Every few years, the scientific community brandishes sensational news concerning the health impacts of omega-3 fatty acids as well as other polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)—news that often contradicts findings from previous studies, in one way or another. One minute we are advised to gorge foods loaded with omega-3s in order to combat a wide range of serious illnesses, but then a subsequent data cycle may purport that PUFAs have very little impact on overall health. Pretty confusing, huh?
For the most part, it has been difficult to pinpoint the direct effects of PUFAs on the body. This may be due to other factors that may have hampered clinical investigations, skewing PUFA-specific data: preexisting undiagnosed conditions among study groups, unaccounted-for or undervalued medical interventions, or the presence of impactful cellular compounds.
Have Faith in Omega-3s
In spite of the sciency ambivalence concerning omega-3s, major health associations—such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine—still vouch for omega-3’s controversial health benefits and strongly encourage that we regularly consume these nutrients in copious amounts. Here are just a few reasons why:
- Some clinical trials have shown signs that long chain omega-3s may reduce the risk of some colorectal or breast cancers.
- Since fatty acids are essential components of the human brain, the popular consensus is that ample consumption of PUFAs will likely sustain proper cognitive function, as well as prevent the risks of neurodegenerative disorders.
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is a common disorder of the eyes that can lead to vision loss. Old age is a risk factor for developing AMD, but consuming high concentrations of dietary omega-3s has been shown to reduce AMD risk, according to some trial studies.
- In some cases of traumatic brain injury and other incidences of acute inflammatory response, it has been hypothesized that a profusion of PUFAs attenuated inflammation to a considerable degree.
- Regular consumption of omega-3s has been associated with reduced cardiac deaths among people with or without a history of cardiovascular disease.
Sources of Omega-3s
Long chain polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3s, are molecularly designated by their long chain of carbon atoms, with a methyl group on one end of the chain and a carboxyl group on the other end. Unlike monounsaturated and saturated fats, omega-3s have two or more double bonds between carbons within the chain. Simply put, the atomic complexity of omega-3s is what makes them such potent and necessary nutrients.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is considered essential since it must be obtained from the diet. ALAs are abundtant in walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, soybeans, chia seeds, and beans. Other types of omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—both of which can be converted from ALA in the liver to a limited extent. Seafood, like salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, scallops, and shrimp, are good sources of EPA and DHA. Cooked eggs contain DHA in low concentrations. Not too long ago, food companies began to enrich foods like eggs, yogurt, milk, juice, and certain soy products with DHA and other omega-3s. Oysters, canned pink salmon, and cooked lobster all contain measurable levels of ALA, DHA, and EPA.
ALA is abundant in plant oils, while DHA and EPA are present in krill oil, fish oil, and fish. The fish and plankton from which these nutrients are measured get their omega-3s from the microalgae that actually process the omega-3s. Moreover, beef from grass-fed cows contains higher levels of omega-3s than other types of beef. This is all good news for vegetarians, since plants produce an abundance of the omega-3 fatty acids that our conventional animal prey consumes.