Just how important are essential fatty acids? Maybe even more valuable than a daily multi.
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Not that long ago, it was believed a low-fat diet was the key to good health. This led to an onslaught of low-fat processed foods, which really wasn’t such a good idea, as scientists have confirmed that the low-fat food craze actually made us fatter and sicker.
“We’re a nation of low-fat foods and high-fat people,” concludes Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. “People see low-fat foods as a get-out-of-jail-free card.” There are several reasons why the low-fat food fad hasn’t worked:
People tend to eat more when they eat low-fat, which increases their caloric intake.
Most low-fat foods are highly processed, and those added preservatives, colorings, and flavorings are damaging to our health.
We aren’t getting enough of the right fats, which are vital to our health.
Why You Really Need Fat
The body needs fat to function. Because fat has such a high concentration of calories, it’s a preferred energy source. Fat also cushions and insulates vital internal organs, and provides structure to cell membranes. Fats are also connected to the production of hormones and prostaglandins-hormone-like substances that are key to blood pressure control, efficient muscle contraction, and inflammation modulation.
As you can see, fat serves a variety of important functions. But not just any fat will do. Our cells rely on the right type of fat. Here’s a quick guide to the top two forms of those essential fatty acids (EFAs), omega-3s and omega-6s.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids-something that the average North American diet is severely lacking. The best food sources include fatty fish such as mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, and salmon. Omega-3s are also found in plant oils, nuts, and seeds, as well as many fruits and vegetables.
There are three main types of omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are most readily utilized by the body. ALA is the plant source of omega-3s, which the body converts into EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 EFAs reduce inflammation, which explains why they help prevent arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and other inflammatory conditions. They’re also concentrated in brain tissue, so they can be beneficial in preventing disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as relieving mental health issues including anxiety and depression. Several studies have confirmed that individuals with brain disorders have lower levels of EFAs in their brain tissue.
Research from Canada, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that women experiencing psychological distress and depressive symptoms associated with menopause found relief by taking omega-3 dietary supplements as compared to placebo. The same researchers, who also published their data in the journal Menopause, found that the frequency of menopausal hot flashes was reduced after taking an omega-3 supplement.
While many fish oil supplements are made from sardines and anchovies, they don’t necessarily offer the highest levels of omega-3s. As a rule, the fattier the fish, the more omega-3s-and Atlantic salmon fits the bill perfectly. On average, just 3.5 ounces of Atlantic salmon provides 1.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Raised in the fjords of Norway and along the coasts of Scotland, these salmon are maintained under strict supervision, and provide approximately 15 percent more omega-3s than wild salmon. Atlantic salmon are also rich in vitamin E and astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant.
Don’t overlook calamari-based fish oils: calamari is super rich in DHA, vital for brain and eye health. Krill oil is another option; most krill oil supplements come from Antarctic krill, tiny creatures that have a natural balance of DHA and EPA.
Omega-6 essential fats can be both bad and good. Animal sources of omega-6s, including red meat and eggs, aren’t always great diet choices. But plant sources of the fat, including evening primrose oil, black current oil, and borage oil, are quite healthful.
The real problem is that the North American diet features far more bad sources of omega-6s than good, and far more omega-6s than omega-3s. More than 10,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherer diet consisted of about a 1:1 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. Today, that ratio can be as high as 1:30.
In addition to those mentioned above, more healthful dietary sources of omega-6s include whole-grain breads, nuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seed oil.
Omegas in Oil
Increasing your consumption of essential fatty acids can be accomplished four ways:
- Cooking with EFA-rich oils.
- Eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
- Adding EFA-rich oils to dishes.
- Eating fish twice a week.
The following chart gives you an overview of the omega content of various oils
What Are Omega-9s?
Omega-9, also known as oleic acid, is a monounsaturated fat. It’s not a “true” essential fatty acid because our body has the ability to produce it in small amounts. (The body cannot produce omega-3s and 6s in any amount; these two EFAs can only come from the diet and dietary supplements.) However, if the body doesn’t have enough omega-3s and 6s, it cannot produce omega-9s. So you see, this is truly the trifecta of essential oils-3, 6, and 9.
Because the body can produce some omega-9, we don’t need to get as much from our diet, but it’s still a good idea to get some. The most well-known food source of omega-9 is olive oil, which is the best source of oleic acid available. Avocado and macadamia nut oils are also great sources of omega-9.
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