Day 23 of our Bitesize Nutrition challenge is to add some Essential Fatty Acids (omega-3) into your diet today and most days. Why you ask?
- Support mental health (EPA specifically)
- Brain development in pregnancy and early life (DHA specifically)
- Reduce risk factors for heart disease
- Improve inattention and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity
Omega-3 is called an Essential Fatty Acid because it is just that – essential, our bodies cannot make it. Omega-3 comes in two forms – short chain ALA (found in rapeseed, linseed/flaxseed, nuts, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables), and long chain EPA & DHA (found in fish oil, algal oil) which can be made from ALA but not easily and only small amounts are formed.
The other Essential Fatty Acid is omega-6. This can be inflammatory – omega-3 are anti-inflammatory. The problem is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Our typical Western diet being too high in omega-6 and not high enough omega-3.
- Sources of omega-6; sunflower oil, vegetable oils, sesame, primrose, corn oil
- Sources of omega-3; fish mackerel, sardines, kipper, salmon, pilchards, trout), shellfish, flaxseed/linseed, pumpkin, soybean, walnut, algae
Although the evidence for omega-3 and heart health appears to be strong a review in 2018 of 79 trials found little evidence of benefit from taking omega-3 on death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, irregular heartbeat. But the trials were on supplements not from eating fish. It’s also difficult to know if a general unhealthy diet may be the major factor, people with healthy diets may also be more health conscious generally including more omega-3.
The human brain is nearly 60% fat (dry weight)[i], therefore it could be suggested that fat is crucial for brain function.
An Australian study found people with severe depression had an altered omega balance with too low omega-3. Further clinical trials found benefit after just eight weeks[ii].
So, what is the link between EFAs and depression? Omega-6 may prevent the release of serotonin however omega-3 reduces the effect of the omega-6 on serotonin[iii]. So, for many of us to improve mental health, maybe we need to readdress the EFA balance to include more omega-3.
Fish are one of our best sources of omega-3 (more so than flaxseed/linseed, walnuts pumpkin, soybean). They’re also a great source of protein (keeping you fuller for longer) and vitamin D (read more in our day 26 article).
It’s suggested we should eat fish a least twice per week, one of which is oily. If you’re not keen on eating fish you can take a fish oil supplement, and if vegetarian or vegan algal oil is available in health food stores.
Try to eat at least two portions of fish per week – one of which is oily.
Omega-3 enriched foods
Some eggs, milks, yogurts, spreads have added omega-3 but check the level of DHA & EAP as it’s often short chain ALA which has been added to the animals diet rather than the EPA/DHA, and it’s the EPA/DHA which is more beneficial.
If you’re not keen on eating fish you could try fish oil capsules but preferably oil from the whole fish rather from the fish liver due to high levels of vitamin A. Algal oil is the equivalent for vegetarian or vegan diets. Aim for 450mg DHA and EPA.
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