Omega-3s: What are they and why should you care?
Have you heard of omega-3s? Probably. Today you see them everywhere on all kinds of food products advertising ‘rich in omega-3s’. What are omega-3s anyway, and do you really need them? The answer to the second part of that question is, absolutely. But why do we hear about omega-3s all the time? The answer to that is because most people today don’t get enough. Before I get into why that is, let’s look at what they do.
Omega-3s are one type of polyunsaturated fat that are called ‘essential fatty acids’ that you must get from your diet or supplements because your body can not make them. Another type of essential fats are the omega-6s. What is very important is the ratio that you get between omega-3s and omega-6s. You really need to be eating these in about the same amounts for your body to function optimally.
This is because these two types of fats have opposing functions and compete with each other in many physiological processes. For example omega-6s lead to inflammatory reactions, needed to turn your immune system into high gear when it detects and infection and omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, needed to turn the immune response off when it’s done. So these are kind of like the yin and yang of your physiology and must be kept in balance.
Unfortunately, today’s western diet has about 15 to 30 times more omega-6s in it than omega-3s. This means that inflammatory processes can get out of check and this can aid the development of many different chronic degenerative diseases, like cardiovascular heart disease and some types of cancer. Many studies have also found that a deficiency in omega-3s can contribute to depression.
So why are our diets so out of whack when it comes to the omega-3 to omega-6 balance? It’s really only been over the past 50 years or so that this has become a serious problem. We have simply stopped eating many of the foods that are high in omega-3s, like fatty fish and some nuts and started eating more foods high in omega-6s like corn oil. In fact many of the processed foods that we eat are extremely high in omega-6s and lacking omega-3s.
Many researchers, including me, believe that this is an underlying factor in the increased rates of several chronic degenerative diseases that we see so prevalent today. This is why foods that are high in omega-3s advertise it. The manufacturers know that we are lacking in them and that we need to eat more omega-3 rich foods.
There are really two kinds of omega-3s that are useful to the body. One kind you can get from plants, especially flaxseed oil and walnuts, and the other kind you can get from animals, especially fish (mackerel is the highest). You can also get either of these from supplements, usually a fish oil extract capsule.
The one thing that you need to monitor when getting your omega-3s from fish or fish oil capsules is the amount of heavy metal contamination (like mercury) that you are also ingesting. Various studies have shown different safe levels of fish and some types of fish are higher in mercury than others. There are many good articles out there that you can read on this subject. When it comes to fish oil capsules you need to make sure that the manufacturer uses a purification process that guarantees removal of heavy metals. Don’t just take cheap fish oil capsules without doing some homework on this.
So that’s the bottom line on omega-3s. Yes, they are extremely important and you should be proactive at trying to get more of them. If you just go with the flow in western society you will likely get way too much of the inflammatory omega-6s and not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3s and that can cause problems if left unchecked for long periods of time.
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