Qualified clinical nutritionist and naturopath

Many people are confused about omega-3 oils; what they are, what they do, what the best food sources of them are, if we really need to supplement them, what health issues they are good for and how to get them in your diet if you’re vegan, vegetarian or just don’t eat fish. To clear up the confusion and help you get the health benefits from these essential fats, I’ve put together my answers to the 11 most common questions I get asked about omega-3’s.

Why do I need OMEGA-3’s and how do I get them in my diet?

What are omega-3 oils?

The three most important omega-3 oils are ALA (alphalinolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) & DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Each of these omega three fatty acids has different, important roles in the body. The body cannot manufacture them so they are essential in the diet.

Why are fish oils good for me?

Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA.

The importance of omega-3 essential fatty acids in our diets really can’t be underestimated.  They are part of all cell membranes and are what make our cells flexible (and this helps the cells communicate with one another). They are crucial for the function of the brain, nervous system and for healthy vision and they can benefit people with a number of common health issues including cardiovascular disease and age-related memory decline.

Can omega 3’s actually improve the efficiency of the brain?

The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is one of the major building blocks of the brain and is critical for optimal brain and nervous system health, and function, at all stages of life. DHA provides brain benefits in both infants and aging adults. DHA is essential for the proper development of the infant brain. It is also essential for eye health and retina function and may help prevent age-related eye problems.

DHA deficiency has also been linked with many psychiatric disorders such as depression, suicidal behavior, anger and hostility. Some children and young adults with behavioural disorders (exhibiting aggressive and antisocial behaviours) have been shown to benefit from omega-3 supplementation.

DHA may have increased benefits when consumed together with EPA. These include:

may support healthy brain function and promote a positive mood and well-being

may support memory and learning ability including focus and attention

may help to slow the progression of age-related memory loss

For instance, a number of studies have shown that higher intakes of omega-3 oils significantly reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease as well as vascular dementia, and improve quality of life and memory in those affected by dementia.

Are they recommended (to take) in pregnancy?

DHA is essential for brain development of the baby during a healthy pregnancy and, as sufficient DHA for both mother and baby is hard to obtain through diet alone, taking a good quality omega-3 supplement in pregnancy can help to support the growth and development of the foetus.

There is also some evidence to suggest that taking omega-3’s throughout pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding can also help reduce the likelihood of an infant, whose family members have eczema, from developing eczema themselves.

Are omega-3 oils good for the heart?

Yes, omega-3’S have been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular health. Taking supplemental fish oils can help reduce triglycerides in the blood and lower LDL cholesterol. They can also help reduce blood pressure.

How can omega-3’s help the skin?

Supplementing with essential fatty acids can improve the appearance and strength of skin, hair and nails. It can also help reduce dry skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines.

EPA helps to reduce cellular inflammation and in clinic, I’ve found increasing omega 3’s to be very helpful for clients with inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and acne. With a noticeable reduction in redness and inflammation in many cases in just a matter of weeks.

Are fish oil supplements safe to take? Don’t fish contain dangerous levels of mercury?

Unfortunately, many fish are contaminated with mercury these days. The worst affected fish are the larger fish such as tuna, swordfish and shark rather than the smaller fish like salmon, sardines and anchovies. Most companies that make fish oil supplements use species of fish that are lower on the food chain, like sardines, that accumulate less mercury. Reputable supplement companies will take care with where they source their fish from and also put the fish oil through a purification process to remove contaminants such as mercury.

Isn’t it possible to meet omega-3 recommendations through diet alone?

It is, but in truth few people do nowadays. This is mainly due to the industrialisation of farming. The meat from animals reared on farms on grain based diets as opposed to wild animals who have grazed naturally on a range of plant foods have been proven to contain less omega-3. The same is generally true of farmed fish compared to wild fish. Organic farmed fish and meat from animals that spend time outside and eat a more natural diet (organically raised animals, grass fed beef and wild game), have been shown to contain significantly higher amounts of the beneficial omega-3’s than their intensively farmed counterparts which contain virtually none. It’s also worth remembering that the beef and animal products your great grandparents ate would have been organic and grass-fed. There wasn’t any other kind of meat to eat! Processed foods (another modern invention) also tend to contain high amounts of omega-6 due to the fact they often contain highly refined plant oils like soybean and corn oils that contain large amounts of omega-6.

I’ve heard fish oils are good for joints…why is this?

Because omega-3 fatty acids help block the immune system’s inflammation response. Some studies have shown them to be effective as a natural treatment for painful inflammatory disorders such as arthritis.

What are the best food sources of omega-3?

The dark, fatty fish that are high in EPA/DHA include salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, anchovies and sardines. High omega-3 fish obtain their dietary ALA by eating marine phytoplankton and seaweed and then converting the ALA they contain into the more useful forms of EPA and DHA.

However, if you are concerned about the sustainability of consuming fish and possible contamination with PCB’s and mercury, vegetarian sources of omega-3 are another option.

So if I’m vegetarian/vegan/don’t eat fish, how can I get enough omega 3 oils in my diet?

By increasing your intake of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) or plant-derived sources of omega-3. The best sources include flax seeds, flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hemp oil, avocado, walnuts and walnut oil but, these plant foods are virtually devoid of EPA and DHA. You can obtain some DHA directly from consuming algae (like Spirulina) in smoothies or juices or taking algae supplements. However, for the body to truly benefit from omega 3 fats from most plants, short-chain ALA must be converted into long-chain EFA’s EPA and DHA first. The problem is that this conversion doesn’t happen quickly and some people are able to convert more easily than others.

Too much omega-6, from processed foods in the diet, (mainly from the omega-6 rich refined vegetable oils used in these foods) is one of the things that blocks omega-3 conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA. Therefore, regardless of whether you are vegetarian or not, one of the best ways to help your body obtain more DHA and EPA from your diet is to eat mostly natural, unprocessed, wild and organic foods at the same time as including plenty of omega-3 rich foods in your diet.

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Zoe's extensive nutritional and lifestyle knowledge greatly helped me to affect tangible heath improvements. Zoe's diet and supplement program provided structure and direction to tackling my health concerns and directly led to a significant reduction in cholesterol. I now feel generally much more alert, healthy and energetic and have a regime that really works for me

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Zoë Palmer–Wright ND, BA (Hons), Ad Dip Nut, Ad Dip Hrb Med

Health and nutrition lecturer @ The College of Naturopathic Medicine in London - 2009-2014

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Disclaimer: All information and advice I share is based upon my own clinical experience, professional training and research. Recommendations are not intended to diagnose or treat any medical conditions. I would always advise going to see a medical professional if you’re concerned about your health.