It wasn’t so long ago that fats were almost a swear-word in nutrition circles, as it was well accepted that a high fat intake could cause heart disease. Thankfully, more and more research is emerging to refute these claims, with growing evidence indicating just how important fat is as part of a healthy diet.
Although the public are becoming savvier when it comes to nutrition, there is still some confusion when it comes to fats. In this article, we are going to explore the benefits of a group of fats known as the omegas, uncovering what they can do for the health of the body and mind.
What Are the Omega Fats?
The omegas are a family of unsaturated fats that are unique thanks to their chemical structure. Without going into too much detail, the omega number depends on where the first carbon double bond occurs. So omegas 3s have their first double bond at the 3rd carbon, whereas omega 6 fats have their first at the 6th. Although there are various omega fats, we are going to focus on the three most important groups for health – 3, 6 & 9.
Omega 3 Fats
The omegas 3s are widely regarded as the most important of the group, given the weight of research indicating their importance. These essential fats can be separated into two groups – the ones from fish, and the ones from plants. Foods such as walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds provide appreciable amounts of Alpha Linolenic Acid, otherwise known as ALA. On the other hand, marine foods such as salmon, mackerel and fresh tuna are fabulous sources of the EPA and DHA omega fats.
The body does have the ability to create EPA and DHA from ALA, but this process yields such a small amount that scientists believe it is essential for good health that we obtain EPA and DHA from the diet. This is why health enthusiasts are always preaching the importance of oily fish, with most government guidelines recommending at least one portion weekly.
Benefits of Omega 3 Fats
The omegas 3s are arguably best known for their heart health benefits. When a medical expert assesses someone’s cardiovascular health, they will typically look at cholesterol levels and blood pressure as key markers. All of the omega 3 fats have been shown to increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol and lower LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides.
Similarly, these polyunsaturated fats have also been shown to reduce blood pressure. Around a third of adults in the western world are thought to have high blood pressure, which is to blame for 50% of cardiovascular disease and 75% of all strokes.
The omega 3 fats are also known to possess powerful and natural anti-inflammatory properties. Specific to heart health, this decreased inflammation helps to prevent plaque build-up in the arteries known as atherosclerosis.
Their anti-inflammatory properties are also why the omega 3s fats, especially the ones from fish, are so potent at reducing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In a similar vein, the plant derived ALA has been shown to reduce inflammation in the airways of asthma sufferers.
Have you ever heard of fish referred to as “brain food”? I am sure you have. This phrase has come from the masses of research that has shown that DHA in particular is crucial for healthy brain function. DHA is known to be vital for the structure of neurons, which allows effective neurotransmission in the brain.
On a similar level, a good intake of the omega 3 fats has been shown to help various aspects of mental health, with research showing the benefits to depression. Interestingly, they have been shown to work well alongside medication typically prescribed for depressive symptoms.
Again, DHA specifically is well-known to protect eye health. This is thought that DHA maintains capillary health, limits inflammation and supports the function of the optic nerve.
In short, ensuring you have a good intake of omega 3 is one of the best things you could do for health. For the mentioned benefits, research suggests 250mg of EPA and DHA per day should be aimed for.
Just like the omega 3s, the omega 6s are a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are deemed essential to our health, and as the body cannot create them, must be supplied through the diet. There are several different omega 6 fats, with the main one being Linoleic Acid. Arachidonic Acid (AA), Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) and Dihomo-Gamma-Linolenic Acid (DGLA) make up the rest.
The omega 6 fats have gained some negative press recently, given that they can promote inflammation. However, it must be noted that inflammation is a natural response to help us stay healthy and fight pathogens. It is chronically high levels of inflammation which are the problem. In moderate amounts the omega 6 fats are health promoting, especially when complemented by a regular intake of the omega 3s.
Benefits of Omega 6 Fats
The omega 6 fats, especially linoleic acid, are crucial for the health and integrity of cell membranes, to let nutrients diffuse in and out of the cells effectively. The omega 6 fats also have a crucial role in the balance of inflammation. Even though AA can form compounds known as prostaglandins that can cause blood clotting, they can also create potent anti-inflammatory agents.
One of the omega 6 fats that has received the most attention is GLA. This nutrient is revered for its anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown in research to combat various conditions including eczema, dermatitis, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, researchers have seen mechanisms that suggest anti-cancerous properties.
GLA is particularly popular with adult women as its mechanisms in the body have been known to restore the balance of hormones that can be disturbed during the menopause. Hot flashes, mood alterations and sleep disturbances are also issues that have been improved with an increased GLA intake.
Although the body can make small amounts of GLA this decreases with age. Also, the benefits as shown in the published research have used higher amounts than the body can create at any life stage. GLA is supplied to infants in high amounts in breast-milk, but for adults, the only food options are blackcurrants and spirulina (a type of algae). Due to the lack of food sources, supplements represent a viable and convenient option.
Oil from the evening primrose is one of the best sources of GLA, so supplements are typically derived from these sources. If you are interested in GLA supplementation, look for products which have used cold-press techniques which extract the oils while preserving their delicate nutrients.
Unlike certain omega 3 and 6 fats, omega 9s are not deemed essential in the diet, because the body can create a sufficient amount to survive. However, that doesn’t mean we can create enough to thrive and therefore a good dietary intake of omega 9 is widely accepted to be important.
If we asked 100 people what they thought constituted a typical Mediterranean diet, most of them would likely mention olive oil. Like oily fish, olive oil is famed for its cardio-protective properties. Although olive oil contains polyphenols such as hydroxytyrosol, which is known to have a variety of benefits, experts are convinced that the omega 9 fat known as oleic acid is a key player in olive oils impact on health. For reference, the fats in olive oil are 75% oleic acid.
Benefits of Omega 9 Fats
Out of the three main omega groups, the omega 9s have been subject to the least amount of research. That being said, there have been numerous positive findings which mirror certain benefits of the other omega fats.
As earlier mentioned, olive oil and therefore oleic acid is a big component of the heart healthy Mediterranean diet. Research has shown that a diet high in oleic acid can lower blood pressure and improve good cholesterol in as little as a month. With the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are two of the eight risk factors for heart disease, those looking to protect the health of the body’s most important organ should look to regularly include olive oil in their diet.
Aside from the cardiovascular benefits, oleic acid is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to protect the blood vessels and also decrease the risk of diabetes, which can be partially caused by inflammatory factors that are released from fat-tissue.
Free radicals are unstable molecules that can enter the body, or can be a by-product of metabolism. They can cause damage to various areas of the body, but mainly cell membranes. Oleic acid has been shown to stabilize these free radicals and protect the cells. Researchers believe this could be one of the reasons why this monounsaturated fat has consistently shown have a role in healthy cognitive function, similar to DHA.
Hopefully now it is clear to see why the omega fats are so important to health and should make a significant contribution to a healthy diet. For good health, the research has shown that maintaining a good ratio of the omega fats is important. This is best achieved by limiting vegetable oils and processed foods that are very high in omega 6 and having a diet rich in oily fish, nuts and olive oil. This is one of the reasons why nutritionists and dieticians recommend a Mediterranean-style diet for health and longevity. If the diet is not sufficient, there are a select few nutrients that can be supplemented with to compensate for any shortcomings.