Omega refers to how fat families are named and this depends on a carbon counting system. Foods contain fat molecules that are 12 to 22 carbon atoms long. Each carbon is linked to the other just like a bracelet. The beginning of the chain is the alpha side and the end is the omega side. To save time and complications, scientists started to count from the chain’s end – i.e. the omega side – and numbered the fat molecules based on a double-bond arrangement. Therefore, omega-3 is third from the last on the omega side.
It was in the 1920s that the first of many omega-3 fats were discovered. Scientists involved in the discovery found that omega-3 offered many health benefits and they decided to categorize it as a vitamin and originally called it vitamin F, although this newly discovered vitamin was soon forgotten. The reason is not because of its ‘fatty’ status. Vitamins A, D, K and E are all fat-based vitamins. Unfortunately, omega-3 or vitamin F was discovered around the same time as vitamin E. With all the excitement and buzz surrounding vitamin E, vitamin F was forgotten. Since its discovery, it took 50 years for the first signs of omega-3 deficiency to be spotted.
Different Categories of Omega-3
Just as there are multiple types of vitamin B – e.g. vitamin B12, B6, B9 – there are different types of omega-3 fatty acids too. The two major sources are got from plants and fish. Each of these types gives different benefits and affects the body in different ways. To gain all the benefits of omega-3, human beings must consume sufficient quantities from both sources.
Here is a breakup of omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega parent – essential fatty acid
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Omega potent kids – biological power brokers
ALA is considered the parent of fatty acids and all omega-3 fatty acids are said to originate from it. ALA is a short-chain acid and comes under the polyunsaturated category and the main source is through plant-based foods. The omega potent kids EHA and DHA are both long-chain fatty acids and fish is the best source. These two acids also come under the polyunsaturated category.
All fats are categorized as saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are unhealthy for humans as they clog arteries and result in high cholesterol. Unsaturated fats have 2 categories – monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are considered healthier than saturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have a pair of carbon atoms that do not get saturated with hydrogen atoms. Olive oil is the main dietary source of monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) on the other hand contain 2 pairs of carbon atoms that do not get saturated with hydrogen atoms. Depending on the number of carbons, these acids can be classified as short chain or long chain. Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fat and has both long and short-chain acids. The effect of polyunsaturated fat found in omega-3 has a positive effect on health and overall functioning of the body.
How is Omega-3 taken?
The body needs all the 3 key omega-3 fats – ALA, DHA and EPA. ALA is the short-chain acid and the body requires at least 2,200mg / day. Best plant sources of ALA are flax meal, flax oil, green leafy vegetables, hemp nut seeds and oil, dried beans like pinto, canola oil and kidney beans. You must be careful when consuming ALA rich foods such as walnut oils and walnut that contain high amounts of omega-6. Soybean oil rich in ALA but also contains very high levels of omega-6 and should be avoided.
A person requires a combined dosage of 650mg of the long-chained omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The intake also depends on the person, for pregnant and breastfeeding women need 300mg of DHA, while a normal adult requires 220mg at least of both DHA and EPA. Those with a heart disease must have 1000mg of both the long-chain acids. Fatty fish, cold water fish like mackerel, halibut, salmon, tuna, sardines and herring, seaweeds, fish oils, and fortified foods are some of the good food sources of EPA and DHA.
Vegetarians have negligible levels of EPA and DHA in their body and high levels of omega-6 fatty acids that are not healthy. While consumption of dairy products and egg can help a bit, strict vegetarians have a problem. These people can try taking omega-3 supplements made from algae and sea vegetables that contain EPA and DHA.
Fish oil supplements taken depend on the ratio of DHA and EPA ratios. The common ratio is 180mg EPA: 120mg DHA. Vegetarians need the ALA derived from flax and other sources to be converted to EPA and DHA. This conversion is not very effective and hence pure vegetarians often suffer from omega-3 deficiency. It is essential that omega-3 supplements are bought from established companies with certified products.
Research indicates that food source of omega-3 are better absorbed by the body rather than supplements. For example, a Norwegian research study compared 71 volunteers who consumed 14oz of fish / week that provided 1.2g omega-3, against those who took 3 teaspoons of cod liver oil capsules that provided 3g omega-3 per day. Even though the supplement provided more amount of omega-3, blood levels of this nutrient was higher in those eating fish rather than those consuming the supplement.
Omega 3 fatty acids were overlooked for quite some time but today their benefits to our health are well known. Thus it is absolutely important to take an Omega 3 rich diet and we do with vitamins and minerals.