Talk to a biochemist and they will tell you that omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. That means that it is a type of fat with a distinctive chemical structure consisting of double molecular bonds. The name omega 3 refers to the distance between the tail of the molecular chain and the last of these double bonds; three carbon atoms. Talk to a nutritionist on the other hand, and they will tell you that omega 3 is an ‘essential’ fatty acid. This means that bodies cannot make omega 3 and therefore it must be sourced from the foods we eat.
Why you need omega 3 in your diet
Our bodies rely on a complex balance of organic compounds to fuel the many chemical reactions and organic processes that keep us alive and functioning. Omega 3 plays a role in some pretty fundamental physical functions. These include:
- Generating energy.
- Creating hormones that control inflammation, blood clotting and the function of arteries.
- Keeping our immune systems, hearts and lungs fully functional.
- Regulating the amount of fats in circulation.
- Keeping our joints flexible and free from pain.
- Building the membranes of every cell and controlling the ways our nerves connect to these.
- Promoting cardiovascular health
It doesn’t get much more fundamental than that. Researchers have linked omega 3 deficiencies over a prolonged period to a host of ailments, some potentially life-threatening. These include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Myocardial infarction (heart attacks)
- Brain ischemia (strokes)
- Alzheimer’s Disease
Exactly how much omega 3 is optimal for health remains an open question. A number of guideline amounts have been suggested but nutritionists do not yet agree on which is the most accurate.
Is omega 3 found in all fish?
There are three forms of omega 3: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish is the principal source of the latter two. In any list of foods rich in omega 3, you will find a remarkable number of oily fish, including:
Traditional food supplement cod liver oil could be added to the above list because this nutrient-rich product is made exactly as the name suggests: from the liver of cod fish. All these fish contain high levels of other vitamins and minerals too – so much so that doctors recommend eating oily fish at least twice a week.
What other types of food contain omega 3?
But what if you don’t like fish? Or you are a vegan committed to a lifestyle free from animal produce of any kind? Just how do you get omega 3 without fish? Thankfully, there are other options. Let’s take a look at some:
- Green leafy vegetables
In addition to their other health benefits, many green leafy vegetables contain a good level of omega 3. Examples include spinach, sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli.
Walnuts are noted for their high omega 3 content; more than two grams per ounce. They also offer healthy fibre, copper, manganese and vitamin E.
This popular snack also contains high levels of omega 3, along with vitamins, minerals, nutritious fibre, and plant protein. Unsalted peanuts are healthiest.
- Flax seeds
Flax seeds are so high in omega 3 that flax seed oil is routinely used as a dietary supplement. You will find more than seven grams of omega 3 in every tablespoon of flaxseed oil.
- Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are another great source of this essential fatty acid. They are also packed with other valuable nutrients such as calcium, beta-carotene, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B9 (folate) and fellow essential fatty acid omega 6.
Another familiar supermarket staple, especially for vegetarians and vegans. Half a measuring cup of soya will provide a generous six to seven grams of omega 3, alongside magnesium, potassium and a dose of vitamins B2, K and folate.
- Meat from grass-fed animals
This provides a further fish-free source of omega 3, albeit one not suitable for vegetarians. The type of omega 3 provided by plant sources is alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. This is distinct from EPA and DHA (see above), which both have a longer molecular chain. Our bodies can convert ALA, first into EPA and then into DHA. This conversion is complex and requires a precise balance of nutrients to fuel the conversion – so consuming EPA and DHA directly from fish is a much more efficient way to benefit our health. Overconsumption of omega 6 also hinders this process. This means that an over-reliance on plant sources can lead to an overall deficiency in omega 3. So it is important to eat a carefully balanced diet, and use dietary supplements if you are vegan, vegetarian or don’t eat fish on a regular basis. Long chain fatty acids like EPA and DHA reduce inflammation and benefit heart health but ALA does not.
How to find out if you have healthy levels of omega 3
Could symptoms you have been experiencing be related to your omega 3 levels? A registered nutritionist may be able to provide advice or refer you for blood testing. But the waiting lists for such services can be long. If you’d rather not wait, there are kits available that will enable you to take an omega 3 and 6 test at home, in your own time. Take a blood sample using a simple pin prick method and send in your sample. This will receive a full laboratory analysis and you will receive your results in just a few days. Your report – accurate and accessible – will enable you to fine-tune your diet and balance your intake of essential omega 3 fatty acids, receiving a reassuring boost to your health and wellbeing.
Written by Bev Walton, BSc Nutritional Science
I achieved a First-Class Honours degree in BSc Nutritional Science, Nutrition Sciences from the University of Reading and now have over 35 years experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for magazines and websites as well as ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I’m also a proud member of the Guild of Food writers.