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Ask An Expert: Why Do I Need Omega-3 Fat?

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Omega-3 has been touted as one of the healthiest supplements, but something sounds a bit fishy. Is this fat too good to be true? We asked our resident biology expert Jason Edmonds to give us the need-to-know.

Expert's Take

Jason Edmonds, BS Biology, Olympic Weightlifter: Increasing omega-3 polyunsaturated fat intake– especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)– can do the body some serious good. There is evidence suggesting that increasing omega-3 fat intake can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease [1], depression [2], and might decrease the severity of asthmatic airway inflammation [3]

With these potential benefits, you’re probably asking, “Am I getting enough omega-3 fats in my diet?” The answer is probably not. The average western diet is low in omega-3 fats and rich in omega-6 fats from processed foods, vegetable oils, nuts/seeds, and meats from livestock fed nuts/seeds. A healthy balance is thought to be a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, but the typical modern diet provides a ratio of 1:10 – 1:15 [4] [5]. Omega-6 fats serve vital functions, but an excessive amount combined with low omega-3 intake can be problematic.

The problems arise when polyunsaturated fats are converted in the body to signaling molecules called eicosanoids. Omega-6 fats are readily converted to eicosanoids that promote inflammation and clotting, while omega-3 derived eicosanoids have anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-6 and omega-3 fats compete for conversion to their respective eicosanoids, so increasing omega-3 fats will reduce the synthesis of pro-inflammatory and clot promoting omega-6 eicosanoids. Consequently, maintaining a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 levels might reduce the risk of issues resulting from excessive, chronic inflammation [4] [5].

The best way to establish a healthy balance of omega-3/6 fats is to consume omega-3 rich foods such as salmon, leafy greens, walnuts and flaxseed products, while limiting processed foods, fried food, corn oil etc. I also like to use a molecularly distilled fish oil supplement high in EPA/DHA. It’s important to choose a fish oil product tested to be high purity and low in environmental contaminants. You can go to the International Fish Oil Standards web page for reports on the purity of many fish oil products. Currently, there is no recommended daily allowance for omega-3 fats, but the FDA issued a release in 2004 recommending no more than 3 grams of combined EPA/DHA per day, with 2 grams or less coming from dietary supplements.

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Works Cited +

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids, inflammation and angiogenesis: basic mechanisms behind the cardioprotective effects of fish and fish oils. Massaro, M., Scoditti, E., Carluccio, MA., et al. Cellular and Molecular Biology Mol Biol (Noisy-le-grand, France) 2010 Feb 25; 56(1):59-82.
  2. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: a review of the evidence. Liperoti, R., Landi, F., Fusco, O., et al. Centro di Medicina dell'Invecchiamento, Dipartimento di Scienze Gerontologiche, Geriatriche e Fisiatriche, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Rome, Italy. Current Pharmaceutical Design 2009;15(36):4165-72.
  3. Protective effect of resolvin E1 on the development of asthmatic airway inflammation. Aoki, H., Hisada, T., Ishizuka, T., et al. Department of Medicine and Molecular Science, Gunma University Graduate School of Medicine, Maebashi 371-8511, Japan. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 2010 Sep 10; 400(1):128-33.
  4. Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases. Simopoulos, AP. The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, 2001 S Street, NW, Suite 530, 20009 Washington, DC, USA. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 2006 Nov; 60(9):502-7.
  5. The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Simopoulos, AP. The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, 2001 S Street, NW, Suite 530, Washington, DC 20009, USA. Experimental Biology and Medicine (Maywood, N.J.) 2008 Jun; 233(6):674-88.

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