You’ve most likely heard of omega oils as a ‘good thing’ but do you know if you are getting enough of the right type and from the right sources? Like many areas of nutrition, research on omega oils has its fair share of contention and confusion. That’s fine for nutritionists and academics but where does that leave you? This week I’ve created a summary of the latest information on omega oils so you can make an informed choice.
What are omega oils?
Omega 3 and omega 6 are families of polunsaturated, essential fatty acids. There are two versions: long-chain and short-chain versions – with the long chain versions providing more health benefits to our bodies.
Omega-3 or omega-6?
The right balance of omega 3 and omega 6 acids is essential to the healthy functioning of many parts of the body. Omega 3 acids are useful for their anti-inflammatory and heart disease prevention properties and omega 6 acids help lower blood cholesterol and maintain the skin.
Western diets contain very little omega 3 fatty acid because the process used to make fats in food last longer (hydrogenation) strips out the omega 3. Most of us need not worry about getting enough omega 6 as we consume about 8 times more omega 6 than omega 3 in our diets (mainly through vegetable oils that contain linoleic acid). We really should be aiming for a roughly equal portions. In fact, because omega 3 and omega 6 oils compete in our body to be ‘taken up and used’, many of us would benefit from limiting our omega 6 intake in order to give the more beneficial omega 3 fatty acids a better chance of being metabolised. The myth that vegetable oils (rich in omega 6 fats) are healthier for you than saturated animal fats has been around for ever, an example being we were told to replace butter with margarine. But dietary advice about fats and the risk to heart disease has been questioned on bmj.com. A clinical trial shows that replacing saturated animal fats with omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable fats is linked to an increased risk of death among patients with heart disease. An in-depth analysis from the Sydney Diet Heart Study conducted from 1966 to 1973 from the US and Australia recovered the original data, and using modern statistical methods, they compared the death rates from cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, as well as all-cause mortality. Their analysis involved 458 men aged 30-59 years who had had a coronary event, such as a heart attack or an episode of angina. Participants were randomly divided into two groups,” BMJ writes. “The intervention group was instructed to reduce saturated fats (from animal fats, common margarines and shortenings) to less than 10 percent of energy intake and to increase linoleic acid (from safflower oil and safflower oil polyunsaturated margarine) to 15 percent of energy intake. Safflower oil is a concentrated source of omega-6 linoleic acid and provides no omega-3 PUFAs.”
The control group received no particular dietary advice and was allowed to eat whatever they wanted. Both groups kept food diaries for an average of 39 months. The results showed that:
• The omega-6 linoleic acid group had a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease during the study period, compared with 11 percent among the control group (those who did not receive any particular dietary advice)
• The omega-6 group also had a higher risk of all-cause mortalitWhat are the benefits?
The respected Mayo Clinic in the US cite strong clinical evidence for omega 3 helping with high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, infant eye and brain development, inflammation, heart disease, Chrohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. There is also early stage evidence to suggest that omega 3 plays a beneficial role in reducing the risk of certain cancers, angina, asthma, dementia, depression, osteoporosis and age-related macular degeneration (eyesight) and in improving attention deficit disorders in children.
Are there any risks?
Although there is an overwhelming amount of research to suggest that omega 3 helps in the prevention of heart disease, there is anecdotal evidence that people already suffering from heart disease; those with diabetes and those taking a daily blood thinning agent such as warfarin or aspirin should consult their GP for advice on supplement dosages.
In principle it is fine for pregnant women to take omega-3 but they should avoid supplements that also contain vitamin A (added to to help the absorption of the fatty acid) as large amounts of vitamin A are harmful to unborn babies. Instead pregnant women are advised to eat two
portions of oily fish (mackerel, salmon, tuna steaks, anchovies, herring etc) a week to gain their omega oils which help the development of brain tissue, nerve growth and the retina in unborn babies. Before starting to take any supplement it is wise to consult your GP.
Minor potential side effects of fish oil supplements include nausea, diarrhoea and belching. These can be minimised by taking the supplements with food and by starting with a low dosage and gradually building up to your recommended dosage. Of interest, poorer quality Omega 3 tends to cause these symptoms, and the person ingesting them will often get “fishy burps”. If this is the case the omega 3 oil is more than likely oxidised or “off” so try another brand of omega 3!
How much omega 3 do I need?
There is no Food Standards Agency recommended daily amount of omega 3 but the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommend eating a MINIMUM of 0.45g (450mg) per day or 3g (3,000 mg) a week of long-chain fatty acids. When looking at the levels on supplement packaging remember that 1000mg (milligrams) equals 1g (gram).
What foods contain omega 3?
Oily fish are the best source of long-chain omega 3 (think fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, kippers, salmon, trout, anchovies and herring). Seeds, nuts and leafy green vegetables (eg, soya, hemp, flax and pumpkin seeds; walnuts; broccoli and cabbage) contain are also sources of omega 3 but they contain the less beneficial shorter chain versions of the fatty acids.
Some spreads, juices and milk now have added omega 3 but you still need to keep track to ensure you are getting enough of your recommended intake. The consumer group Which? point out that in ‘omega- 3 enriched’ juice containing 0.03g per 100ml of omega oil from fish oil, you’d need to drink 1.5 litres a day to get the advised amount! Most of you by now, know of my personal view of fruit juices and milk, so just take the omega 3 in a natural form, as opposed to a nutrient added to something else.
To supplement or not to supplement?
In an ideal world we would all get the right amount of nutrients from a balanced diet. However, back in the real world, I recognise that most people will not eat their minimum of two to four portions of oil fish per week (and there is the issue of heavy metal pollutants in our fish) so I would recommend regularly taking omega 3 (but not omega 6) supplements. Refined fish oil supplements do not contain heavy metal pollutants.
There has recently been controversy in the US regarding cod liver oil supplements – mainly surrounding disputes over the balance of vitamin A and D required to absorb the long chain fatty acids. However, there are excellent fish oil and krill oil supplements available that bypass the confusion over added vitamins. Note that vegetarian sources of omega 3 only contain the less beneficial short-chain versions and so the fish-derived supplements are superior.
Remember that in addition to treating nerve, joint, bone and muscle problems, chiropractically trained individuals are trained in providing sound lifestyle, diet and exercise advice to bring you back to your optimum health levels.