If you think all fat is a no-no, think again. Omega-3 is incredibly good for you.

Fat is not a dirty word when it comes to health. In fact, certain fats are – literally – essential.

Omega-3s are called ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFAs), meaning the body requires them for optimal functioning, but they cannot be generated by the body; therefore, you need to consume them regularly via your diet or supplements.

The key omega-3s are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in canola, flaxseed or soy oil, flaxseeds, pumpkin and walnuts, while EPA and DHA are present in oily fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardine, and cod.

Omega-3s have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, essentially putting out the fire of oxidation caused by free radicals in the body.

Alarmingly, omega-3s are sadly lacking in our diet. In fact, it is estimated that most Australians eat less than 20 percent of the target intake for omega-3s, with vegans and vegetarians at an even greater risk of deficiency.

Compounding the problem are factors like malabsorption syndromes and illness, which both alter essential fat levels in the body.

Deficiency can also result from the lack of an enzyme in the body required for conversion of omega-3s; this deficiency is most often seen in diabetics, the elderly, and people eating too much trans fat or drinking too much alcohol.

Health benefits

* Heart Omega-3s prevent cardiac arrhythmias, reduce harmful triglycerides and blood pressure, and stop blood from becoming sticky and clotting.

* Brain Cell membranes and neurons are largely comprised of fatty acids, so efficient signalling and messaging relies on their presence. Studies show supplementation benefits ADHD, autism, dyslexia and aggression; there is also a direct link between low EFA levels and depression and anxiety; plus, supplementation improves cognitive function and reduces dementia risk.

* Musculoskeletal system By suppressing inflammatory effects in the spinal cord, symptoms of joint pain, stiffness and tenderness are alleviated.

* Cancer prevention Fish oils are clinically proven to prevent the spread of breast and prostate cancer cells.

A glass containing omega-3 rich, shelled walnuts, surrounded by unshelled walnuts

* Babies and children The development of healthy vision and brain function is dependent on adequate levels of DHA. Supplementing with higher doses of fish oils (2.7g daily) reduces rates of preterm delivery and increases the birth weight and duration of pregnancy; there is also evidence that regular consumption of omega-3s during pregnancy makes for smarter babies.

* Skin EFAs improve eczema and dermatitis, and also speed wound healing

The pros and cons of supplements

On average, it is recommended to take between 3000–6000mg of omega 3s per day – equivalent to around 3-6 capsules or 5–10ml of liquid.

However, before racing out to buy a fish oil supplement, check that the brand is certified as being free from contaminants like methyl mercury or organohalogens.

These environmental issues have prompted research into alternative sources of omega 3s, such as microalgae. Part of the coastal food chain, microalgae contains naturally high levels of DHA but few contaminants; it is also a sustainable crop. However, it lacks the EPA, protein, and vitamins A and D found in fish.

For further do’s and don’ts of supplements, click here.

Eat fat, stay slim

A study in the International Journal of Obesity found that overweight men who ate more oily fish or took fish oil supplements, lost more weight than those who didn’t.

Plus, omega-3s help you lose weight by diminishing your appetite. A study in Appetite showed that people who took omega-3 supplements felt more satisfied and less hungry after eating than those who didn’t supplement.

Why? Omega-3 fatty acids increase the body’s secretion of a hormone called leptin that regulates satiety and appetite, with possible effects on body temperature and energy levels as well.

The top 10 foods for omega-3s are: salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, halibut, prawns, flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans. Are you getting enough?

If you’d like some additional information about which foods contain omega-3, you can read more here.

Risk factors for inadequate omega-3 levels in the body include:

* Eating fish less than 2-3 times a week

* Eating a diet high in saturated fat

* Experiencing inflammatory disorders, e.g. eczema, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, migraines

* Suffering from high cholesterol, hypertension, or depression

* Being pregnant or breast-feeding

* Undergoing treatment for cancer, especially of the breast, colon or rectum

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