Omega 3 Fats Rich Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are also called Omega-3 Oils, Omega-3 Fats or simply, Omega-3’s (and sometimes without the hyphen). Fats and oils contain fatty acids, so you can see why the words are interchangeable (which they do throughout this article). There’s no right or wrong, so it doesn’t really matter which words you use.
Omega-3s are classified as ‘essential’ fatty acids because the body itself cannot make them. Therefore, we must rely on omega-3 foods from our diet to supply these extremely beneficial compounds.
Omega-3 foods are known to help reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease, support proper neurological function, support cell membrane maintenance, mood regulation and hormone production. You can see why these ‘good fats’ are considered beneficial to eat in moderate amounts.
Populations consuming mainly omega-3 type foods, such as those in Okinawa Japan, live healthier and longer lives than people who eat a standard western diet. The typical Okinawa diet consists of plenty of fish, sea vegetables and other fresh produce. It is considered one of the healthiest diets in history.
People living in the Mediterranean region, including Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and French populations, also have a diet high in overall fat and much lower incidences of heart disease, perhaps due to the heart-healthy omega-3 foods they regularly consume.
Omega-3 fatty acids, also called ω-3 fatty acids or n-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA’s) with a double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain. A bit technical but that’s what it is.
There are three different types of omega-3 oils: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
ALA is found in some plant foods, including nuts and seeds, and good quality cuts of meat such as grass-fed beef. The DHA and EPA are the oils found in seafood sources like salmon and sardines, and are the preferred types of omega-3 oils.
Our body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA to a degree, but it’s not totally clear how well our body can make this conversion, or if ALA has any benefits on its own. Getting DHA and EPA directly from food sources, rather than the body converting it, is much better.
A scary concept is that manufacturers are now fortifying foods with Omega 3 fats because they are aware of the growing interest of ‘healthy fats’ in our diet.
The problem is that the sources of EPA and DHA in fortified foods usually come from microalgae. That’s fine, but because microalgae has a natural fishy aroma, these processed foods must undergo extensive chemical purifying preparations to mask the taste and smell. This is very likely to change the fatty acids and antioxidant content of the foods, making them inferior (and potentially harmful) compared to unaltered, whole food sources.
It reminds me of how fantastic raw vegetable oils are, but heated they become denatured and toxic.
Benefits of Omega-3 foods
- Boost immunity
- Reduce risk of cancer
- Improve mood and to help prevent depression
- Improve appearance, especially skin health
- Improve cardiovascular health, by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, plaque build-up in the arteries, and the chance of having a heart attack or stroke
- Stabilize blood sugar levels and possibly prevent diabetes
- Reduce muscle, bone, and joint pain by lowering inflammation
- Sharpen the mind and help concentration and learning
- Treat inflammatory digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats
Another type of good fat, the Omega-6 fats found in some nuts, seeds and oils like canola and sunflower, is regularly consumed on the average diet. It is said that the balance between the two types of oils (omega-3 and omega-6) should be in balance with each other on a ratio of 1:1 to reduce the risk of disease.
However for various health conditions, the ratios may need to change. For example, a ratio of 2:1 (with omega-3 higher) is said to suppress inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. A ratio of 5:1 has a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.
If you consume too many omega-6 foods compared to the amount of omega-3 foods, then you increase the risk of developing the following health conditions:
- Cognitive decline
- Digestive disorders
- Higher risk for heart disease
- Higher risk of high cholesterol
- Joint and muscle pain
- Mental disorders like depression
- Poor brain development
There are two main types of salmon you can buy: farmed salmon and wild caught salmon. Farmed salmon is raised in ‘fish farms’ which are usually positioned in the ocean off the coastline of countries such as Norway, Chile, Russia, Canada, United Kingdom and Tasmania in Australia. The farms are massive nets specifically designed to hold and raise salmon for our consumption.
Wild caught salmon are raised naturally in lakes, rivers and oceans and feed on smaller fish, whereas most farmed salmon are fed pellets made from all sorts of things. One company lists the ingredients of their pellets as: poultry meal, fish meal, poultry fat, fish oil, whole wheat, soybean meal, corn meal, gluten, feather meal, rape-seed oil. Wow…what a cocktail! Some elements are fine, some questionable.
Farmed salmon has more calories, is higher in saturated fat and the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and lower in the healthy omega-3 fats. Farmed salmon also has lower levels of other nutrients, such as zinc, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. This is probably because of what they are fed.
Wild caught salmon is the opposite in that it has less calories, is lower in saturated fat, lower in omega-6 fatty acids and has up to 50% more omega-3 fatty acids with a higher content of vitamins and minerals compared to famed raised salmon.
Wild caught salmon is harder to find. We used to buy organic salmon exported from New Zealand which was farmed, but at least the fish were fed sardines, so it was closer to a wild salmon diet. The fish tasted much richer in fats than normal farmed fresh salmon, and the price was also richer, an extra $10 per kg. But we moved and now can’t find an outlet for it, or wild salmon, so we buy snap frozen Norwegian salmon from our local fish supplier. Occasionally we buy tinned organic wild caught salmon from Aldi.
