Omega-3, 6, 9 - what are they? Food sources and why we need them
Everybody has read or heard about Omega-3, 6, 9 and the tremendous health benefits derived from them. They play a vital role in maintaining the health of our heart, brain and joints, amongst numerous other benefits.
But let's first talk about what are they? Well, Omega-3, 6, 9 are all types of unsaturated fatty acids which are beneficial for our health. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are polyunsaturated fats, which means they are a type of fat the body cannot produce and the need has to be fulfilled through diet and supplements. Hence, they are also termed essential. Omega-9 fatty acids, on the other hand, can be produced by the body. All three are important dietary fats that need to be part of our daily intake of food.
Specifically speaking about Omega 3 fatty acids, they are polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs that play an important role in human physiology. There are three types of Omega-3, ALA or Alpha-Linolenic acid, EPA or Eicosapentaenoic acid and Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. While ALA can be found in plants, DHA and EPA are found in algae and fish. Common sources of ALA include edibles seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp seed oil. DHA and EPA are found mainly in fish, fish oil and algae oil.
Good sources of Omega-3
Oily fish like salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel; white fish and shellfish like mussels, oysters, crab; free-range eggs, meat and dairy. Vegetarian sources include walnuts, soy bean, tofu, vegetable oils, chia seeds, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds.
How does omega-3 help?
Primarily Omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in maintaining the health of our heart by reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. They do this by helping in bringing down blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They also reduce risk of cancer, especially breast cancer in women as well as colon and prostate cancer.
They also play a vital role in the development of brains in infants, production of hormones and in reducing joint pain and stiffness as well as inflammation. Omega-3 is known to decrease liver fat and also plays a crucial role in mental health conditions like depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s. It is also known to help in eye health as it can help prevent macular degeneration which can lead to vision impairment and even blindness.
EPA or Eicosapentaenoic acid positive effects
If saturated fat and cholesterol are not eliminated from the diet, or if the process of lowering cholesterol is too slow, then the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is useful. EPA cleans the circulatory system of cholesterol and fat deposits. Specifically, these along with the other omegas reduce blood viscosity, lower lipid levels, reduce clotting, lower blood pressure, and help ischemia (damage to the body tissue that results from interruption of blood flow; strokes and heart attacks).
DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid positive effects
DHA and EPA complement each other especially in the function of vascular renewal. DHA is a major structural component of the brain and is found in the retinal of the eye and in sperm. It’s is essential for brain development, growth and enhances ones learning ability. If women have low levels of DHA, their fetus will suffer the same. One reason of being deficient is the consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils.
Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) a fatty acid found in plants for omega 3recommended sources are: flax seed (53% of its oil is composed of ALA), chia seed (30%), hemp (20%), pumpkin seed (15%), tofu and tempeh (8%) and walnuts (5%). Dark green vegetables: kale, fenugreek, parsley, cereal grasses like barley, wheat f=grass are additional sources.
Omega 6 too is a polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA, which plays a role in the development and health of the body's cells. There are four main types of Omega-6 acids – Gamma-Linolenic acid or GLA, Arachidonic acid or ARA, Linolenic acid or LA, and Conjugated Linoleic acid or CLA. Since Omega-6 is found in numerous foods, the possibility of overconsumption is very real and could cause health issues. Omega-6 regulates metabolism, helps in maintaining bone health, reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, promotes hair growth and keeps scalp and skin healthy. It also helps in reducing PMS symptoms like pain.
Some good sources of Omega-6
Almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, cereals, wholegrain bread, green leafy vegetables, corn, soybean, vegetable oil, poultry, eggs, meat as well as some processed foods like cakes and cooking oils. It can even be found in evening primrose oil supplements.
Omega-9 is a lesser known cousin of the 3s and the 6s and is slightly different. Firstly, it is a monounsaturated fatty acid, or MUFA. Secondly, it is termed non-essential as it can be produced by the body.
There are four main types of Omega-9 acids – Oleic acid, Mead acid, Nervonic acid and Erucic acid. Of these, Oleic acid is the most commonly consumed as it is available in lots of food like oils, nuts and seeds.
While Omega-9 helps in lowering blood pressure, controlling blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, it is also known to be effective in preventing the hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. It helps increase good cholesterol or HDL and decrease bad cholesterol or LDL. Basically it supports heart health. Its anti-inflammatory benefits increase immunity and allergies.
Some good sources of Omega-9
Nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts; avocado, olives and fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and king prawns. It is also found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil. In fact, olive oil is one of the best sources of Omega-9 fatty acids, followed by mustard seed oil. It is advisable to consume equal amounts of Omega-3 and 6 and maintain the balance. With so much processed food available in the market today, we need to choose natural sources of Omega-6 in the form of whole grains, nuts and seeds instead of cakes, biscuits and fast food.
A balanced diet will ensure that we get an adequate dose of Omega-3, 6 and 9. A good way to do that would be including oily fish or chia and flax for vegetarians/vegans in your diet and using olive oil for cooking or flax seed oil as seasoning in salads.