The time has come for your comprehensive masterclass on everything omega-3. This article will cover the whats, whys, wheres, hows, and everything in between on that pesky fatty acid. If you’re yet to become a sourdough specialist or green-thumbed gardener this lockdown, then we’ve got you covered: just read this and tell everyone you trained as an omegologist*.
We’ll start with the basics: what actually is omega-3?
Well, it’s a group of fatty acids. So what’s a fatty acid? They’re the smaller molecules that regular fats can be broken down into. What’s the point of them? Once they’re broken down, they’re small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and taken around the body to do all their useful things.
Omega-3 contains ‘essential’ fatty acids, which means that the body cannot produce them itself and they have to come from our diet or supplements. On top of that, it’s pretty rare to get a decent amount from a regular diet – and that’s before you cut out the main sources as a vegetarian or vegan. There are too many fatty acids in omega-3 to list, but you’ll see the 3 most abundant ones talked about the most: ALA, EPA and DHA.
There are a lot of ‘facts’ about omega-3 that are thrown around, and some of them smell a bit fishy. Did you think fish was the only source? Think again. Most of these myths are debunked down below, so this is the article for you if you’ve ever heard them!
No time to read all our rambling? No problem. Get the facts quickly here:
- Fish is the only good source? No way Jose! Fish get their omega-3 from algae in the first place, so why not go straight to the source? You can also find it in some nuts, seeds and vegetables.
- All omega-3 fatty acids are equal? Nope! ALA is the most common fatty acid, but it doesn’t do everything you need it to. Look for EPA and DHA, which are much more useful.
- Omega-3 in every fish? Omega-3 is a fat, so white fish won’t be cutting it. It contains some, but if you want a real boost you’ll want oily fish (or our Fish-Free Omega-3 gummies… hint hint, nudge nudge).
- Enough omega-3 in seeds? This is where you’ll find mainly ALA. As low as 0.5% of this gets converted to DHA, so you’d need to be eating more seeds than our feathered friends to top you up.
- Cooked fish = no problem? Not necessarily! Frying in other fats can break down those precious omegas, so stick to baking or steaming instead.
Not all fatty acids are created equal
Okay, it’s time to put on your lab coats and goggles. We’re diving into the deep blue sea of science…
You can think of ALA as a sort of baseline, as it’s technically inactive. This means that in order for the body to make use of it, a process is undertaken to convert it into active molecules of EPA or DHA.
A small proportion of ALA is converted to EPA (between 5 and 20%), and then an even smaller proportion of this EPA (as low as 0.5%) is converted into DHA.
Why should you include it in your diet?
Omega-3 is often overlooked as a supplement, maybe because it doesn’t fit into the vitamin or mineral category, and ‘fatty acids’ don’t sound too tasty – especially with diet culture throwing its weight around… But there’s so much potential wrapped up inside these little molecules!
Some of the benefits are specific to each fatty acid, but generally speaking their most important role is focused around the brain. That makes a lot of sense when you hear that the brain is made up of 60% fat!
This fat is mostly there to support neurons – the cells in the nervous system (brain, spine and nerves) that transmit messages around the body. DHA and EPA are therefore both vital for creating new connections when learning and remembering.
Omega-3 also gives your immune system a boost, helping to protect you not only from viruses and bacteria in the environment but also from autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
Finally, it’s vital for keeping eyes bright, and can even help to prevent some eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration!
ALA is mainly there to be converted into EPA or DHA, but can improve hair and nail health by itself. After that, the leftovers are stored in the body and used in the same way as ‘regular’ dietary fats.
EPA by itself is most notable for improving your mood and helping to fight off anxiety and depression. It’s also a greater anti-inflammatory, meaning that it can fight off chronic illnesses that are related to inflammation such as heart disease or cancer.
DHA is also evidenced to help psychologically, but it’s maybe not quite so potent when it comes to inflammation! However, as DHA is a component of the skin and retina in the eye, it’s more vital in these areas.
DHA is also more strongly associated with blood flow, so it helps to maintain a healthy heart and lower blood pressure, in turn reducing the risk of blood clots and heart attacks. With an abundance of DHA in the brain, there’s an increase in blood flow to the neurons there. This helps them to fire off more quickly, improving concentration and potentially improving the symptoms of ADHD.
Omega-3 for all ages
It’s super important for everyone to get omegas into their diets, but even more so for children and the elderly.
Children’s brains and nervous systems are developing every day as they use their eyes to learn and play, and they need all the help they can get to support this. It’s hard work, growing a brain!
Adequate levels of omega-3 in children also support a healthy immune response (perfect for fighting off those back-to-school colds), and can help them socially by promoting cognitive skills and focus.
In older people, the rate at which the body converts ALA to EPA and DHA slows down, so it’s a good idea to give the body a helping hand and let it skip the first couple of steps so it can get straight to keeping the heart healthy and maintaining those memories. The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 are even more vital for protecting the heart in old age, and there is evidence to suggest that in supporting the brain it can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Omega-3 during pregnancy
Omega-3 is vital during pregnancy for many of the same reasons as it is during childhood. It provides the vital building blocks for the nervous system, immune system and eyesight to develop.
