Omega-3 and fatty acids are necessary for a well-rounded diet. We asked an expert to tell us exactly why, where we can get it from and how to ensure we have enough in our diets.
We all know that a well-rounded, balanced diet is needed to help us maintain optimum mental and physical health. When we think about what we need to eat, often our minds go to the bigger things, like carbohydrates, fibre and protein. But beyond these macronutrients there are plenty of other, less obvious nutrients that we need to ensure we get enough of, and Omega-3 is a great example.
When we think of Omega-3, I’m sure many of us conjure up images of fish oil and unpleasant tasting supplements. But there is much more to Omega-3 than we realise, and it’s important we set the record straight on this essential acid.
Seeing as it’s so important, we asked consultant dietician Sejal Jacob to explain exactly what it does, why we need it and where we can get it from. This is everything you need to know.
What is Omega-3?
Omega-3s are made up of the long-chain fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. “They are unsaturated fats which are really important for our health and bodily functions,” explains Sejal.
What are the benefits of Omega-3?
“The main reason why they are considered beneficial for us is because of our heart,” Sejal explains. “Studies have shown that if we have a consistent intake, it could result in a reduction of cardiovascular disease by at least 10%.”
Omega-3 is also beneficial for the brain and eye health. In fact, DHA makes up 40% of the polyunsaturated fats in our brain and 60% of the polyunsaturated fats in our retina, meaning that they are integral to organ functions.
It’s also believed that Omega-3s can help reduce inflammation in the body and in turn reduce the risk of disease.
What are the best sources of Omega-3?
The best source of Omega-3 is oily fish, but there are vegetarian and vegan sources too. Some of the best foods to eat for Omega-3 include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Edamame beans
There is no guidelines for how much Omega-3 we should be having, but current NHS guidelines say that we should eat two portions of fish a week, including one serving of oily fish (around 140g). It’s hard to directly compare fish with vegetarian sources, as vegetarian sources tend to be higher in the acid ALA, whereas fish is often higher in the EPA and DHA components of Omega-3.
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Who needs to take Omega-3?
“As a population, we don’t eat as much Omega-3 as we could, but the average person eating a balanced diet shouldn’t worry about their intake,” says Sejal.
There is some research that suggests that those who are pregnant should be mindful of getting enough DHA for the brain development of children, and a study published in the American Heart Association found that those who were at risk of heart disease could benefit from adding in more Omega-3 to their diets.
“Any healthy adults or children should be meeting their requirements through diet, rather than taking supplements,” says Sejal. “Supplements are only advised in very rare cases where people are really struggling to meet their dietary requirements.”
There are no real tell-tale signs that you need more Omega-3 in your diet, explains Sejal. However, as Omega-3 is so important for eye health, some people with low levels of the fatty acid could experience consistent dry eyes. It can also show up as dry skin and hair, too.
If you are worried about not getting enough Omega-3s into your diet or think you might be at risk of low levels, it’s always best to talk to your doctor or a registered dietician.
Are fish oil supplements good for Omega-3?
Supplements vary in the amount of Omega-3s present, as well as the type of Omega-3s, so it is always important to check the label. You should also look out for other ingredients, since taking too many supplements may increase the risk of overdosing on a vitamin.
However, most research shows that food is the healthier source of fish oil, and that the apparent benefits of Omega-3s may be less apparent when a person takes supplements. For example, the cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3s may only be present in people who eat omega-3-rich foods, not supplements.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).