We’re hearing a lot about the essential fatty acids omega-3, 6, and 9, with omega-3 in particular being promoted in some quarters as the new miracle supplement that can do everything except wash your windows. So what’s it all about?
Fats are named according to their chemical structure (the way they’re ‘built’), and unsaturated fats, on the whole, are what we call ‘good’ fats. The differences between their molecular configurations are what provide differing health effects and the reason for achieving the right balance.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are both polyunsaturated fatty acids, essential components of our diets because our bodies themselves can’t produce them. Omega-9 fatty acids are from a family of monounsaturated fats, and are also nutritionally beneficial; they however can be manufactured by our bodies from other sources. Omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids serve different functions in our bodies, and there’s clear evidence that a balanced proportion of them all is necessary for overall health and wellness. Most experts recommend that adults should receive between twenty and thirty-five percent of energy from dietary fats, avoiding saturated (‘bad’) fats and increasing ‘good’ ones, especially omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 is found mainly in oily fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies, tuna and herring and in oils like rapeseed, evening primrose and walnut, as well as in eggs, meat, milk and cheese. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, providing protection against heart disease, arthritis, and skin conditions. They promote healthy development and functioning of our brains and cellular systems, and boost our immune systems. Symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, and poor circulation.
Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, though necessary, can cause inflammation if consumed in large quantities, and the correct ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is crucial to maintaining optimal health. Too much omega-6 prevents the body from metabolising omega-3 effectively, making our cells slow and sluggish.
In the average modern Western diet, we consume almost twenty times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 – whereas the diet of the Japanese, who are one of the healthiest populations on the planet, comes close to a ratio of 4:1. Numerous studies have shown that people who eat in this way are less likely to develop heart disease. A further problem is that modern methods of food production actually reduce the amount of naturally occurring omega-3 fats in our food – animals that graze on grass have higher concentrations in their meat than those which are grain-fed.
And what about omega-9 fatty acids? Experts recommend that eighty percent of the fat we consume should be in the form of omega-9, found mainly in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and sunflower oil. Omega-9s are thought to help lower ‘bad’ cholesterol and raise ‘good’ cholesterol, and may also play a role in controlling blood sugar levels. However, omega-9s are described as ‘non-essential’, because our bodies can synthesise them from other things we eat.
So what does all this actually mean? Medical experts agree that the bottom line is we need more omega-3s, and possibly omega-9s, but almost no extra omega-6s as we’re getting more than enough of them already. If you decide to use a supplement, check with your doctor first, and choose those made by reputable companies who certify that their products are free of heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium. The best way to be sure you’re getting enough of the right omega oils is to switch to a more ‘Mediterranean’ diet, and include oily fish two or three times a week. Organically produced foods contain higher levels of naturally occurring omega-3s, so this is another reason to choose food that is local, organic, minimally-processed, and in season.
Like most things in life, balance and moderation are the key when it comes to your omega oils!