Omega 3 Benefits - Health Solutions

You can enjoy the full range of omega 3 benefits by adopting some straightforward dietary measures.

Many nutrition experts consider omega 3 (n-3) deficiency to be a major health risk. Some believe it is the most serious nutritional defect in the western diet.

Although there are many different views about optimum levels of n-3 and n-6 PUFA consumption, there is widespread agreement that the n-3 to n-6 intake ratio is far too low in most people.

n-3 to n-6 intake ratio: To maximize omega 3 benefits, aim to achieve a ratio of between 1:2 and 1:4 n-3 to n-6. This compares with an average in the west of 1:10 or more. Make the adjustment by consuming more n-3 and less n-6 without becoming deficient in n-6.

The suggested range for the ratio is supported by a number of research studies.

Maintaining a healthy n-3 to n-6 intake ratio can help you to avoid the serious degenerative diseases that afflict developed world populations.

Find out about omega 3 benefits from the perspective of specific health problems

How much Omega 3 and Omega 6 do we need?

The omega 3 benefits we enjoy are determined by our intake of both n-3 and n-6 PUFAs.

Here are some guidelines derived from Simopoulos (1989). All values are expressed as a percentage of total dietary energy measured in calories:

ALA EPA plus DHA Total n-3 LA n-3 to n-6 intake ratio
0.7% 0.27% 0.97% 2% to 5% 1:2 to 1:4
These figures are in line with the research study by Yehuda et al (2000) in which an n-3 to n-6 intake ratio of 1:4 was found to be optimal for brain function. Yehuda's recommended ratio was endorsed by Holman in 1998.

The Canadian Department of Health and Welfare specify a daily n-3 requirement of 1.3g for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Here are some guidelines published by ISSFAL in 2004:

PUFA Requirement
LA 2% of all energy
ALA 0.7% of all energy
EPA and DHA combined Minimum of 500 mg
Note that the combined EPA and DHA recommendation is made specifically for cardiovascular health.

How can we translate these recommendations into actual food quantities?

You should be able to obtain the omega 3 benefits necessary for optimum health with a relatively small investment of time.

To ensure that you obtain the required quantities of n-3 PUFAs and achieve a healthy n-3 to n-6 intake ratio you could:
Get a detailed analysis of the PUFA content of non-vegetarian foods
Get a detailed analysis of the PUFA content of vegetarian foods
Find out more about the Lands calculator and application

Which Omega 3 PUFAs should we consume?

To obtain maximum omega 3 benefits, you should include ALA, EPA and DHA in your diet.

Although strictly speaking ALA is the only n-3 essential fatty acid, we treat EPA and DHA as essential because of their unique physiological functions and the uncertainty associated with deriving them from ALA via its metabolic pathway.

Many of the health benefits of n-3 PUFAs come from EPA and DHA rather than ALA. These PUFAs are readily available in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and herring. They are also available as supplements.

Find out about metabolic pathways

How should we obtain the Omega 3 PUFAs that we need?

The food sources of n-3 PUFAs can be summarized simply:

n-3 PUFA Made in the body Food Sources Limiting Factors
ALA No - must be obtained in food Seeds, Vegetables, Meat, Dairy, Eggs Conversion to EPA and DHA in the body may be inefficient
EPA and DHA Yes - can be made from ALA (to a limited extent - the actual conversion rate is uncertain) Fish, Fish Oil, Algae, Meat, Eggs Require Vitamin E before and after consumption to prevent oxidation - Vitamin E is naturally present in fish and some algae but may not be included in fish oil capsules

The full range of omega 3 benefits is best obtained through a high quality, diversified diet.

What if I am a vegetarian?

If you are a vegetarian, there are excellent plant food sources of ALA, including chia seeds and sacha inchi. In order to obtain the full range of omega 3 benefits you will also need to consume EPA and DHA.

The only known significant vegetarian source of EPA and DHA is algae, which are available in the form of seaweeds and supplements.

If you do not eat fish or take fish oil supplements then unless you consume algae, the vital supplies of EPA and DHA will be missing from your diet and must be synthesized by your body from ALA. The amounts manufactured are generally low, especially for DHA. They are also unpredictable and may depend upon the efficiency of your n-3 metabolic pathway.

Learn about the health benefits provided by chia seeds and other seeds
Discover which vegetarian foods are the best sources of n-3 PUFAs
Find out about metabolic pathways

Omega 3 to Omega 6 intake ratio

There is a growing awareness that the ratio of n-3 PUFAs to n-6 PUFAs in western diets has become skewed too far in favor of n-6.

Some of the factors that have contributed to this change include food production and food processing practices.

It is now widely believed that optimum human health requires a return to much higher ratios of n-3 to n-6. This might best be achieved by increasing consumption of n-3 PUFAs but also reducing consumption of n-6 PUFAs if they significantly exceed the recommended daily intake.

The low intake of n-3 PUFAs in western diets, both in absolute terms and relative to n-6 PUFAs, has been strongly linked to many specific health problems. This is particularly evident in the areas of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and other degenerative conditions.

Learn the effect on food quality of changes in production practices
Learn the effect on food quality of changes in processing practices
Discover why the balance of omega 3 to omega 6 in the diet is important