There is also evidence that it plays a role in preventing preterm birth and allowing the foetus to reach a healthy weight, and some studies have shown that it can help to reduce the risk of perinatal depression in the mother.
As there are concerns about the consumption of fish during pregnancy, lots of government health bodies recommend that consumption is limited to two portions per week. This means that no matter what your dietary choices are normally, non-fish oil supplementation is extra important!
Where can you find it?
This all depends on the fatty acid that you’re after.
ALA is the only fatty acid only found in plant food sources. They’re relatively common so it’s easy to get, but it’s not as potent. You can find it in flaxseed/linseed oil, soy beans, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and brussel sprouts.
EPA is more bioactive (usable in the body), and isn’t too hard to get as an omnivore because all kinds of fish are rich in it. As omega-3 is made up of fats, it’s no surprise that oily fish is the strongest source. The thing is, the fish have to have got it from somewhere because they can’t make it themselves just like humans. Read on…
DHA is the most bioactive omega-3 fatty acid, so it’s sod’s law that it’s the hardest to find, too. The sources are limited to fatty fish and algae, but did you know that omega-3 is only found in fish because they directly or indirectly consume algae? The reason the sea smells of ‘fish’ isn’t because of our finned friends: it’s because it’s packed full of marine algae that they munch.
Why it’s important for veggies and vegans to supplement
As you can see from the sources above, us herbivores aren’t exactly well-equipped to deal with deficiencies in the fatty acid department. Slimy seaweed soup, anyone? Didn’t think so. Time for a supplement then. There are loads on the market, but make sure you read the labels carefully to check that they’re certified vegan. Especially if you opt for a capsule, as there are some supplements that use a plant-based oil but put it inside a gelatine-based capsule!
Unfortunately, EPA itself is only found in tiny amounts in plant sources. Some EPA can of course be produced by converting ALA from dietary sources, but if you’re looking for the specific effects of EPA then you’ll want a combination supplement.
The differences between the fatty acids we’ve been through should help you to choose one that’s right for you, but remember that it’s important to maintain a balance.
What about the other omegas?
Whilst omega-3 contains the most difficult fatty acids to obtain in a vegan diet (ALA/EPA/DHA), it is still very healthy to consume plenty of omega-6 and -9.
Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid, but is less likely to be supplemented as it can be found more readily in the diet: walnuts, cashews, almonds, peanuts and peanut butter, tofu, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, and avocados all contain an abundance. It’s also important to take omega-3 alongside consuming omega-6, as the omega-3 balances out the ‘bad’ cholesterol that omega-6 can produce. It also uses the same enzymes for conversion that ALA requires, so if you increase your omega-6 intake then you’ll need to increase your omega-3 intake too.
Omega-9 is classified as a non-essential fatty acid, which means that the body can produce it itself. This means we don’t have to get it from food, but it’s still good to top up! It can be found in many of the same sources as omega-6.
Why choose sustainable?
Humans usually get their omega-3 from eating seafood, but this is riddled with problems. It’s not vegan, it’s full of chemical and metal contaminants, and it’s not sustainable. Fishing nets make up a shocking 46% of ocean plastic pollution, and overfishing is killing off entire species and ecosystems.
When you cut out the middle-man (or middle-fish) and go straight to the source, you save everyone a whole heap of trouble. Marine algae can be sustainably farmed, giving it a low carbon footprint and reducing its impact on the marine environment.
It’s better for you, too. While the algae works its way through the food chain, the fish take up contaminants from the ocean including heavy metals like mercury, which is toxic at high levels.
Not only that, you’ll be able to swallow your sustainable supplements with a smile! When fatty acids are exposed to the air they can oxidise (react and go rancid) which is what causes them to give off that familiar whiff. Our marine algae oil is carefully purified under controlled conditions to prevent oxidation, giving you all the fantastic nutrients and none of the smell or aftertaste.
Our Fish-Free Omega-3 gummies are a great-tasting alternative supplement, and the fish and their ocean will thank you for making the switch.
We asked you guys if you had any questions that you wanted us to make sure we answered in our blog post, and this is what you came up with!
Yes! One study has found that the already-low conversion rate depends on adequate levels of other nutrients, such as copper, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B6 and B7. Some of these, especially iron and zinc, are lacking in a vegan diet. If you want to increase absorption, then look to supplement these metals alongside your omegas. On top of this, as the fats rich in omegas need to be broken down into their fatty acids, it can be beneficial to take a supplement alongside a fatty meal. This tells the body to release more of the molecules (emulsifiers) that break it down, meaning that more is absorbed. Oh, and scroll up to check the interaction of omega-6 too!
Not quite – sometimes they’re used interchangeably, but sometimes a supplement is marketed as an omega-3 supplement even if it only contains ALA. According to legal labelling requirements (in the UK at least), any combination of DHA/EPA/ALA can be presented as an omega-3 supplement. That’s why it’s so important to work out what’s right for you, and check the labels!
Absolutely yes! Scroll back up if you missed it…
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*Not a real word. Maybe don’t risk it or they might worry.