You've probably heard a lot about omega-3 oils, amongst the barrage of nutritional supplements on the market. Omega-3s are crucial nutrients with demonstrable positive effects. Discover what omega-3s are, how they benefit the body, which foods and oils contain them, and how much the average person needs.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
There are three common types of omega-3 fatty acids that are used by the human body. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), when consumed in food, is converted by the body into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are polyunsaturated fats, which are considered to be "good fat," as opposed to saturated fats and trans fats. Omega-3s do not solidify as readily as do the types of fats found in red meat, for instance.
Omega-3s are believed to act upon cell walls, making them more flexible and allowing nutrients to pass easily into the cell. They also produce prostaglandins, which provide positive effects in many internal processes.
What Are the Benefits of Omega-3s?
Omega-3s provide a crucial nutrient that the human body cannot manufacture on its own. They help lower cholesterol, fight joint inflammation, and prevent heart disease. Omega-3 has been shown to lower triglycerides and raise HDL ("good") cholesterol, which helps control diabetes and obesity. Age-linked disorders such as arthritis and osteoporosis can be forestalled by an adequate intake of omega-3. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, other health problems that may be positively affected by the beneficial fat are asthma, ADHD, macular degeneration, skin disorders and various types of cancer.
Best Sources of Omega-3s
Omega-3s can be found most prominently in certain types of fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Flaxseed oil has the highest concentration of omega-3s. The recommended daily dose of 1,000 milligrams can be taken in supplement form, or consumed in meals that include flaxseed bread and muffins or added to food in seed form. Flaxseed oil is highly susceptible to oxygenation and can be harmed by light, so capsules or liquid should be stored in dark brown bottles and kept refrigerated.
Fish oil is the preferred delivery system for EPA and DHA. Flaxseed is actually high in ALA, which must be converted into the more readily used oils. Fish is much easier to incorporate into the everyday diet. Two weekly servings of salmon, halibut, shrimp, snapper, scallops or some other oily fish provide an effective amount of Omega-3 oils. Fish oil supplement capsules are slightly less effective, but if you don't favor seafood, they may be the best way to get the recommended 1 to 2 grams of fish oil a day.
Nut oils, mostly walnuts and almonds, carry some Omega-3 oils, but they are also mostly ALAs. That's not to say that they can't help--they can--but that they should not be your primary source of omega-3 oils. Canola oil is the most efficacious vegetable oil, but it still ranks well below fish and flaxseed oil as a delivery system for omega-3s.
Some products are now being fortified with omega-3, including eggs, yogurt and bread. However, these products tend to have fairly low concentrations and are supplemental at best.
Fish Oil capsules are sold in most grocery and drugstores, and can provide a nice supplement for those who may not get enough Omega-3 in their diets.
How Much Do I Need?
The American Heart Association suggests two servings of fish (baked or broiled, not fried) per week. Albacore tuna, a fairly standard lunch staple, provides an easy and effective way to do this on a budget.
The generally-accepted rule of thumb for capsule supplements is to take between 1 and 3 grams per day, paying special attention to the amount of EPA and DHA within, which are the most beneficial.
Fish oil may need to accumulate in the system for two weeks before benefits become tangible.
Vitamin E helps protect omega-3s from oxidation, preventing the formation of free radicals.
What are the Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency?
Most Americans don't get enough Omega-3, but severe deficiency in this essential oil can result in fatigue, constipation, joint pain, dry skin, and brittle nails. Many other maladies answer to this general description, however, so it is important to consult with a doctor if you believe you may be suffering from a lack of omega-3 in your diet.
An Ounce of Prevention
Making sure to get enough omega-3 in your diet is an easy way to ward off many potential health risks. Eat fish and nuts, choose your cooking oil carefully, and supplement with fish oil and vitamin E. These actions, taken in moderation, can improve your overall health.