What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat that your body can not make.
The term “polyunsaturated” refers to its chemical structure, since “poly” means many and “unsaturated” refers to double bonds.
Together they simply mean that omega-3 fatty acids have many double bonds.
“Omega-3” refers to the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure, which is three carbon atoms of the “omega” or tail end of the molecular chain.
Since the human body cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids, these fats are known as “essential fats”, which means that you must obtain them from your diet.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two servings of bluefish per week, which is rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA.
There are many types of omega-3 fats, which differ according to their size and chemical form. Here are the three most common:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): the main function of this 20-carbon fatty acid is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA also helps reduce the symptoms of depression (2, 3).
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): a 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA represents approximately 8% of brain weight and is extremely important for the development and normal function of the brain (4).
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): this 18-carbon fatty acid can be converted to EPA and DHA, although the process is not very efficient. ALA is used mainly by the body to obtain energy (5).
Omega-3 fats are a vital part of human cell membranes. They also have a number of other important functions, including:
- Improved heart health: omega-3 fatty acids can increase “good” HDL cholesterol. They can also lessen triglycerides, blood pressure and the formation of arterial plaques.
- Mental health support: taking omega-3 can reduce the symptoms of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It can also reduce the risk of psychotic disorders for those at risk.
- Reduce the weight and size of the waist: omega-3 fats play an important role in weight control and can help reduce the waist circumference.
- Decrease liver fat: eating omega-3 in your diet can help reduce the amount of fat in your liver.
- Support children’s brain development: omega-3s are extremely important for the brain development of babies.
- Fight inflammation: Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, which means they can reduce inflammation in your body that can contribute to several chronic diseases.
- Prevention of dementia: people who eat more fish, which is high in omega-3 fats, tend to have a slower decline in brain function in old age. Omega-3s can also help improve memory in older people.
- Promote bone health: people with higher omega-3 intakes and blood levels tend to have a better bone mineral density.
- Asthma prevention: intake of omega-3 can help reduce asthma symptoms, especially in early life.
Regrettably, the Western diet does not contain enough omega-3s. A deficiency can contribute to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Omega-6 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
When eaten in moderation and instead of the saturated fats found in meats and dairy products, omega-6 fatty acids can be good for the heart.
Your body needs fatty acids and can produce all but two of them, so they are called essential fatty acids.
Linoleic and linolenic acids are derived from foods that contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, respectively, that fulfill different functions in the body.
Some of these fatty acids seem to cause inflammation, but others seem to have anti-inflammatory properties.
More research is needed to fully understand how these seemingly opposite effects interact with each other and with other nutrients.
Until more is known, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the intake of saturated fat to 5 to 6 percent of your total daily calories.
Replacing saturated fats in foods such as meat, butter, cheese and cakes with plant-based foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids, including vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, will help you achieve the recommendations of the AHA.
What are omega-9 fatty acids?
Unlike 3 and 6, omega-9 fats are not “essential” fatty acids. That means you do not need to include them in your diet, if your body needs them, you can make them your own.
With Omega-3, you must get it from food, but with Omega-9, healthy people have all the equipment to make their own home.
However, that does not necessarily mean that eating them is bad for you, so let’s take a closer look. Within the general group of “omega-9 fats” there are several individual fatty acids.
Omega-9 fatty acids include:
Oleic acid: a monounsaturated fat found in macadamia oil, olive oil, poultry fat and lard. It has been studied as the fat behind the distinctive health benefits of olive oil, but this has never been conclusively proven.
Mead for mead: a polyunsaturated fat that may have some anti-inflammatory properties.
Erucic acid: a monounsaturated fat that has generated some concern based on studies in animals that this can be dangerous for humans.
However, that is not a problem in Paleo, as it is mainly found in canola oil and mustard oil, both industrial seed oils that are not Paleo anyway.
Nervous acid: a monounsaturated fat important for healthy brain function. It is found in salmon, nuts (especially macadamias) and seeds.
The only one of these with significant research relevant to human health is oleic acid, as the basic fat of the “Mediterranean Diet”, which is definitely fashionable at this time.
Even so, the investigation is not conclusive.
Oleic acid is also promising to improve cardiovascular health, although, of course, all this research is done with the sole objective of reducing cholesterol, which may not be the most useful endpoint to focus.
With respect to the other Omega-9s, there are also a handful of other studies in animals and specimens; This, for example, found that an oil rich in Omega-9 protects against breast cancer in mice.
If mothers eat a diet rich in omega-9 fats, it can help protect the baby from fatty liver disease.
But all this is very experimental and it is very possible that it does not work in the same way in humans as in mice.
