A look at omega fatty acids

DEBATE ABOUT omega fatty acids has increased over the last decade. While separating fact from myth can be frustrating, let’s attempt to do just that.

What are omega fatty acids?

Contrary to popular belief, fat has important biological functions, from making up the basic structure of our cells to storing energy. But some fats are good for us, while others are not. Saturated fats often come from animal sources. An excess of saturated fats is bad for us, in part because they raise our bad LDL cholesterol, clog our arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.

On the other hand, unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), are generally considered healthier. Omega fatty acids refer to a whole family of PUFAs: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. (It’s a little complicated, but the numbers refer to the fatty acid’s chemical makeup.)

Trans fats, incidentally, are unsaturated fats that have been partially hydrogenated. They’re found in deep-fried foods and other products, and are at least as artery-clogging as saturated fats.

Where do omega fatty acids come from?

Nature provides a bounty of sources of fatty acids. Here’s a short list:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: flaxseed, fish oils
  • Omega-6 fatty acids: vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, soybean, evening primrose, and borage and blackcurrant seed oils
  • Omega-9 fatty acids: olive oil

How can this food chemistry lesson help me improve my health?

In general, people who consume higher amounts of omega-3s are healthier because they have fewer problems with a variety of maladies, including plaque in their arteries, heart attacks, high blood pressure, macular degeneration, depression, menopausal symptoms, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and some types of infections.

There is currently some controversy over the beneficial effects and even the safety of omega-6s, given that the typical North American diet is often too high in omega-6.

Typically, you can consume 10 to 30 times more omega-6 than beneficial omega-3, and while there is no consensus on what a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is, consuming more omega-3 helps balance out the ratio. Increasing your intake of omega-3 by eating more fish can potentially expose you to
some of the toxins found in the fish, such as mercury, PCBs and dioxin, but quality supplements bearing a Natural Product Number have had those toxins removed or reduced to within Health Canada safety limits.

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