For a long time I was more familiar with the hype than the facts. Omega 3s are everywhere; milk is fortified with them, hens are fed them (to produce Omega-rich eggs), and 922 books on Amazon tell us to eat more of them. But why? And why are the 3s getting all the attention and not the 6s or 9s?
Here’s everything I didn’t know then, and all you need to know now…
- Omegas are fats that the body uses to make hormone-like chemicals that regulate pretty much everything in the body.
- An Omega is either a 3, 6 or 9
- Omega 3’s are further divided into EPA, DHA and ALA; the primary Omega 6 is linoleic acid (LA); there are two Omega 9’s.
- But don’t worry about the 9’s – your body makes them on its own and has this under control. Omega 3 and 6 though, it doesn’t; you need to get them from food, which is why these two are called “essential”.
- Foods high in Omega 3 are fatty fish (eg.salmon, sardines, tuna), flax seed oil, walnuts; Omega 6 is found in corn and soybean oil and meat from grain-fed animals. (Grass-fed meat is also a pretty good source of Omega 3, but be sure it’s truly grass-fed (if you’re not sure if it is – it’s not), otherwise you’re getting a heavy dose of 6 and trace amounts of 3.)
- For optimal health we need all three Omegas in balance in our body.
- Problem is, most people are highly deficient in Omega 3 (hence the hype around the 3’s). This is because we eat too little seafood, flax seeds, walnuts…and too much corn oil and meat from corn-fed animals. We do want more 6’s than 3’s in our body, but the ideal ratio of Omega 6 to 3 is 2:1, not 20: 1 which is what the typical Western diet provides.
- The benefits of getting Omega 3 levels in balance are many: enhanced brain functioning (our brain is 60% fat, and half of that is DHA – an Omega 3), improved blood circulation, strengthened immunity, lower incidence of inflammation and healthier eyes.
So fish oil and flax oil get all the attention because they have far more Omega 3 than any other food, but if you had to choose one? Fish oil. Flax seed oil has the highest of any plant based food, but contains only the Omega 3 ALA, no EPA or DHA where fish excels (remember there are three types of Omega 3). ALA is a less important Omega 3 than EPA or DHA, and though ALA can be converted by the body to DHA, it’s a pretty inefficient conversion. But ALA is needed by the body, so don’t not consume flax oil (squirt it into yogurt, smoothies or homemade salad dressing).
If you don’t want to have to remember any of what you just read, then simply take fish-oil capsules – ideally daily but “whenever you remember to” is a good start. My personal favorite is New Chapter (high quality ingredients and excellent customer service – super responsive to email questions.) I take 2 capsules (2 grams) daily (which is the rough equivalent of eating 4 oz of salmon/day). The New Chapter brand has zero fishy after-taste, an unpleasant side-effect of many brands, that I’m sure was the reason I used to “forget” to take my capsules. If you’re a vegetarian or can’t stand fish, try an algae-based Omega 3 supplement (many on the market now), or flax oil capsules.