Food is Medicine: The Essentials on Omega-3 fats & How to Eat More of Them
Sometimes when I’m thinking about things to write about for you, I get excited about complex medical issues and go deep. But, I also realize people need to know more about the basic everyday things you can do to optimize your health. With all of the noise out there in the health space, I find that my patients are often coming in feeling overwhelmed. It’s crucial to realize that you can feel amazing and vital by incorporating easy and simple things into your life. And one of those things I’m going to talk about today is omega-3 fatty acids.
Fish oil, krill oil, flax seed oil, DHA, EPA - sound familiar? These are all omega-3 fatty acids. Chances are you’ve heard about them, or maybe you’ve even supplemented with them. What you may not know is what they do for you and why they are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) and considered essential nutrients.
Understanding essential vs non-essential nutrients
A non-essential nutrient is one that can be made by the body from other nutrient building blocks or absorbed from food.
Essential nutrients are those that our body is unable to make, so we have to get them from food. These nutrients are essential to our health
What do omega-3 fats do?
The simple answer is omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Nearly all of the health benefit described below are due to their anti-inflammatory effect. Most of the chronic diseases Americans suffer from are due to inflammation in the body. If you’re interested in the science, omega-3s exert their anti-inflammatory influence by competing for an enzyme called delta 5-desaturase.
Omega-3s are also an essential component of our cell membrane (the outer part of the cell - think of it like the cells skin or container). Our cell membranes become more flexible when they contain sufficient levels of omega-3, which allows for fluid cell communication.
One type of omega-3, called DHA, also plays a role in neurological and visual development.
Omega-3 fats are great for...
Pain conditions, such as joint pain and menstrual cramps.
Improving cardiovascular health and treating cardiovascular disease including high blood pressure, high triglycerides and other dyslipidemias (1)
Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar
Improving poor memory and boosting brain function (especially DHA)
Fetal health during pregnancy and your babies health while breastfeeding. DHA is essential for the development of the baby’s brain and vision. Moms should be taking DHA during pregnancy and for the duration of breastfeeding.
Skin problems like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, acne (2), skin cancer, sun damage and anti-aging.
Allergies and asthma (3)
Autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, among others
Decrease adipose fat (the dangerous fat around your organs) when incorporated with diet/lifestyle interventions (4)
Anyone desiring optimal health! Psst, that’s you.
Food sources of Omega-3 fats
I love using food as medicine, and when it comes to Omega-3s, it’s an easy win. Omega-3s are in a lot of delicious food!
Wild caught fish: Salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and anchovies are best. Have a palm size of wild fish 3 x per week. Time-saving tip: eat canned wild salmon. It’s super easy if you’re in a hurry, you can simply put it on top of a salad. It’s so good! Make sure the can is BPA free.
Nuts and seeds: flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. Sprinkle flax, chia and hemp seeds onto salads or blend into smoothies. Try mixing chia seeds in a beverage or into your nut butter.
Pasture raised or omega-3 eggs
It's important to know that eating a plant-based diet increases the risk of DHA and EPA deficiency (5). I see low EPA and DHA a lot in my plant-based patients, and they are often shocked because they eat a lot of flax oil, hemp and chia. How could this be?
The omega-3 found in plant-based foods is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is not an efficient source of EPA or DHA. ALA has to go through several enzymatic reactions before it can be converted EPA and DHA. Simply put, it takes a lot of work for your body to convert ALA to the desired EPA and DHA. And not only that, the conversation rate is low: only about 5-10% of ALA converts to EPA and 2-5% to DHA.
EPA is the omega-3 that competes for the delta 5-desaturase enzymes thereby reducing inflammation. DHA also reduces inflammation and, as mentioned before, is important for the nervous system.
The solution? Take an Algae omega-3 supplement. I like this one.
What to do if you don’t like fish?
I get it. I grew up in a family that didn't eat fish, so naturally when I left home, I was adverse to seafood. But when I started learning about nutrition, I slowly learned to like it. Trust me; you can too! Keep trying different types of fish and make different recipes until you find something you like. Wild fatty fish is such a great source of so many nutrients, not just omega-3s.
If you really can’t stand it, then take a good quality fish oil. Because of the conversion issues mentioned above, supplementing with fish oil is much more efficient than supplementing with flax oil. You also want to make sure your fish oil is third-party tested for purity and quality. Fish and fish oil can be high in mercury and toxin levels - and you definitely don’t want that. I like this fish oil. You can look up the batch you received and view its specific quality.
Fats to avoid
It’s not only essential to make sure you’re omega-3 levels are adequate, but you also need to be mindful of eliminating foods that are highly concentrated with omega-6 fats. I’ll explain this in more detail in a future post. In short, remember that enzyme competition discussed before? If there is too much omega-6, it will outcompete omega-3s for the delta 5-desaturase enzyme and produce inflammatory signals. As with most things in life, balance is the key.
Fats to avoid: soybean oil, corn oil and sunflower oil. Avoid fried foods and read labels! Fried and prepared foods often contain these. Whenever possible opt for fresh whole foods.
Not sure where to begin? There are lab tests available for measuring your omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Ask your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to order them for you!