Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that seem to play an important role in brain and cardiovascular (heart) function. We cannot make these ourselves, so we have to find them in our diet. The typical suggestion is to take a fish oil supplement, but outside of the awful fishy burps, there may be some other reasons to find better quality sources.
First, let's briefly review where Omega 3 fatty acids come from.
There are three types of Omega 3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha linolenic acid), EPA (ecosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is found in plant oils and from ALA, EPA can be produced, then DHA which is the most crucial for our health.
Fish oil is recommended because of the higher levels of EPA and DHA which they obtain through their diet. Seaweed and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA. It is important to remember that if you aren't up for eating seaweed and algae on a regular basis, we can also produce these two components through eating ALA in plant sources. Though in smaller quantities, our body can it to make EPA and DHA.
A diet with frequent fish intake could help with your Omega 3's, but you may not be getting all that you hope for. Although the risk is small, and more likely in eating fish rather than taking supplements (because of the skin), you may be ingesting heavy metals as well that accumulate up the food chain. Mercury, lead, nickel, arsenic, and cadmium have been listed as risk factors, along with other toxins such as PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), furans, dioxins, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).
We can apply the idea of food chain quality to Omega 3 intake when looking at the consumption of animals and fish in your diet. Your Omega 3 quality is only as good as that of the animal you are eating, because the Omega 3 first comes from the plants that they ate. If your factory-farmed fish does not get quality seaweed or algae, or your cow wasn't fed a good, healthy source of grass, it cannot make the Omega 3's (EPA and DHA) that are supposed to be there.
So, let's get back to the plant discussion, since we can make our own EPA and DHA from intake of ALA. What has a good plant based Omega 3 content with ALA's to offer? Here's a few to look into along with the percentage of ALA they contain:
Kiwifruit Seed Oil (Chinese Gooseberry) 63%
Perilla (belongs to the mint family) 61%
Chia Seeds 58%
Fig Seed Oil 47.7%
Outside of plant foods, you can also find ALA in:
Why are Omega 3's so important? Here are some possible health benefits that have been reported (We have left out the poorly supported evidence regarding risk for cardiovascular disease or stroke, ADHD, and Cancer):
Reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms
Support of brain and vision functions
We do know that Omega 3 fatty acids are needed in our bodies to maintain normal cell membrane functioning and signaling. They are also the building blocks to make hormones that help regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of the walls in our arteries, and inflammation. They can play a role in affecting our genetic expression as well by influencing receptors.
However you look to get your Omega 3 fatty acids, be sure it is quality!
Stay tuned for the next step in understanding Omega 3's; the Omega 3:6 ratio that can significantly affect our health as well! We'll talk more about this soon.