can also be found in oils made from these nuts and seeds, and in some leafy green vegetables (romaine lettuce, spinach).
Naturally occurring EPA/DHA Omega-3s are found primarily in fresh or canned fatty fish, including salmon, halibut, tuna, catfish, and sardines, as well as in farmed oysters.
Foods with added Omega-3s: Many food companies now tout the addition of "Omegas" to their products. Remember to pay attention to which types of Omegas are included, not just the total amount, looking for products that specifically add Omega-3.
You'll find that most products with added Omega-3s contain only the more easily available ALA. So do your body a favor, especially your brain, eyes, and even your heart… be on the lookout for foods that also contain EPA and DHA.
Anyone who's ever been remotely concerned about heart health has surely heard about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids.
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