This is something that I have wanted to address for some time, as it is an area that seems rife with confusion, and is also an area where all manner of misleading claims abound. Most of you have probably gathered by now that I am ever so slightly obsessed with essential fatty acids, and as such have had the amazing good fortune to work with and speak with some of the worlds leading authorities on the subject, and immerse myself in the subject quite deeply.
So the purposes of this musing, really is to explain why all omega 3 is not made equally, and to help you get a bit more clued up when it comes to some of the claims that are made about what is a good source of omega 3 and what isnt.
Omega 3 isnt one single substance. In the family of omega 3 fatty acids, there are 3 different fatty acids. These are called Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). Omega 3 fatty acids are essentially metabolic building blocks for other compounds or structures. EPA for example is the metabolic precursor to compounds such as series 3 prostaglandins (PGE3) that reduce inflammation. DHA for example is the metabolic precursor to anti-inflammatory compounds such as resolvins, and also is an important structural component within cell membranes, especially the eyes and nervous system. So, all in all they are pretty important, and to be deficient in them spells bad news.
Now, this is where things begin to get a little sticky. When we say that a food is a good source of omega 3, what do we actually mean? Which of the omega 3 fatty acids does the food contain? Anyone that follows my work, will know I am a big proponent of oily fish. These are a very rich in omega 3 in both the EPA and DHA variety. They are there ready to be flipped straight over in to their metabolic end products. All ready to go. Then we move on to foods such as chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts etc. These foods are continually being promoted as wonderful sources of omega 3 fatty acids. Well, as it stands they ARE rich in omega 3. No argument there. However, the omega 3 that they contain is in the form of ALA. This is often referred to as the plant form of omega 3. Why should this be a problem? Well, in order to be useful to the body, ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA ready for their final step of becoming the biologically active metabolic byproducts – prostaglandins etc. ALA has to go through numerous chemical reactions that morph and change it in order for it to become EPA or DHA. The diagram below illustrates the stages of conversion that ALA has to go through in order to become one of the biologically active variety of omega 3 fatty acids.
No big deal so far. However, we now understand with 100% clarity that Human beings have a very poor capacity to do this. The upper average rate of conversion, is a bit like this. 5% of all dietary ALA will become EPA, and less than half a percent will become DHA! That is incredibly poor. The only time that this will change is in the case of pregnant women. Their conversion will go up to about 25% during pregnancy. So in normal circumstances our conversion of the plant source of omega 3, ALA is insanely poor. This means that if we ate flax and chia every single day, at every single meal, we still wouldnt be taking in anywhere near enough to even register a change in tissue concentration of EPA and DHA. Even supplements of flax oil have not been found to influence this. They DO have their own unique benefits, but due to different compounds and different reasons. Thats something that can be explored at a later date.
So, if you are familiar with the multitude of benefits associated with omega 3 – improved cardiovascular health, reduction in inflammation, improved skin hair and nails, improved mood and cognitive function etc. Then what you are aware of is the benefits of the biologically active EPA and DHA omega 3 fatty acids. How do you get those in to your diet? Oily fish. Fish and some land animals have a massively greater capacity to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, and they store it in their tissues pre formed. Therefore look to add oily fish to your diet, and if you wish to supplement, go for a fish derived omega 3 with as much EPA and DHA as you can find.
What about vegetarians? Well, at present vegetarians can buy DHA supplements that have been extracted from algae. However, the EPA issue is a big problem and a missing link in the diet. Having seen the blood work of hundreds of vegetarians during a project I was involved in, I know that to be the case. And for the record i was vegetarian for the best part of 20 years and my blood fatty acid status was dreadful, results im happy to share. BUT, when I was at the natural products trade show in California last year, I met a company who have finally found a way to extract EPA from algae. These products are beginning to sneak on to the market now, so before long, vegetarians will have a reliable way in which to get that missing EPA. As soon as I find one, Ill let you all know.
So, hopefully that has cleared up a few things. The next time someone tells you to munch through your seeds to ‘get your omega 3’ you will know this not to be accurate. Seeds are wonderful for so many amazing reasons. Omega 3 however is just not one of them.
In the best of health…