Omega-3's: A Closer Look at these Fishy Fats

Posted on Monday, September 21st, 2015

Written by Megan Scarth, AHN Student

Omega-3s are often touted for their health benefits — in fact, they’re one of the most common “good fats” that people often refer to. Omega-3 capsules are the third most-used dietary supplement, outpaced only by general multivitamins and calcium pills. But what exactly are omega-3s, and why do we need them?

If you’ve taken biochemistry, you may remember that omega-3s are a classification of fatty acids where a double bond is found at the third carbon from the end of the chain. Since they contain a double bond, they are also a type of unsaturated fat. In this case, they are monounsaturated because they just contain a single bond. (Remember that“mono” often refers to “one”).

Many of their proposed health benefits stem from the fact that omega-3s are known as “essential fats”. Similarly to the essential amino acids, these types of fats are“essential” because the human body cannot produce them on its own; therefore, we need to consume them in our diets instead.

So where can we get omega-3s? There are three main types of omega-3 fats, which come from different sources. The first two are called eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA), which both come from fish. These types of omega-3s are more easily usable by the body. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is more commonly found in our diets, and is most abundant in walnuts, flaxseeds, leafy vegetables, and grass-fed meats. ALA fats are not used as readily by the body, and need to be consumed in much higher amounts to have comparable benefits.

These benefits can be linked to the correlation of consuming omega-3 fats and decreased inflammation. Thus, omega-3s have been shown to reduce risk factors for many types of inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s have also been shown to help mitigate arrhythmia, which is when the heart beats irregularly and can often lead to heart attacks. Additionally, studies have found the consumption of omega-3s to be linked with decreased blood pressure and improved function of blood vessels.

Some of the benefits of omega-3s remain controversial, however. For example, a double-blind study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 enlisted 12,513 participants, and gave half 1g of fish oil, and the other half 1g of olive oil. After following up in a median of five years’ time, the study found no relation between the consumption of fish oil and a decrease in death or hospital visits.

Even more recently, a study published in August 2015 in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that omega-3s did not, in fact, prevent cognitive decline in the elderly, as had been previously hypothesized. This study was notable for being one of the largest thus far to investigate this claim, having been conducted over five years with over 4,000 participants.

So it’s still unclear whether those daily fish oil tablets will prevent an early death, but adding some more omega-3s to your diet certainly can’t hurt, especially in natural form. For better health, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week. Interestingly, more recent studies suggest that other nutrients in fish acting in conjunction with the omega-3s may be the main drivers of these health benefits, but more research is needed. Regardless, these types of fats are called “essential” for a reason, and their sources can make tasty additions to any diet.

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