Omega-3 (n-3) fats are talked about all the time by health professionals, but how much do we actually know about them?
We don’t hear much about their counterparts, the omega-6 (n-6) fats, which are equally important. In this post I will be talking about the omega fats, their impact on the body and how to maintain a healthy balance of the two through your diet.
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and are known as Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) because they can be obtained only by way of the diet. This in itself suggests the importance of paying attention to these nutrients.
What are the types of PUFAs?
As mentioned earlier, n-3 and n-6 fatty acids can not be synthesised by the body and therefore must be obtained from the diet. The precursor to n-3 fats, namely Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is alpha linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is converted to EPA and DHA in the body. While EPA and DHA can be obtained through the diet, they are found in relatively few foods, like oily fish, organ meats and algae. ALA on the other hand is found in green leafy vegetables, avocados, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds.
Linoleic acid (LA) is the precursor to n-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid (AA) and is found in a wide range of foods including corn, soybean and safflower oil which are consumed in large quantities. Due to this reason, it has been found that most people have a higher n-6 intake than they do n-3.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids perform several functions in the body, and therefore it is ideal to have a balanced intake of these nutrients to promote good health.
What do they do in the body?
Cells and Nerves
Both omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs perform several important functions in the body. They are part of the cell membrane and affect the permeability and fluidity of the structures. They play an essential role in cell division, repair and growth. This includes growth, repair and development of hair, skin and bones. Being a part of the nervous system, these fatty acids are responsible for protecting the nerves and enabling connectivity of the nerve synapses.
EPA and AA are converted to hormone like compounds known as eicosanoids, which help regulate inflammation and processes of the immune system. In response to an injury or stress Omega-6 are converted to eicosanoids, which have pro-inflammatory effects. On the other hand, EPA has the opposite effect (anti-inflammatory) and largely inhibits the conversion of eicosanoids derived from Omega-6 fats. Due to this action, Omega-3s may have beneficial effects against inflammatory diseases like asthma, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease to name a few.
EPA and DHA also prevent the production of immune proteins which cause inflammation as a result of stress, seen in serious disease conditions or trauma.
DHA and AA are found in high concentrations in the brain. They make up 20% of fatty acid components in the brain. DHA is responsible for brain development, function and transferring signals between neurons.
DHA is also present in the retina of the eye and helps in development of the retina and good eye sight.
Due to the ubiquitous nature on Omega-6s in food selection, there is often a disparity in its ration with Omega-3 fats.
How can the balance be achieved?
Since there is a dearth of Omega-3 rich foods, it is highly recommended to make a conscious effort to improve intake of foods rich in EPA, DHA and ALA. Marine sources have been found to have desirable properties in this regard (bring on the algae!).
Being aware of the greater access to Omega-6 fats in the diet and the resulting inflammatory damage is essential. This is of particular concern to people who have a very low Omega-3 intake. One way to help this situation is by switching to oils like chia, flaxseed and walnut oils for cold preparations like salads. Increasing intake of nuts and seeds is another good option.
While both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids have their benefits, it has been found that maintaining a balance of the two by increasing Omega-3 intake and decreasing that of Omega-6 will enhance health.