What Are Omega Fatty Acids and What Do They Do?

You may have spotted, when scouring the nutritional supplements aisle of your local drugstore or health foods shop, a host of omega fatty acids lined across the shelves and paused to ask yourself, what exactly are omega fatty acids? What health benefits do they deliver? And, what’s the difference between them all — omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9?

What are omega fatty acids?

Fatty acids are the building blocks of the fats in our bodies and the foods we eat. They are either saturated or unsaturated and are derived from both animal and vegetable-based fats and oils. In the case of omega fatty acids, they fall into the unsaturated category and are crucial for our body’s functions, and highly beneficial for our general health. Omega fatty acids can also help reduce painful inflammation, protect the brain, improve immunity, and keep your heart healthy and beating strong.

Omega fatty acids and inflammation

When discussing omegas, it’s important to highlight just how impactful they are when it comes to combating inflammation. Like most physiological reactions, inflammation is natural and part of a healthy system when experienced in low or moderate levels. When our body recognizes a foreign entity, e.g. when we get a cut or scrape, the redness and swelling is acute inflammation. Here our bodies produce white blood cells and other helpful defensive substances to protect us. This acute level of inflammation is a typical response, however, when inflammation becomes chronic, the body oftentimes starts to attack itself over time and can evolve into many common ailments as obesity, arthritis, and diabetes as well as a host of autoimmune disorders.

To keep our bodies fighting against those substances, rather than fighting against itself, a balanced, wholesome diet and healthy meal plan go a long way to reduce or eradicate inflammation. Certain foods tend to increase chronic inflammation and should be eaten in moderation or excluded all together:

  • Meat
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Additives
  • Trans-fats

Now you know what to avoid, let’s talk about ways to help bring the inflammation down by ramping up those dietary omega fatty acids.

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Role of omega-3

Omega-3 fats (also known as linolenic acid) are polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are the ones that are liquid at room temperature and help our heart. They include EPA and DHA, which are essential for our eyes, brain, heart, immune system, and sexual health. They also protect against cardiovascular disease by raising the healthy HDL cholesterol and lowering the not so good LDL cholesterol. In addition to all that, omega-3 fats help lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. If that’s not enough to motivate you to seek out some omegas in your diet, a meta-analysis found a 17% lower risk of depression with the higher intake of fish.

Nerd alert!
Grass-fed beef and fortified eggs have higher levels of omega-3 than grain-fed beef or plain ole eggs.

If you’re following a plant-based diet (vegan or vegetarian), it may be necessary to supplement your omegas and other nutrients. Plant-based omega-3 (ALA) needs to be converted by your body into the type of omega-3 found in fish. The conversion is relatively small, so it’s difficult to get it from plant sources. If you eat fish, we recommend having it twice per week. If you don’t eat fish, try to include a serving of a plant-based omega-3 daily.

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, cod, or krill)
  • Flaxseeds
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
Nerd alert!
When eating flax, aim for freshly ground variants and refrigerate after grinding. When the delicate fat is exposed to light or air, it becomes damaged and ineffective.
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Omega-3 supplements

If you can’t get it from your diet, you may want to consider supplementing omega-3 fatty acid, particularly if you have low levels on a blood test, high triglycerides, or an inflammatory-related disease such as arthritis. We always recommend that you speak with your doctor before taking any supplements. A suggested recommendation to share with your physician would be 1-2 grams per day. When looking for a supplement, do your homework to make sure to know what to shop for.

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What is omega-6?

Omega-6 fatty acids (also known as linoleic acid) are also polyunsaturated fats that are indispensable, and can only be eaten and aren’t produced by the body on its own, so can only be accessed through food or supplements. They’re necessary for brain development, growth, as well as healthy skin, hair, and bones.

Sources of omega-6 fatty acids:

  • Seeds and nuts
  • Beef, chicken, eggs
  • Vegetable oils (soy oil, safflower, corn oil)

The standard American diet contains higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils (salad dressing, chips, pizza, pasta, processed meats, cake) which has been thought to worsen inflammation, especially in individuals prone to chronic diseases. However, the jury is still out on whether it’s more important to obtain a specific dose or ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. As most of us don’t get enough omega-3, we recommend focusing on increasing that one in your diet.

Omega- 9 function

Unlike omega-3 and omega-6, omega-9 (also known as oleic acid) is a monounsaturated fat that is produced by your body, so it isn’t as essential. This means it’s not as important to supplement your diet with it. However, it can still benefit you in many ways including protecting your heart, brain, and overall well-being. It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, balance mood, and potentially help curb Alzheimer’s.

Sources of omega-9 fatty acids:

  • Plant oils (canola, safflower, olive)
  • Animal fat
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocado

From alpha to omega

Omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are all vital fats to have in our diet. Each one is beneficial in their own way. Getting enough omega-3 and omega-6 in our food is far more important than omega-9 as our bodies can’t manufacture them on their own. Many of us are deficient in omega-3, and there may be a relationship between the ratio or dose of omega-3 to omega-6 and its impact on inflammation. We recommend a balance of all three with a focus on omega-3 fatty acid sources.

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