In general, omega-9 fats (with the possible exception of erucic acid) appear to be perfectly healthy, although nothing particularly surprising.
There is nothing wrong with them, and many of the foods that provide them (for example, salmon and olive oil) are very nutritious and deserve a place on your plate anyway.
What foods contain these fats?
You can easily get omega-3, -6 and -9 from your diet.
However, it is important to obtain the correct balance of each one. The Western diet contains many more omega-6 fats than necessary, and not enough omega-3 fats.
Here is a list of foods that are rich in omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids.
Foods rich in omega-3 fats
The best source of omega-3 EPA and DHA is fatty fish.
However, you can also get this omega-3s from other marine sources, such as seaweed oils. ALA, on the other hand, is obtained mainly from nuts and seeds.
There are no official standards for daily omega-3 intake, but several organizations offer guidelines.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, The adequate intake of omega-3 per day is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women, for adults 19 and older (43).
Here are the amounts and types of omega-3 in a serving of the following foods:
- Mackerel: 3.0 grams of EPA and DHA
- Salmon: 4.0 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Sardines: 2.2 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Linseed seeds: 2.3 grams ALA.
- Chia seeds: 4.9 grams of ALA.
- Anchovies: 1.0 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Nuts: 2.5 grams ALA
Foods rich in omega-6 fats
Omega-6 fats are found in large amounts in refined vegetable oils and in foods cooked in vegetable oils.
Nuts and seeds also contain momentous amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, The adequate intake of omega-6 per day is 17 grams for men and 12 grams for women, for adults from 19 to 50 years (43).
Here are the amounts of omega-6 in 100 grams (3.5 oz) of the following foods:
- Mayonnaise: 39 grams.
- Soybean oil: 50 grams.
- Corn oil: 49 grams
- Cashews: 8 grams
- Sunflower seeds: 34 grams.
- Nuts: 37 grams
- Almonds: 12 grams
As you can see, it is very easy to get more than enough omega-6 through your diet.
Foods rich in omega-9 fats
Omega-9 fats are also common in vegetable and seed oils, as well as in nuts and seeds.
There are no adequate intake recommendations for omega-9s, as they are not essential.
Here are the amounts of omega-9 in 100 grams of the following foods:
- Peanut oil: 47 grams.
- Olive oil: 83 grams.
- Cashew oil: 73 grams.
- Avocado oil: 60 grams.
- Almonds: 30 grams
- Almond oil: 70 grams.
- Nuts: 9 grams
- Cashew nuts: 24 grams
Should you take an Omega-3-6-9 supplement?
Combined omega-3-6-9 supplements generally provide each of these fatty acids in appropriate proportions, such as 2: 1: 1 for omega-3: 6: 9.
Such oils can help increase the intake of omega-3 fats, which should be consumed more in the Western diet.
In addition, these oils offer a healthy balance of fatty acids, so that the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is less than 4: 1.
However, since most people consume too many omega-6s, and omega-9s are produced by the body, there is no general need to supplement with these fats.
Therefore, it is better to focus your diet to get a good balance of omega-3, -6 and -9.
This should include eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week and using olive oil for cooking and in salad dressings.
Also, try to limit the consumption of omega-6 by limiting the consumption of other vegetable oils and fried foods that have been cooked in refined vegetable oils.
If you do not get enough omega-3 in your diet, it is best to take an omega-3 supplement alone instead of a combined omega-3-6-9 supplement.
How to choose an Omega 3-6-9 supplement
Like other oils, polyunsaturated fatty acids are easily oxidized when exposed to heat and light.
Therefore, if you are buying an omega-3-6-9 supplement, choose one that is cold pressed.
This means that the oil has been extracted with limited heat, minimizing oxidation that can damage the fatty acid molecules.
To make sure you are taking a supplement that is not oxidized, choose one that contains an antioxidant such as vitamin E.
Also, select a supplement with the highest omega-3 content, ideally more than 0.3 grams per serving.
Also, since EPA and DHA have more health benefits than ALA, choose a supplement that uses fish oil or algae, instead of flaxseed oil.
Although combined omega-3-6-9 supplements have become very popular, they generally do not provide any additional benefit over taking omega-3 alone.
Omega-6s are essential in certain amounts, but they are found in many foods and people who follow a western diet already consume too many.
In addition, omega-9 fats can be produced by the body and are easily obtained in the diet, so it is not necessary to take them in the form of a supplement.
Therefore, although the combined supplements contain optimal proportions of omega 3-6-9, taking only omega-3s will probably provide you with the greatest amount of health benefits.