Fat does not make you ‘fat,’ per se. It is all about which fat you are consuming. Not every fat is bad. The good fats include unsaturated fats, i.e., the monounsaturated fat and the polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats are the healthiest and are found in avocados, olive oil, and different nuts. Whereas, the polyunsaturated fat also comes from plants and animals like vegetable oil, salmon, and nuts. These fats have further two types, i.e., omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are commonly referred to as ‘essential fats.’
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Your body cannot make this type of fat. Notably, the term polyunsaturated refers to their chemical structure. ‘Poly’ means many and ‘unsaturated’ means double bonds. It means that these fatty acids contain many double bonds.
As for ‘omega-3’, it means the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure. The structure includes three carbon atoms from the tail end of the molecular chain or ‘omega.’
Types of Omega-3 fatty acid
Omega-3 fats exist in many types, which depend on the chemical size and shape. There are three main types:
1. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA):
It is a 22-carbon fatty acid and constitutes about eight percent of the brain weight. It is essential for normal brain development and function.
In fact, DHA is a key structural component of retinas of the eyes, the brain, and many other important parts of the body. Therefore, it is used as a supplement for premature babies.
It is also an important ingredient of baby formula for the first four months. It is also present in breast milk, which explains why it is used in formula milk as well.
DHA is known to treat coronary artery disease, type 2 disease, dementia, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It also improves vision, prevents and treats depression, and prevents eye disease called age-related macular degeneration.
Docosahexaenoic acid has proved to be effective in reducing aggression in people in stressful situations. It is usually combined with Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to treat a number of conditions ranging from asthma, cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and several kidney diseases.
DHA is found in animal products like fish oil and fatty fish. Other sources of this fatty acid include eggs, meat, and dairy products from grass-fed animals.
2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA):
It is a 20-carbon fatty acid. Its primary function is to release chemicals named eicosanoids that help relieve inflammation. EPA also helps alleviate the symptoms of depression.
It is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorder.
EPA is also known to decrease irregular heartbeats when combined with DHA. It also reduces pain and swelling along with preventing the blood clotting.
This fatty acid is usually found in coldwater fish, e.g. herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and animal products like fish oil. Some microalgae also contain EPA.
3. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA):
This one is an 18-carbon fatty acid. It can be converted into DHA and EPA.
The human body uses ALA to get energy. It does not offer the same health benefits as EPA and DHA do. However, it still is essential and required for normal human growth and development.
ALA is known for treating and preventing diseases relating to heart and blood vessels. It lowers blood pressure, prevents heart attacks, reverses hardening of the blood vessels, and lowers cholesterol.
Alpha-linolenic acid is also believed to treat multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, renal disease, and skin cancer. It is known to help with a migraine headache and depression as well.
It is found in canola oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and so on.
You should keep in mind that the only way to obtain Omega-3 is from your diet. The best source for this is oily fish, as it is rich in both EPA and DHA. According to the World Health Organization, you should eat at least two portions of oily fish every week.
Why is Omega-3 Important?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of human cell membranes. They perform other functions as well, as it:
1. Improves Heart Health:
Omega-3 fats tend to increase the good HDL cholesterol. Several studies have shown that they can reduce blood pressure, triglycerides, and the formation of arterial plaques.
2. Helps with Weight Loss:
Omega-3 fats are quite helpful in shedding pounds. A number of studies have proved that consuming Omega-3 can even reduce your waist size. These studies bust the myth that fats lead to obesity and other related health risks. It is more about which fat you consume and the quantity you consume.
3. Decreases Liver Fat:
Many studies indicate that taking Omega-3 in your diet can reduce the fat in your liver. You should know that the fatty liver is detrimental to your health.
It is associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and several other disorders marked by insulin resistance. If gone unchecked, it can lead to severe liver disease and other ailments.
Addressing fatty liver is not a difficult task, as you can do that just by adding Omega 3 in your diet and making some other dietary changes.
4. Improves Mental Health:
This polyunsaturated fat can help relieve the symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. According to multiple studies, omega-3 can lower the risk of psychotic disorders for individuals under the risk.
5. Supports Infant Brain Development:
Omega-3 fats are very important for brain development in babies. One study has found that improving maternal DHA nutrition lowers the risk of poor infant/child visual and neural development. The same study concludes that maternal fatty acid nutrition is vital to the transfer of DHA to the infant both before and after birth.
6. Prevents Perinatal Depression:
One study has found that the intake of omega-3 during pregnancy can determine not only the length of gestation but also prevent perinatal depression. In fact, the recommended intake of omega-3 fats for a pregnant woman is at least 200 mg of DHA every day. You can easily achieve this amount by taking in 1 to 2 servings of seafood per week.
