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A member of the British Dietetic Association, Juliette Kellow has worked in the NHS and for the food industry, and is the former editor of magazines Slimming and Top Santé. She's also the former editorial...

Omega-3 is vital to our health and wellbeing and many of us fall short of this essential fat

Omega-3 fats are essential for every cell in our body and are particularly important for the health of our head and heart. Yet most of us should be eating more.

Among other things, they provide the building blocks for hormones that regulate blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of the artery walls, and control inflammation. Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, pilchards, sardines, trout, kippers, herring and fresh tuna, as well as plant foods such as flaxseed, rapeseed oil, walnuts and green leafy veg.

The Different types
Plant foods contain short-chain omega-3s (ALA or alpha-linolenic acid). Oily fish, however, are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the ‘ready-made’ long-chain omega-3 fats that are thought to be most beneficial to our health. Although our bodies can make EPA and DHA from ALA, this conversion isn’t very efficient and only small amounts of EPA and DHA are formed.

How to boost your intake of omega-3s
Check out the omega-3s in different varieties of fish here:

omega 3 in fish

You need more of these fats because they’re…

Good for you heart
‘In studies, there’s a recurring link between omega-3 status and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease,’ says dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton, spokesperson for the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS). It’s been proved that EPA and DHA have a role to play in helping to keep the heart working normally. In particular, these fats help to maintain healthy levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood – important because when these are raised so, too, is our risk of heart disease.

Omega-3 fats also help to keep our blood pressure under control, which is one of the main risk factors for stroke. Other research shows they help the heart stay healthy by:

  • Keeping the blood thin, which reduces the risk of potentially dangerous blood clots, and reducing inflammation in patients with cardiovascular disease
  • Reducing the risk of an irregular heart rhythm
  • Increasing levels of protective HDL cholesterol, while reducing dangerous LDL cholesterol
  • Slowing the formation of arterial plaques, which result in hardening of the arteries and an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

 

Good for your eyes
DHA is important for our eyesight, too. This is especially important in the diets of pregnant and breastfeeding women as it plays a role in babies’ eye development.

‘Last year we heard about an important benefit for office workers,’ says nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire of HSIS. ‘A study of 478 computer users suffering from dry eye syndrome found that omega-3 supplementation alleviated symptoms, slowed tear evaporation and made the tear film, which protects the eye, more effective.’

Good for your brain
Received wisdom that fish is good for the brain seems to be grounded in science, as studies prove DHA is vital for normal brain function. ‘40% of the fats found in the membranes of our brain cells are made up of DHA, while EPA is thought to support messaging between brain cells and vascular health,’ adds Carrie. ‘Both DHA and EPA are also known to influence membrane receptor function.’

DHA also has an important role in helping a baby’s brain develop – another reason pregnant and breastfeeding women should get enough. It’s not just babies who benefit, either. A US study of seven to nine-year-olds found a direct association between higher intakes of omega-3 and stronger performance in cognitive tests.

Studies have also found an association with cognitive decline and dementia when omega-3 status is poor. ‘Recent research at the University of Oxford found having higher levels of omega-3 boosts the effect of B vitamins, which are known to help prevent brain atrophy, and slow mental decline,’ says Emma.

Good for reducing diabetes risk
A long-term Finnish study of more than 2,000 men aged 42 to 60 found those with the highest blood concentrations of omega-3s had a 33% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Another study of 47 overweight men in their 40s found insulin response was 43% better in those with the highest levels of omega-3. Research is in the early stages, but, says Carrie, ‘There’s a powerful argument for increasing intakes in both young and old.’

Recipes high in omega-3omega 3 recipes

Top left: spiced prawn and pea pilaf
Top right: sardine and tomato tagliatelle
Bottom left: ginger-baked salmon
Bottom right: herby cottage cheese and smoked salmon

How much omega-3 is enough?
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommends we have 450mg EPA and DHA each day (or around 3g a week)

To meet this need, the UK Department of Health recommends we should all eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. A serving of fish should weigh around 170g raw – that’s about 140g when it’s cooked.

Do you need more omega-3?
Unfortunately, many of us fail to come close to meeting these targets – most adults manage just one portion of oily fish every three weeks. On average, 19 to 64-year- olds eat just 56g of oil-rich fish a week, while older adults have, on average, 91g a week. But it’s an even bleaker picture for teenagers, with 11 to 18-year-olds having just one-tenth of the recommended serving – a tiny 14g – each week. That’s just five servings in a year!

If you’re not keen on oily fish, it’s good to know that although they’re undoubtedly the richest sources of omega-3 fats, shellfish and white fish also contain some, so they can help to boost intakes.

omega 3 supplement

Should you take omega-3 supplements?
‘Every year, more and more studies confirm the importance of omega-3s for long-term health,’ says Carrie. ‘There’s no doubt we’d all benefit from increasing our intakes, but data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey confirm we continue to fall a long way short of the recommendations. If eating more oily fish is not to your taste, it would be wise to take a daily omega-3 supplement.’

The Health Supplements Information Service (hsis.org.uk) is an independent information body that provides information on vitamins and minerals.

Related article: Why we need vitamin B3