omegas explained: a complete guide to plant-based essential fatty acids
There's something fishy about fish oil but that doesn't mean you should avoid these essential fatty acids. Learn why algae should be a part of your daily health routine to get your vital Omega-3's.
The health benefits of Omega 3's are well documented but the way in which the majority of Americans get them in the diet may have a dark-side. Omega-3s, also known as essential fatty acids (EFAs), are vital to our health but the body does not produce them, which means we have to get them from food or supplements. But, before you go reaching for the fish oil capsules, there are a few things you should know. Here's our comprehensive guide to omegas and a solution that is better than fishy supplements both for your health and the planet.
what are omegas and why are they important?
Schoolhouse Rock said it best, “Three is A Magic Number”— it's the magic formula for making us laugh, presenting ideas, and even helping us process information. With deficiency symptoms like: dandruff, hair-loss, fatigue, dry skin, PMS, depression, and anxiety, its no surprise that the power of these fatty acids extends beyond just being “essential”. They are called Essential Fatty Acids because the body does not produce them which means that we must get them through the diet or supplementation. Omega 3s act as a starting point for making hormones — these regulate things like how blood clots & and contractions of the artery walls. These Essential Fatty Acids also bind to receptors in cells that actually regulate genetic function— aka that other 3 letter word DNA!!!
Although the majority of research on Omega 3s has been focused primarily on the heart and cardiovascular benefits, The Power of Omega 3's have been shown to also have the following benefits for our health:
Improve Risk Factors for Heart Disease
Promote Brain Health & Development of the Brain in the Womb
Can Improve Vision and Overall Eye Health
Fight Depression and Anxiety
May Reduce Symptoms of ADD and ADHD
May Reduce Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome
Can improve Mental Disorders
Fights Age Related Decline and Alzheimers
May Prevent Cancers
Reduces Symptoms of Asthma
Reduces Fat in the Liver
Improves Bone and Joint Health and Integrity
May Alleviate Menstrual Cramps and other PMS Symptoms
Fights Auto-immune Disorders
Improve the Quality of Skin & Skin Conditions like Eczema
Omega 3s, essential like our three unalienable rights, “Life, Liberty and The pursuit of Happiness” — but are they all created equally?
Different types of omegas - 3, 6, 9
Omegas, just the “IT” superfood of 10 years ago? Or more than just a passing trend? We’re breaking down the 411 on all things 3-6-9 (insert Lil Jon lyrics here) and cutting through the fat (pun intended), to get to the essentials.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)— fatty acids that are not produced inside our bodies but, are crucial to our health. EFA’s have a long list of health benefits critical to our wellbeing but, these necessary nutrients are only available via dietary sources.
Non-Essential Fatty Acids, on the other hand, ARE produced by our bodies naturally — meaning that they’re available “directly from the source” (the source being our bodies) and not exclusively from what we eat. So how do Omegas 3,6, and 9 fit into this picture of Essential and Non-Essential Fatty Acids? Fatty Acids are responsible for a variety of functions in our biological processes, and each Omega plays its own very specific role, but also must work together to create balance for our overall health.
In simple terms, Omega 3s and Omega 6s are both Essential Fatty Acids—both critical to our health and must be consumed through our diets but, things can get a little well, fishy…
Omega 3s—why do we need them, and where can we get them?
In (light) scientific terms- Omega 3s are integral to cell membranes throughout the body- they also act as sort of cell “gatekeepers” as they regulate the passage of nutrients and waste in and out of the membranes. Essentially, this essential fatty acid is important for brain, heart and metabolic health, while simultaneously acting as an all natural anti-inflammatory— head to toe. Although credited for the fame of Fatty Fish, Omega 3s can also be derived from plant foods.
Omega 6s— whats the difference?
Omega 6s—think fat for fuel- these are the building blocks for fats that our bodies primarily use as energy. Omega 6s also provide our bodies with a pro-inflammatory chemical, aka “eicosanoids”, known to aid in the healing process. Think about the last time you had any sort of injury or wound that resulted in swelling? Swelling is a symptom of an “inflammatory response” and the first step in the process of healing.
Okay, Omega 6s —- fat for fuel, help us heal, essential fatty acid we can only get from food….. but here’s the omega curveball: the typical western diet provides an amount of omega 6 Fatty Acids in excess of the recommended levels.
Wait, What? Weren’t Omega 6s classified as “EFAs”?
While Omega 6s are in fact Essential Fatty Acids only available through dietary sources, we are already (over) consuming foods rich in omega 6s— foods like refined vegetable oils: soybean, mayonnaise, and corn oil for example. That's not all, food that has been cooked in refined vegetable oil count as well, which is most likely how you’re food is prepared whenever you go out to eat at a restaurant. The general population is basically OD-ing on inflammation. The important part is to consume a ratio of Omega 3s to Omega 6s that is as close to 1:1 as possible. The standard American diet typically consists of an Omega 6 to Omega 3 that is 20:1 or higher which contributes to chronic inflammation and is the catalyst for the majority of the preventable chronic diseases that we suffer from.