7. Fights Inflammation:
This fat type is anti-inflammatory. It means that it can relieve inflammation in your body. It needs to be mentioned here that inflammation contributes to several chronic diseases and therefore, needs to be dealt with.
One study indicates that high intakes of omega-3 decrease the production of inflammatory cytokines, eicosanoids, and reactive oxygen species. Another study has found that omega-3 supplementation can lower the inflammation and anxiety in young adults.
8. Prevents Cognitive Decline:
Evidence has it that people who eat more fish experience a slower decline in brain function when they grow old. Notably, fish is rich in omega-3 fats, which also improve memory in older people.
According to one study, the intake of EPA and DHA can reduce the cognitive decline in older adults. Another study observed that omega-3 supplementation can improve the cognitive performance of healthy 51 to 72 years older individuals. It further suggested that the intake of omega-3 can delay the onset of cognitive decline.
9. Promotes Bone Health:
Consuming omega-3 more can lead to better bone mineral density. One study indicates that high intakes of polyunsaturated fats can reduce and prevent the bone and muscle loss with aging.
Another research links intake of omega-3 can lead to an increase in bone turnover. Moreover, the intake of EPA and DHA are associated with greater bone mineral density in older adults.
So, if you want to avoid fragile, easily-damaged bones when you are old, eat more fish every week.
10. Prevents Asthma:
Omega-3 is believed to treat the symptoms of asthma, especially those arising after exercises, taking certain medication, and consuming a pro-inflammatory diet.
According to one study, this fat type can even prevent asthma in children, when consumed in routine. Furthermore, a deficiency in this fat can lead to chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Therefore, it is necessary to include foods high in omega-3 in your routine diet.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids also belong to the polyunsaturated family of fatty acids. They are different from omega-3, as their last double bond is six carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule.
These fatty acids are also essential, and you can only get them from your diet. They are vital because your body uses them entirely for energy.
Although they are important, excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids can increase inflammation and cause inflammatory disease.
Moreover, the most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid. This acid converts into longer omega-6 fats like arachidonic acid (ARA), which just like EPA, produces eicosanoids.
However, the ARA-produced eicosanoids are more pro-inflammatory. That is the reason excessive intake of omega-6 can lead to inflammatory conditions.
While omega-6 is essential, today’s Western diet contains too much of it and thus, is not good for you. The modern diet contains more omega-6 and lesser omega-3 while the situation should be the other way round.
The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet should be 4:1 or less. But the present-day routine diet contains a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1.
Whatsoever, you should be mindful of your omega-6 intake.
Health Benefits of Omega-6
You do not have to drop omega-6 altogether, as it also entails a lot of health benefits apart from being essential. Some omega-6 fatty acids are believed to relieve the symptoms of chronic disease.
- One variant of omega-6 fatty acid is Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). It is found in oils like borage oil and primrose oil. According to one study, consuming a high dose of GLA supplements reduces the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Another study observed that taking GLA supplements along with the breast cancer drug renders the treatment more effective when compared to the drug alone.
- Another variant of Omega-6 is Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). It also has many health benefits. A large study concluded that consuming 3.2 grams of CLA supplements every day reduces body fat mass in humans.
How can you Get Omega-3 and Omega-6?
You can obtain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from your diet. Here are the foods that contain ample amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fats
Oily fish is the best source of omega-3 EPA and DHA. You can also obtain these fatty acids from other marine sources like algal oils.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another variant of omega-3 fats, which is found in plant sources like nuts and seeds. Other foods containing omega-3s include:
- Salmon: 4.0 grams EPA and DHA
- Sardines: 2.2 grams EPA and DHA
- Mackerel: 3.0 grams EPA and DHA
- Anchovies: 1.0 grams EPA and DHA
- Walnuts: 2.5 grams ALA
- Flaxseeds: 2.3 grams ALA
- Chia seeds: 4.9 grams ALA
While there is no official standard for daily omega-3 intake, several organizations prescribe guidelines. The adequate intake of omega-3s per day is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women for adults aging 19 years and over, as per the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine.
Foods Rich in Omega-6 Fats
Omega-6 fats are aplenty in refined vegetable oils and foods cooked in vegetable oils. Nuts and seeds are the other primary sources of these fatty acids. These foods also contain omega-6:
- Corn oil: 49grams
- Soybean oil: 50 grams
- Mayonnaise: 39 grams
- Sunflower seeds: 34 grams
- Walnuts: 37 grams
- Cashew nuts: 8 grams
- Almonds: 12 grams
The Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine suggests taking omega-6s every day is 12 grams for women and 17 grams for men for adults aging between 19-50 years.
There are several kinds of fats. Contrary to the popular view, not all fats are detrimental to health. In fact, certain types of fats are necessary for the human body. You should not abstain from consuming all types of fats. Eat the good ones and be mindful of the quantity in which you are consuming them.