You have probably read about the health benefits of omega-3, and that it can be found in fish. But for many of us, that’s about as much as we know. So, what exactly is omega-3, is fish really a good source of it, and why do we need it in our diets? Read on to find out more about your new favourite unsaturated fat…
What is omega-3?
A more accurate question would be what are omega-3s, because it is the name of a number of different polyunsaturated fatty acids (try saying that with your mouth full). They are known as ‘essential’ because humans (like other animals) need them for normal growth. The three types of omega-3 fatty acids relevant for humans are known by extremely long names that are shortened to ALA, DHA and EPA. ALA can be found in a number of plants, while DHA and EPA are found in algae and fish.
Why are omega-3s important?
Fatty acids in general have a lot of uses in the human body, such as energy storage and making the membranes of our cells. But there are lots of different types of fatty acids, so what makes omega-3s so special? They, along with omega-6 fatty acids, seem to be more important with effects on the cardiovascular system and inflammation, for example. Modern diets tend to include enough omega-6 fatty acids, so there is more of a focus on omega-3.
Another important thing about omega-3s is that the body can’t make them out of nothing. Humans can’t synthesize ALA, and can only synthesize DHA and EPA if they have ALA. A varied diet can help ensure your body has enough of all of these acids.
What are the health benefits of omega-3?
There is no doubt that these fatty acids are essential, and particularly beneficial to heart health.
Many websites will provide a whole laundry list of things that omega-3s will help to prevent, cure, or improve. It is generally very difficult to prove cause and effect when it comes to our diets, with so many variables involved. So rather that just one thing making you live longer or healthier, it’s about an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.
Having said that, plenty of studies do suggest that omega-3s affect the cardiovascular system (your heart, arteries and so on) in lots of positive ways. These include lowering blood pressure to reducing inflammation to improving atherosclerosis.
For this reason, the European Food Safety Authority recommends a daily intake of DHA and EPA of 250mg. This is because ‘studies indicate that oily fish consumption or dietary … polyunsaturated fatty acids supplements decrease the risk of mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD) and sudden cardiac death.’
Similarly, the American Heart Association says that ‘studies suggest that people at risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids.’ They recommend that all adults eat fish – especially oily fish – at least two times a week. Oily fish includes species such as salmon, trout, and mackerel. For people who have coronary heart disease they recommend an intake of around 1g of EPA and DHA (combined) per day.
So I should be eating more fish?
That is the American Heart Association’s recommendation and at ASC we would certainly agree! There are also other sources of fatty acids, such as fish oil supplements. However you get your omega-3, your body will thank you. But there are a few extra benefits to choosing fish. You’re not only getting those fatty acids, but also getting a healthy source of protein that’s low in saturated fats. In fact, some studies suggest that the interplay between all of these benefits might make fish more beneficial than supplements. Aside from that, it’s also delicious! Speaking of which, our recipe pages are filled with ideas for healthy and tasty seafood dishes.
Is it true that only wild fish contain enough omega-3?
This has been claimed by some anti-farming campaigners, but it is simply untrue. One recent study of various farmed and wild salmon products of different species in Canada found that they all surpassed the government’s minimum daily recommended dose of Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The authors concluded: ‘farmed Atlantic salmon may be the most convenient and affordable option for the nutrient density it provides, especially for consumers who regularly include salmon in their daily meals.’
Does salmon contain toxins that outweigh the benefits of omega-3?
Some campaigners say that seafood like salmon contains so much mercury it outweighs any health benefits. This is another incorrect statement, that risks putting consumers off a healthy source of nutrition. An academic study found that for species like farmed salmon and trout, the benefits of omega-3 outweigh any risk from mercury. In fact, the only species for which the risk of mercury did outweigh potential benefits were swordfish and shark.
It is clear that omega-3s are very important for the body, and very likely to benefit your heart especially. However you get your omega-3, you are certainly benefitting your health. Getting it from some salmon or trout could give you even more benefits – just make sure it’s good for the environmental as well by looking for the ASC logo!