While many of us need to “supplement” our diet with Omega 3s, we need to be conscious of consuming LESS Omega 6 to create a sort of balance between the two— in other words, the infamous Omega Ratio. A “ratio” is a way to compare values against each other- it tells us how much of one thing there is in comparison to another thing. To better understand the Omega Ratio - think about the power struggle between inflammation (Omega 6) and anti-inflammatories (Omega 3).
Omega 9s- The Non-Essential Fatty Acid
Omega 9 Fats are actually the type of fat found in most of our fat cells, they’re naturally produced inside our bodies (not exclusively through dietary sources), and internally utilized for a variety of purposes. Using unsaturated fats, healthy bodies are able to make this type of fatty acid as needed. Although “supplementing” Omega 9 isn’t necessary, unsaturated fat, aka “good fat” still plays a big part in our overall wellbeing.
A great way to go about your Omega 9 intake is to be mindful of replacing those Omega 6s (refined vegetable oils) with the good unsaturated fats like Olive Oil.
Here's a simple way to think about omegas: Supplement the 3s, Reduce the 6s, and Replace with 9s.
WHAT TYPE OF OMEGA-3 IS BEST?
Now that we know why we should be including more Omega-3s as part of our daily regimen, it's important to point out how we do it and the options available. Out of the 11 different types of omega 3 fatty acids— three take top priority in benefiting our health. ALAs, EPAs, and DHAs— together they improve the health of the brain, heart, and body. But you know what else they say, “Three's a crowd”.
Although ALA (alpha linolenic acid) is the most abundant Omega 3 found in dietary sources like nuts and seeds, it's not a very bioavailable form of omegas. To utilize ALA, the body must first convert it to EPA and DHA….which it doesn’t do very well, thus minimizing the total EPA and DHA produced which is where all the amazing health benefits start to happen! That doesn't mean we should skimp on the omegas in food because we need to balance out the ratio of omega 3's to omega-6's in the diet to avoid inflammation and related conditions.
These omega rich foods are easy to add to your plate, bowl, or even your smoothie.
PERILLA OIL — popular in Korean cooking & derived from the seed of the perilla plant (native to Southeast Asia) and member of the mint family of species. 1 tablespoon of Perilla Oil has 9,000 mgs of Omega 3 Fatty Acid ALA - which is roughly 650% of daily recommended intake.
FLAXSEED — also known as linseed. Popular superfood, as well as textile material, Flax contain about 6,388 mgs of ALAs per ounce- roughly 450% of daily recommended intake
HEMPSEED — derived from the hemp plant, these seeds are nutritional powerhouses! A great source of plant protein (their amino acid profile is comparable to that of meat, eggs, milk and soy), these tender hearts provide between 400-500% of daily recommended intake- 6,000 mgs of ALA per once!
CHIA SEEDS — a member of the mint family, and maybe also your family- in the form of a pet…. Chia seeds have been reigning high in the superfood world. These Aztec warriors provide 4,915 mgs of ALA in every ounce.
WALNUTS —Used as currency in Ancient China, ground into a cleaning agent by the U.S. Army, and even as hair dye in Medieval Europe! But to top of the list of this tree nuts repertoire are the 2,545 mgs of ALAs found in just 1 ounce!
Brussel Sprouts- whether you love them, or love to hate them, every 1/2 cup of the veggie Mom made you eat came with 135 milligrams of ALA.
Fast-forwarding to the bottom line: use it or lose it, (and we’re not all great at using it). However, the body can actually improve its ability to convert the omega 3 foods that you’re eating into more usable forms of Fatty Acids— it’s dependent upon having adequate levels of other nutrients like B6, B7, Copper, Calcium, Magnesium, Zinc, and Iron. Lifestyle Factors can also increase or decrease our ability to convert. While high alcohol intake and elevated levels of vitamin A can hinder conversion, things like sex, can help improve it. The conversion ability of non-meat eaters has been a source of debate in the Omega World but, the newest research has shown that plant based diets actually INCREASE conversion— perhaps due to the higher consumption of those necessary nutrients.
