You may have heard about omega-3s, but what exactly are they? Omega-3 expert Dr Bill Harris explains…
Omega-3s are an essential fatty acid that’s important to your overall health. Found in fish and plant sources, they’re essential for a healthy diet and body, as our body can’t make these fats on their own. Our body can’t produce them naturally so they must be sourced from food.
The two most important omega-3 fatty acids are EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA – docosahexaenoic acid. These are found mainly in fish and other seafoods. A third omega-3, ALA – alpha-linolenic acid, is found in a range of plants foods, most predominantly in flax seeds, soy oil and walnuts. ALA must be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, but this is a very slow process. By including fish and seafoods in your diet two to three times a week, you’ll ensure that your body is getting its required levels of the most important omega-3s.
So what are the top 7 things you need to know about omega-3s?
- Not all fats are created equal
There are the “bad” fats – saturated and trans – which increase the low density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in your blood and your risk of heart disease. The good guys, the “good” fats, which are the polyunsaturated fats of the omega-3 and omega-6 families, help to lower levels of LDL., This means that by including omega-3s and omega-6s regularly in your diet, you’ll be reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death amongst Australians over the age of 44 – a startling statistic.
- Omega-3s can help lower your risk of heart disease in several ways
In addition to improving your blood lipid profile, higher omega-3 intakes in particular can reduce your risk of sudden cardiac death by up to 90 per cent. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids affect heart disease risk in part by reducing inflammation throughout the body. It’s this inflammation which can damage your blood vessels and lead to heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly in high doses (3-4000 mg/day) also decrease triglycerides and lower blood pressure slightly. Omega-3s also reduce the tendency of blood to clot when it shouldn’t, and can help prevent the development of an irregular heartbeat.
- You can eat your way to a healthier heart
By eating foods which have a high level of marine omega-3s (EPA+DHA), you’ll be doing your heart some good. Your best choices include salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, anchovies and tuna. Aim to include these in your diet at least two to three times a week.
If you don’t particularly like fish, or find it difficult to eat it as often as recommended, taking a daily supplement of marine omega-3 fatty acids will increase your tissue levels of EPA+DHA.
- Most people do not get enough omega-3s from their diets
Around 84% of the world’s population is deficient in omega-3s, and many Australians are at risk of sub-optimal levels due to poor dietary choices. Differences in age, weight, gender, diet, lifestyle habits, metabolism, and absorption make it impossible to accurately predict anyone’s omega-3 status. The only way to know your status is to measure it.
- You can supplement if necessary to help reach adequate levels of omega-3s?
The most common way in Western countries to achieve the recommended intakes of 250-500 mg of EPA+DHA per day is to take an omega-3 supplement. There are many varieties, but they may be generally broken down into three categories by original source: fish, krill or algae. All three types can provide significant amounts of EPA+DHA, and they constitute the surest way to guarantee optimal intakes. Remember to always check with your healthcare practitioner to ensure that a supplement is right for you before adding to your diet.
- You can test your omega-3 levels
Want to know whether you have a sufficient amount of omega-3? The Omega-3 Index Test, a simple, self-administered finger prick test, which requires one drop of blood dried on a small collection pad. This pad is sent to a laboratory for analysis, and a report is returned detailing your Index level. Once you know your level, you’ll have the information you require about whether you need to increase your intake of omega-3s.
- The Omega-3 Index is an emerging risk factor heart disease
According Heart Foundation Australia, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a major cause of death in Australia. There are several risk factors for CVD, with the most well-known being high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. These should all be addressed in any global risk reduction regimen. An emerging risk factor for which more and more evidence is accumulating is the Omega-3 Index.
To find out more information about omega-3s, including how you can test your levels, visit www.omega3.net.au
ABOUT DR BILL HARRIS
Dr. Harris is an internationally recognised expert on omega-3 fatty acids and how they can benefit patients with heart disease. He obtained his PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Minnesota, and completed post-doctoral fellowships in Clinical Nutrition and Lipid Metabolism with Dr Bill Connor at the Oregon Health Sciences University.
His interest in omega-3 fatty acids began with his postdoctoral work when he published his first study on the effects of salmon oil on serum lipids in humans (1980). Since that time, he has been the recipient of five NIH grants for studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) on human health. He has over 190 publications relating to omega-3 fatty acids in medical literature and was an author on two American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statements on fatty acids: ‘Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease’ (2002), and ‘Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease’ (2009) both published in the AHA’s flagship journal Circulation.
- Balk EM, Lichtenstein AH, Chung M, Kupelnick B, Chew P, Lau J (2006)- Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on serum markers of cardiovascular disease risk: a systematic review. Atherosclerosis 189:19-30
- Harris WS (1997) n-3 fatty acids and serum lipoproteins: human studies. Am J Clin Nutr 65:1645S-1654S
- http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Fish-101_UCM_305986_Article.jsp#.V238SaLcBRo. Accessed June 24, 2016.
- Superba Krill, A New Beginning for the Omega -3 market, 2016, P3
- Grant R, Guest J, Bilgin A, Morris M, Garg M, Pearce R. Suboptimal Omega-3 Levels in Australian Adolescents. Journal of Child Health and Nutrition. 2013; 2 (4): pp. 309-315.
The Carousel would like to thank Dr Bill Harris for this article.