Not sure what to believe about the It-word of the day, omega-3? It’s time to separate fact from fiction once and for all.
Omega-3 is one of the buzzy terms we hear often, but there is a lot of conflicting information out there, which results in many misconceptions about it. We spoke to Chua Kay Tse, naturopath health educator and senior education manager at Blackmores, to give a run-down on everything you need to know about this fatty acid, and debunk some myths surrounding this essential nutrient.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a family of fatty acids essential for overall well-being, especially the health of our heart, brain, joints and eyes. They are an important component of cell membranes, which support smooth cellular communication within our bodies. Like polyunsaturated fats, they also help to lower cholesterol levels and protect us from heart diseases.
There are three main types of omega-3s: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in marine fish such as herring and salmon, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which are found primarily in plants. ALA, which can be found in foods such as kale, spinach, soybeans, walnuts, and many seeds, such as chia and flax, is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in your diet. However, it needs to be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be utilised by your body for something other than energy. The conversion process from ALA is usually inefficient in humans, which means we need to derive these fats from our diet or through supplements.
What are the health benefits of omega-3s?
Research has shown that omega-3s (EPA and DHA) may help maintain healthy blood pressure and reduce triglyceride (a type of fat found in the blood) levels within the body. High triglyceride levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease and other conditions. It can also reduce chronic inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease, cancer and various other diseases.
Omega-3s (EPA and DHA) are also beneficial for the brain: Studies show that omega-3s may improve cognitive function amongst adults, support healthy fetal brain development during pregnancy and improve joint functions. DHA is also an important nutrient for the cells in the eyes.
However, do note that desirable results for the above-mentioned conditions may be achieved only when sufficient amounts are consumed. Do visit your healthcare professional to discuss the safety of use and appropriate doses.
What are some misconceptions about omega-3s?
Myth 1: Omega-3s are fats and therefore make us fat
This is a concept that’s been floating around for the longest time. But the truth is, not all fats are made equal. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are essential fatty acids that our bodies need for regular brain function and cell growth.
Also, fat itself doesn’t cause weight gain. Consuming too many calories, whatever the source, does. In fact, even though fat does contain more calories per gram, it is more satiating than carbohydrates, thus curbing our appetite and stopping us from going for seconds.
The bottom line is, fats do not necessarily make us fat. Cutting out fats in an effort to lose weight, especially essential omega-3 fats, is only going to be counter-productive.
Myth 2: Omega-3 only benefits the heart
Omega-3 is widely recognised for its benefits to heart health, but not only that, it can also fight depression and anxiety, chronic inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune diseases.
And because DHA makes up 40 per cent of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain and 60 per cent in the retina of the eye, it improves cognitive function and eye health, guarding against mental decline and macular degeneration as we age.
Pregnant or nursing mothers also have a lot to gain from omega-3s. Their babies require these essential fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, for better brain development and function, reduced risk of asthma and respiratory tract infections.
Myth 3: I eat fish, so I don’t need omega-3/fish oil supplements
In an ideal world, we would all get the nutrients we need from our food. But in some cases, when we either don’t get enough omega-3 from our diet (more common in the case of vegetarians or vegans), or our bodies can’t absorb it (for instance, pregnant mothers experiencing morning sickness), supplements may be required.
The Australian Heart Foundation recommends that we eat at least two to three servings of fish per week, which is equivalent to around 250-500 mg of marine-sourced omega-3s per day. However, many Singaporeans today struggle to eat well-balanced, healthy diets due to their hectic schedules. If you think that you’re not getting enough nutrients from your diet, do consider taking fish oil supplements to complement your diet.
A daily dose of 500 mg of EPA and DHA is required for adults to reduce their risk of coronary heart disease, and twice that amount to slow the development of cardiovascular disease. For pregnant or nursing mothers, 700 mg per day is necessary, and 1,000 mg or more a day is essential for adults with other health conditions such as high blood pressure or high triglyceride levels.
Note: Always consult your doctor about the optimal amount of DHA and EPA omega-3s for you before taking any supplements.
Myth 4: All fish are equally nutritious
Due to natural environments, some types of predatory/large fish (i.e. which are at the top of the food chain), such as king mackerel and shark, contain higher levels of mercury, which may pose harm to an unborn baby or young child’s nervous system. It is therefore recommended to consume smaller fish such as sardines.
Similarly, when choosing fish oil supplements, do check and ensure that they are sourced from small fishes. One great example is the Blackmores Omega Daily, which is produced from sardines and anchovies.
Salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring contain some of the highest amounts of EPA and DHA, so load up on your weekly dose of omega-3 or, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, maybe it’s time to turn to supplements.
Myth 5: All omega-3s are the same
Unfortunately, not all omega-3s are equal. As far as omega-3 sources go, fish comes out tops because of the type of omega-3s it contains.
To recap, the three main types of omega-3s are ALA, DHA, and EPA. EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in marine foods such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and anchovies. These omega-3s play a crucial role in developing and maintaining heart, brain and eye health throughout our lives.
ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid typically found in plant-based foods such as walnuts and flax seeds. Our bodies convert it into EPA and DHA, but only a small percentage of it gets converted.
Therefore, in order to get enough DHA and EPA, we need to consume EPA and DHA-fortified foods and take omega-3 supplements.
Myth 6: It doesn’t matter how the fish is cooked; we will still obtain omega-3s
Deep-frying or pan-frying your fish, which consist of mainly polyunsaturated fatty acid, can destroy the omega-3 content. As such, do select other cooking methods such as steaming, baking and grilling.
Alternatively, you can also consume raw fish such as sashimi.
Myth 7: All fish oil supplements are the same
You’re recommended to read the product labels before purchasing fish oil supplements, as they come in varying concentrations and qualities. Choose products which clearly states the EPA and DHA concentrations and check that they are made under strict regulated manufacturing practices.
Also, do check the expiry date and ensure that the capsules smell fresh as polyunsaturated oil, such as omega-3 fatty acids are highly prone to oxidation and can go rancid, which may make them potentially harmful to health.