Its easy enough to fulfill the daily recommended intake of ALA with just whats on your fork but, there are two other essential Omega 3s! DHA and EPA are more commonly found in those fatty fish —and the supplements made from their oils, which are important to get if we really want all the brain boosting, anti-inflammatory, and cardiovascular protective benefits of omegas, but does this mean fish oil or nothing? Fortunately, for all of us the animal lovers, friends of the sea, vegans, and health conscious, there's a better solution!
better alternatives to fish oil supplements
With 17 health benefits ranging from fighting inflammation to improving the quality of skin & sleep, Omega 3s have taken market lead in the rapidly growing supplement industry. As the importance of Omega Fatty Acids continues to become more mainstream, the rate of demand (and supply) for EFA supplements grows exponentially— as does the discrepancy of quality. So how does this highly competitive market produce those essential fatty acids? With Fatty Fish! Fish like Salmon, Mackerel, Herring, and Tuna are the primary sources of Omega 3s— But several of these fish find themselves on another list— the list of fish found to have high levels of mercury. Due to things like heavy metals and other toxins, our marine ecosystem is increasingly troubled, and the global population of fish is depleting. So how can we navigate through this 30 some billion dollar Supplement Sea? It can be easy to drown in but, we’ve got you covered with our top picks of plant-based sources of Omega 3s, and exactly what to look for in the supplement aisle.
Omega-3 fatty acids support brain health, promote visual function, aid in cardiovascular protection and protect against the progression of age-related cognitive decline. Research shows other benefits as well including reductions in age-related macular degeneration, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder symptoms, anxiety and depression. These essential nutrients can be found in several in foods and supplements including fish, fish oil supplements, flaxseed, walnuts, algal oil supplements and more.
Unfortunately, there can be challenges with obtaining these nutrients from fish and fish oil supplements. One challenge is the adverse side effects including belching, indigestion and unpleasant aftertaste. Diabetics taking large doses of the oil may experience worsening glycemic control. Fish oil when consumed in large doses also may inhibit platelet aggregation and increase bleeding time.
There is no regulation or oversight about the source, the quality or the amounts of active ingredients for dietary supplements. Research has shown that some fish oil supplements do not even contain the advertised amounts of EPA or DHA.
Further, fish oil supplements are often taken to improve cardiovascular health. However, Mark Abramowicz, M.D., Gianna Zuccotti, M.D., M.P.H., and Jean-Marie Pflomm, PharmD state that "Recent studies have found no convincing evidence that fish oil supplements actually prevent cardiovascular disease. Thus, the supplements may not be so efficacious in terms of heart health"
Another challenge is that some fish and fish oil supplements may contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). PCBs have the potential to negatively impact human health. They may play a role in cancer, they may affect thyroid function and they may lead to developmental impairments. Exposure to PCBs also may cause liver, dermal and ocular changes as well as immunity and neurodevelopment changes. They might also impact reproduction. Studies suggest that PBDEs are developmental neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters.
J.T.F. Ashely and colleagues analyzed ten over-the-counter fish oil supplements that are available in the United States for PCBs and PBDEs. PCBs and PBDEs were detected in all samples with varying concentrations. The supplements with the highest levels of both contaminants contained oil from cod liver. Cod, having a higher trophic status than other fish used for fish oil, have been shown to have higher levels of these contaminants. The researchers note that fish tend to have higher levels of contaminants than fish oil supplements and as such they may be a safer alternative, but there are even safer alternatives.
There are safer alternatives for getting EPA and DHA than fish and fish oil, and it's the same place where fish get their omegas...ALGAE! A recent study conducted by Lisa Ryan and Amy M. Symington found algal oil supplements are a sufficient and viable source for DHA. The researchers conducted an open-label randomized pilot study for two weeks with 31 healthy adults. The adults were divided into three groups: omnivores who consumed a fish oil supplement, omnivores who consumed an algal oil supplement and vegetarians who consumed an algal oil supplement. The percentage of DHA increased significantly in every group suggesting that algal oil supplements are an efficacious option for increasing levels of this essential nutrient.
In conclusion, Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial and essential to human health. If you want to optimize your health and avoid some of the challenges associated with fish and fish oil supplements, perhaps consider opting for the safer alternatives like algal oil. The purest algae oil is cultivated in fermentation tanks, making it a safer and healthier alternative to fish oil, free from ocean-born contaminants and heavy metals.
Abramowicz, M., Zuccotti, G., & Pflomm, J.M. (2014). Fish Oil Supplements. Clinical Review and Education, 312: 8, 839.
Ashley, J.T.F., Ward, J.S., Schafer, M.W., Stapleton, H.M., & Velinsky, D.J. (2010). Evaluating daily exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenul ethers in fish oil supplements. Food Additives and Contaminants, 27: 8, 1177-1185. doi: 10.1080/19440041003793298
Harvard Health. “Should you consider taking a fish oil supplement?” Harvard Health, Dec. 2017, www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/should-you-consider-taking-a-fish-oil-supplement.
Ryan, L., & Symington, A.M. (2015). Algal-oil supplements are a viable alternative to fish-oil supplements in terms of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3; DHA). Journal of Functional Foods, 19, 852-858. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jff.2014.06.023