Wendy Gapinski, M.S.
You may have heard a lot about omega-3 in the news recently. But, what really is omega-3? Well, omega-3 is a category of fatty acids that are most commonly found in marine and plant oils. Fats often get bad press but this type actually provides health benefits. Polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3s, are often easily identified by their ability to stay a liquid at room temperature. Saturated, unhealthy fats typically stay solid at room temperature.
While some of the mechanisms still remain unclear, omega-3 are thought to be very beneficial. A diet rich in omega-3s can help decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels in your blood, decrease inflammation throughout your body, and increase the synthesis of a chemical known as endothelium-derived nitric oxide. This chemical, produced by the body, allows blood vessels to dilate and relax, resulting in decreased blood pressure and improved blood circulation. In addition, the body becomes more efficient in blood clotting mechanisms. Omega-3s have been shown to increase circulating blood clotting factors and decrease platelet aggregation.
Three of the most common and most nutritionally important types of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid is classified as essential because the body cannot produce it and it is necessary for several physiological functions. Although alpha-linolenic acid can also be converted into EPA and DHA within the body, both these fats can be derived directly from certain foods as well. EPA is believed to play a major role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, while DHA is necessary for proper brain and nerve development. Nutritional supplements are available, but foods rich in omega-3 are plentiful. Cold water fish, especially sardines, salmon, shrimp, and scallops all contain omega-3s. A single serving of flaxseed (2 tbsp), walnuts (1 oz), or soybeans (1/2 cup cooked) can give you at least 40 percent of your daily value of omega 3 fats.
In 2002, the United States’ Food and Nutrition Board listed the adequate intake for males age 14 and older at 1.6 grams/day and females, 14 and up at 1.1 grams/day. As infants grow to adulthood, the minimum adequate intake changes, just as it does for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Diets deficient of omega-3 may result in depression, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, dry and itchy skin, inability to concentrate, joint pain and brittle hair and nails. While no dietary upper limits have been reported, it is important to remember that like anything else, moderation is key.
For more facts and information, please see:
- Covington MB. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. American Family Physician 2004;70: 133-140. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0701/p133.html
- Horrocks LA, Yeo YK, HEALTH BENEFITS OF DOCOSAHEXAENOIC ACID (DHA), Pharmacological Research, Volume 40, Issue 3, September 1999, Pages 211-225. http://ac.els-cdn.com/S1043661899904954/1-s2.0-S1043661899904954-main.pdf?_tid=adc9d1d2-f702-11e3-9f20-00000aab0f02&acdnat=1403107843_782e1c50796bdf33289e9c71ae8fc832