Consuming any type of salmon can be beneficial, since there aren’t many food sources with such good levels of omega-3 fats.
Benefits of Astaxanthin
Another bonus of salmon is that it contains Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin (pronounced ‘asta-zan-thin’) is a naturally occurring carotenoid found in algae, shrimp, lobster, crab and salmon. Carotenoids are the pigment colours that occur in nature and support good health. Beta carotene, another type of carotenoid gives us the orange in carrots. Astaxanthin, dubbed the ‘king of the carotenoids’ is red, and is responsible for turning salmon, crab, lobster and shrimp/prawn flesh pink.
Scientists think that astaxanthin helps provide the endurance for these remarkable creatures need to swim upstream. For humans, astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant with broad health implications and is said to be particularly good for:
- Heart and cardiovascular health
- Cholesterol health
- Liver health
- Brain and nervous system
- Eye health
- Immune system support
- Skin health including ageing skin
- Boosting sports performance
In wild caught salmon, the stronger the red or pink colour, then the more astaxanthin it contains. In farmed fish, it is said that the colour of salmon would be grey if it wasn’t for the addition of artificially added astaxanthin to the fish feed. They even have a colour chart for the farmers to choose how much colour they would like to add, with the cost increasing as the colour gets stronger.
Nuts and Seeds
Walnuts, chia, flaxseeds, brazil nuts, cashews and hazelnuts all have omega-3s in the form of ALA with walnuts, flaxseeds and chia the better options.
Many vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are good sources of ALA’s. While ALA omega-3 foods aren’t as good as those with DHA and EPA, these foods are still very beneficial to eat as they are also rich in fibre and other great nutrients. Some of the vegetables highest in omega-3s are Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and watercress.
Lots of oils contain omega-3s to some degree, usually in the form of ALA’s. These include mustard oil and walnut oil. A new to the scene vegetarian oil called ‘algal’ oil is also gaining popularity as research shows it is easily converted to DHA in the body compared to other vegetarian omega-3s foods like flax.
Quantity of Omega-3 in foods
The following foods are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. 2,000-4000 mg is the minimum recommended daily amount for an adult.
- Mackerel (cooked): 1 cup = 6,980mg
- Salmon Fish Oil: 1 tablespoon = 4,770mg
- Cod Liver Oil: 1 tablespoon = 2.664mg
- Walnuts: ¼ cup = 2,600mg
- Chia Seeds: 1 tablespoon = 2,500mg
- Herring: 3oz/85g = 1,885mg
- Salmon (wild-caught): 3oz/85g = 1,700mg (farmed is approx 50% less).
- Flaxseeds (ground): 1 tablespoon = 1,600mg
- Tuna: 3oz/85g = 1,400mg
- Sardines: 1 can/3.75oz = 1,400mg
- White Fish (whiting & similar): 3oz/85g = 1,300mg
- Anchovies: 1 can/2oz = 950mg
- Eggs (omega-3 egg/chickens fed flax seeds): 1 = 340mg
- Grass fed beef: – 3.5oz/100g = 80mg (grain fed is approx 50% less)
If you are not a big fan of eating fish regularly, or simply can’t afford it (it’s quite expensive these days) or you need a higher amount of Omega 3’s to support your health, then there is the option to supplement with extra Omega 3 fats from fish oil or an algae supplement.
This is where ‘you get what you pay for’ because many of the cheaper fish oil supplements are inferior or potentially contaminated. Contaminated with what? The worst offender is mercury. You can see many fish oil supplements stating, ‘tested for mercury’ or similar, but that does not mean ‘no mercury’.
Some of the more expensive omega-3 supplements are ‘purified’ to remove any contamination and they also concentrate the levels of EPA and DHA. The best way to understand what you are buying is to compare the amount of EPA and DHA in a supplement.
Many of my previous clients mistakenly looked at quantities in capsules – such as capsules that contain 1000mg or maybe 2000mg (that’s a big capsule). But all that means is that there is 1ml or 2mls of oil in the supplement, which does not reflect the concentration of active ingredients.
Ideally, for a general all-purpose omega-3 supplement, you want each 1000mg capsule to contain around 500mg EPA and 200mg DHA. A supplement geared towards brain and mood support may have 90-100mg EPA and 450-500mg of DHA in a 1000mg capsule. The DHA is more beneficial for brain, mood and cognitive support.
A stronger EPA is more for anti-inflammatory support. Some 1000mg capsules contain some all-round support by offering around 450mg of omega-3 (EPA-270mg/DHA-180) plus GLA (which is a type of omega-6 often used for hormonal support) plus some vitamin D.
You can also get omega-3 supplementation in a liquid fish oil which is more economical, but many find this quite difficult to drink. If you decide to use a liquid, often the best way to consume it is poured over some fish like a tin of tuna or salmon, making the ‘fishy-ness’ well disguised by the fish. Ironical!
Some find it works for them when blended into a smoothie. Incidentally, if the oil has been well purified, the fishy smell and taste should be very low; if strong it’s probably not a good product.
I suggest discussing the options with your health practitioner to see what is best for your needs.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.